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The Ring of Gyges Argument

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The bottom line of Thrasymarchus’ argument is that justice is the advantage of the stronger. Socrates agrees that being just is advantageous. He continues to persuade Thrasymarchus, however, that justice is not only advantageous for the stronger, but for everyone. Glaucon refuses to accept Thrasymarchus’ capitulation to Socrates’ arguments. Glaucon’s view is that Socrates has only highlighted the positive consequences of being just and not the intrinsic value of justice itself. By Socrates’ logic, Glaucon argues, the only value of being just is the good reputation and rewards it leads to. If this were the case, people would soon realize that they should not want to be just, but to be believed to be just, Glaucon argues. What is justice, really, without reputation? To explore this topic and to further reinforce Thrasymarchus’ original account of justice, Glaucon brings up the myth of the Ring of Gyges. The story is about a shepherd in service of the ruler of Lydia, who, by accident, finds a magical ring with a magical ability; wearing it grants the power of invisibility. The man, then, uses his powers to seduce the queen, kill the king and seize power for himself. Basically, this hypothetical ring will grant whoever has it the ability to do whatever he pleases and get away with it. Glaucon argues, “no one, it seems, would be so incorruptible that he would stay on the path of justice” had they been in possession of this ring.

He draws on another example of two magical rings being made, one handed to a just man and the other to an unjust man. Even the, so called, just man could not resist the temptation of abusing his power to his own advantage, knowing that he would get away with it.. The just man’s actions would ultimately end up the same as the unjust man’s. The point of the argument is that, if we strip justice of its consequences, justice would have no intrinsic value and no one would act just for the sake of being just. From this logic, Glaucon derives the idea that all who practice justice do so unwillingly, as something compulsory, not as something good. The Ring of Gyges argument is intended to show that people don’t practice justice because it is good, but because they are unable (too weak) to do injustice without punishment. This view supports Thrasymarchus’ argument that justice is the advantage of the stronger and Glaucon proposes that “the best is to do injustice without paying the penalty; the worst is to suffer it without being able to take revenge.” Glaucon expands this argument with the example of the immoral expert and the unfortunate moralist. Imagine, on the one hand, a completely unjust person who, with the help of force and/or his ability to speak persuasively, is rewarded the greatest reputation of justice. Now, put another completely just man next to him – someone who doesn’t want to be believed to be just, but to actually be just. For the sake of the argument, we strip him of his reputation. This way, he gets none of the benefits associated with a reputation of being just, but instead has to suffer from the consequences of having the greatest reputation of injustice.

Glaucon then asks the question: which one of them will be happier? His argument is intended to show that justice might just be an instrumental good, in the sense, that it is something we use as a means to achieve another good. We use justice to get a reputation for being just, we want a reputation for being just for the honor and the rewards it leads to, and we desire these rewards because we think they will lead to happiness. Glaucon challenges Socrates to find a reason to welcome justice for its own sake, in other words find the actual, intrinsic, good of being just and not only because society rewards you for it. If Glaucon is right about his account of justice, then justice must be observer-dependent. If society rewards people who are believed to be just, some people are inclined to be just for the sake of being recognized for it and reap the rewards. Others, who have the ability to achieve a reputation of justice without being just, will do so as long as being unjust benefits them (and according to Glaucon’s argument, it usually does). In other words, the rewards of justice are dependent on observers. Invisibility, in this case, is just a way of taking observers out of the picture.

By using a ring of invisibility as an example, Glaucon argues that anyone and everyone, just or unjust, would end up on the path of injustice if there were no one to observe and punish their unjust behavior. If justice were observer-independent, a just person would act just as just with or without the ring of invisibility. Based on Glaucon’s and Thrasymarchus’ view, then, justice is observer-dependent. (B) Between flight and invisibility, I would probably choose invisibility. Flying would be a pretty impressive power to possess and would certainly be convenient for transportation, but I would go with invisibility because it comes with some pretty significant advantages. Invisibility would grant one an opportunity to gain access to information and secrets that could benefit him both personally, financially and politically. It could be anything from finding out what a girl says about me when I’m not around to finding out about government secrets and scandals. However, I don’t think my answer confirms Glaucon’s assessment about justice. I might try to find a way to use the invisibility to get some money, but I do think there are moral boundaries I wouldn’t cross even if I could technically get away with it (like become a mad tyrant king). I do believe there is some sort of intrinsic value to justice, although hard to define.

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