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Questions on Morality and Struggles Today

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Growing up in an era of political unrest and surrounding by a society of Sophists–paid teachers of philosophy, Plato grew up in the center of many ideas he deemed distasteful. Having experienced firsthand the dangers of power abuse and seen the perversion of justice by his “philosopher” peers, Plato sought out to make a defense for truth and justice in his work The Republic. Within this text, Plato studies issues regarding human morality, the benefits of pursuing justice, and the ideal system of government. These issues have puzzled the early philosophers of Ancient Greece and continue to affect our thoughts today.

The question of morality definitely covers a wide spectrum, including questions of justice and ethics. In fact, morality may even be suggested as nothing but a social construct that people follow to keep up a good image. In the second book of The Republic, Glaucon, brother of Plato, explains the story of the Ring of Gyges, where a man discovers a ring that can make him invisible or visible at will. Glaucon suggests that in this situation, a just man would act no different than an unjust man and would commit crimes if he knew he wouldn’t be seen doing so. From this anecdote, he proposes the question: what if our views on just and unjust actions were simply defined by the society around us? Do people act justly simply because they “ought to seem only, and not . . . be, just” (Plato 44)?

Many people might object to Glaucon’s idea and claim that society should have no influence on out moral judgment. However, it is only natural that we are influenced by the people around us. Humans by nature are gregarious creatures and rely on groups to stay alive and healthy. It is no wonder that solitary confinement is the worst kind of punishment: we need to mingle amongst other humans and feel accepted by society. Even simple things like the way we dress are influenced by our peers: fashion from different regions vary based on what the general public believes to be “good-looking.” Our mannerisms and behaviors are defined by our culture’s customs: Americans like to hug and shake hands while Europeans give kisses to the cheek. It is evident that society influences our thinking, behaviors, and extends to even our values as well. Whereas in America, physical discipline is widely considered as child abuse and can be legally condemned, in other–most commonly Asian–countries, it is a regular, and sometimes even encouraged, practice. If so many aspects of our lives are overshadowed by our peers in our society, is morality any different?

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, known mainly for his studies on human morality, would answer yes. Outlined in his theory of moral development are six stages of moral development–three main categories, each with two subcategories. Kohlberg concluded that most adults in the world only ever reach the second main stage of development, called conventional morality. During this stage, people behave the way they do because they wish to be viewed as good by others and view laws and rules as an absolute guideline to morality. “That is to say, most people take their moral views from those around them and only a minority think through ethical principles for themselves” (McLeod). Recent psychological research suggests that for the majority of the human population, morality is only a social construct. Whether or not human morality is more influenced by natural internal factors or nurtured external factors has been debated since the time of early philosophers until now.

Discussions on morality are inseparable from those on justice. Perhaps it is truly as Thrasymachus says: injustice is more profitable than justice if the question of morality is ignored. As illustrated with the story of the Ring of Gyges, it would be difficult to establish justice when natural human desires are so prevalent. However, this is the idea that Plato so determinedly tries to abolish in The Republic. How do we determine that justice is, in fact, more beneficial than injustice? Through the character of Socrates, Plato investigates this idea by attempting to set a definition for justice. In a cross-examination with Adeimantus, Socrates reaches the conclusion that a just person “sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself… he proceeds to act… [in a way that] preserves and co-operates with this harmonious condition” (Plato 145-146).

This means that the more we align ourselves with natural things, or the more detached we are from externally influenced societal needs, the more just we become. If we separate ourselves from ideas such as money and private property, the less we will experience negative emotions like greed. And the less we expose ourselves from these emotions, the more just we will become. Socrates also points out that justice would be more profitable because by practicing justice, a man would develop virtue and therefore be put in a good light by the gods. When discussing the cycle of the five regimes, Plato/Socrates concludes that a tyrant, who abuses his political power for his own gains, is miserable because he has no true friends and has the most unfulfilled wishes. Therefore, acting justly is not done for the goal of personal profit, but for personal happiness and well-being. Justice, then, is not merely a social construct, and we do not need a concrete reason as to why it is “good”: we act justly simply because we are naturally inclined to do so.

When constructing his ideal state, Plato brought up the idea of the “noble lie.” “We want one single, grand lie,” Plato says, “which will be believed by everybody – including the rulers, ideally, but failing that the rest of the city” (Plato 111). This lie is something that creates a kind of inconsistency with a previously stated idea: the allegory of the cave. Plato explains the scenario where prisoners who are stuck in a cave and see only shadows only believe the reflections on the walls to be reality. When one prisoner is set free to venture outside, he separates himself from the reality he used to know–which is a mere taste of real-life objects–and acknowledges the true and natural world around him. Plato deems this awakening to truth and reality to be good, yet he advocates for the idea of deceiving citizens. However, if the goal is to promote a sense of harmony amongst a community, is it considered okay?

Our society today is not free from this idea, “since the structural inequality of power in the societies of the modern world…is so intractably vast and since such power cannot be…insulated from the capacity to harm, it is clear enough that…the noble lie, has at least as guaranteed a place in any possible structures for our world as it had in that of Plato’ (Dunn, qtd. in Schofield 139 – 140). Schofield elaborates:

Our own time is seeing both an explosion in knowledge and the media by which it is communicated, and unprecedented levels of concern about standards of probity in public life and about lying and the manipulation and suppression of information in particular. Not that it would be reasonable to expect these ugly processes to stop. (139)

Plato might be considered as the first to license lying as a resolution for political disharmony, but this idea certainly did not end with him. As citizens of various governments today, we are often engulfed in lies by politicians and leaders. Whether it is in the form of censorship, in the form of flat-out lies, or even if the motivation was for the “greater good”, the basic premonition that deception has been conducted is laid. Throughout history, it is evident that people in power deceive the population they govern so much that it’s even expected. When scandals about politicians leak out, or when governments deny past mistakes, we simply roll our eyes: we are no longer baffled.

However, the fact that this occurrence is expected does not equate to its being “accepted.” Karl Popper, a twentieth century philosopher, criticizes Plato, saying that Plato is hypocritical by “supporting justice” while advocating for a society founded on injustice and privilege (Popper 115). Countless others criticize Plato’s Ideal State to be totalitarian: one class, and one class alone is to have power, and there is absolutely no mobility within social classes. However, some still defend Plato’s setup by pointing out that if the rulers are willing to live without private property and money, then these rulers must not be susceptible to greed and therefore immune to power abuse. Despite the debates about whether the “noble lie” has a legitimate basis, the fact that this phenomenon is so prevalent in our modern societies is undeniable evidence that, even today, lying to the public is justifiable to some.

Despite whether or not we agree with Plato’s ideas in The Republic, we can use it to guide ourselves in the right direction by understanding what to do and what not to do. One specific text in literature, Brave New World, is a very accurate illustration of Plato’s ideal polis. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is a realization of The Republic, where a philosopher king, Mustapha Mond, rules over citizens who are designated to specific classes at birth. Not unlike the citizens of the Ideal State, each citizen knows nothing outside of the one job he/she is tasked with. And similar to Socrates’ suggestion of censorship, the citizens of this society are sheltered and unaware of any pain and suffering that exists in the world.

In the essay, “Brave New World Revisited,” Huxley discusses the modern issue of overpopulation and the consequences that follow. He analyzes, through past historical events and other literatures, the possibilities that we are likely to face. And within all this, Huxley fears that the concepts he presented in Brave New World are slowly becoming realized:

Given un­checked over-population and over-organization, we may expect to see in the democratic countries a reversal of the process which transformed England into a democracy, while retaining all the outward forms of a monarchy. Under the relentless thrust of accelerating over­population and increasing over-organization, and by means of ever more effective methods of mind manipulation, the democracies will change their nature; the quaint old forms¬–elections, parliaments, Supreme Courts and all the rest–will remain. The underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism… Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial¬–but democracy and free­dom in a strictly Pickwickian sense. Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit. (Huxley)

It is in this essay that Huxley warns against the potential rise of oligarchies or monarchies–not unlike the one in Brave New World and the Ideal State–in what are seemingly “democracies.” Because Brave New World is such an accurate portrayal of Plato’s ideal polis, we can imagine what the Ideal State would be like. Huxley demonstrates all of the faults and issues that exist in this society and portrays the consequences of such faults.

Therefore, between Huxley and Plato, we can understand what we should avoid in the future, such as over-regulating our increasing population. “[Although] we do nothing systematic about our breeding; but in our random and unregulated way we are not only over-populating our planet, we are also…making sure that these greater numbers shall be of biologically poorer quality” (Huxley). From the perspective of outsiders living in a significantly more liberating world, we may disapprove of Brave New World’s society, and in doing so we can see how Huxley attempts to guide the future in a better direction: away from The Republic.

All in all, Plato’s Republic touches on issues and ideas that we still discuss today. The same questions on morality and justice that plagued Plato and the earliest philosophers still affect us today. And regardless of whether we agree with Plato’s idea that justice is practiced because of innate human nature or if we agree with the Sophist’ idea that it is done out of profit, we will continue to have governments, and therefore judicial systems, to serve justice to our communities. Countless centuries of thinkers and philosophers alike have debated the very questions that Plato brings up, and with developing scientific ideas and practices such as genetic studies and psychological experiments, we get closer and closer to solving the issues that Plato speaks about. And, with new technologies including genetic modification, test tube babies, and effective birth control, we have more power to create a society that nears Plato’s ideal polis.

However, when science becomes more powerful, we ultimately need to face the issues Huxley brings up as well. Will we deal with overpopulation by regulating births to test tube babies? To what extent will we use technology to “advance” humanity? These are all questions that bring up a variety of ethical issues. The future of humanity, in the way of technology advancements and social reform, rests in our hands.

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