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Ethical Egoism Plato: Has anyone hear had any exposure to the literature of Plato before?

Wrote dialogues, not treatises, and developed his philosophical ideas through created dialogues of Socrates. Socrates was a man who had a peculiar occupation in Greece. He went about interrogating people to find one among men who is “wise.” Often would be followed about by young men who enjoyed listening to him interrogate the popular and the educated of society, and more often than not Socrates would end up exasperating his interlocutors and leaving them in a quandary—state of confusion. He was the “gadfly” of Athens, and thought this role to be his calling in life. The section that you read for today is taken from the second book of the Republic. It is part of a very long discussion that Plato ‘records’ which took place over a series of days. So, you are walking into the middle of a dialogue that has been going on for some time, and the question that is under discussion where we pick up is that of the origin of justice. You have hear a young man in Glaucon who is asking Socrates to champion justice. He is, perhaps in some sense at a crossroads in his own life regarding whether or not to believe that there really is something substantival to this justice stuff that people speak of, and is therefore asking Socrates to defend justice, to champion justice and convince him that “it is better in every way to be just than unjust.” (15) He’s asking for a defense of justice, because he has many ideas presenting themselves to his mind that perhaps all this stuff about justice may not be rooted in anything beyond self-interest. Glaucon begins his discussion of justice by distinguishing between three types of goods—
and he seems to think these classes exhaustive: (not in this order)

1. goods that we desire only for their consequences, such as physical training and
medical treatment; 2. goods that we desire only for their own sake, such as joy; 3. and, the highest class, goods we desire both for their own sake and for what we get from them, such as knowledge, sight, and health. What Glaucon and the rest would like Socrates to prove is that justice is not only desirable, but that it belongs to the highest class of desirable things: those desired both for their own sake and their consequences.

Now, Glaucon is going to play an important role in this conversation in trying to get an adequate defense of justice out of Socrates. What is that role?

A devil’s advocate of sorts. He says, “look Socrates, I’m going to present you the case that I hear from so many other people, the case that claims that justice is not really something good, but merely necessary, and that when you get down to it, you find that no one is just willingly but because they have to be. Thus, according to Glaucon, where would most people consider justice to fit in among his classes of goods? 1,2, or 3? #1 in the list I have given. Why? Because he points out that it is difficult to live justly, and therefore justice is only pursued insofar as it yields rewards and popularity. In fact, that is the only reason that anyone values justice—for what it can give them. Further, he claims, those who are able to get away with it live much more happily if they live the life of injustice than the one of justice. So, with these basic claims in mind, Glaucon states that he is going to speak at length in praise of injustice, in the hope that he could put forward the most damning arguments against justice, in order that Socrates might vanquish the strongest of his opposition and provide Glaucon with solid grounds upon which to cling to justice as truly good in itself. So, on the bottom of p. 16 Glaucon puts forward an argument for the nature and origin of justice in an attempt to try to defend the claims of the many that justice is not loved for its own sake, but only for whatever beneficial consequences one can glean from it. Let’s examine this argument: (Bottom of p. 16) “They say…nature and origin of justice.” So, what is the origin of justice? A social contract based on fear of being harmed. It is something that is agreed upon by the many because of the abundance of fear and weakness of men who cannot avoid being injured. It’s a sort of check on the power of the strong to inflict harm. But, what of the man who is able to avoid being harmed? What about the man of power or strength? Under this account would he have any reason to live according to the code of justice? NO! In fact, that would be madness. Which 20th century philosopher might this sound like? (Nietz. There’s a good deal of refined cruelty in Niet.) All of philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. In making these claims about the origin of justice, Glaucon is arguing for the position that has come to be known as “Ethical Egoism: Ethical Egoism (EE): A theory according to which the only thing that a person ought to pursue is his/her well being.

He continues with his account by making a very strong claim: “Even those who practice justice do so against their will because they lack the power to do wrong.” He says, you don’t believe me Socrates? I’ll prove it. All we’d need to do is see how men would behave if granted the power to do as they wished without being caught. And here he turns to appeal to the tale of the ring of Gyges. What is this tale of the Ring and how does Glaucon use it to defend his claim that “Even those who practice justice do so against their will because they lack the power to do wrong?” (shepherd in the service of Lydia, earthquake comes, he finds the ring, discovers it makes him invisible, and uses it to get the king’s wife, kill the king, and take over the kingdom. What’s the point? Give anyone—whether just or unjust—such and opportunity and they will invariably conduct themselves in this manner.) Question: How do we respond to Glaucon? Do you believe this? Let me ask it a different way, if Glaucon’s account of the origin and nature of justice is correct, would it be possible for anyone to do otherwise than what he claimed? (Only if they were a fool or just plain irrational) So, we could say, if Glaucon’s account of justice is correct, then no rational man with the ring of Gyges would conduct himself justly if he wore this ring. (I do think this is a true statement, but notice that the consequent is conditionally true on the truth of the antecedent). So, one way to falsify Glaucon’s account of justice might be to attempt to make a case that one could in fact be rational and conduct oneself justly with the ring of Gyges. If this could be done, the consequent of the above conditional would be denied, and therefore the antecedent would have to be denied as well, via modus tollens.

Potential test question: What is Glaucon’s core argument for the origin of justice? How does he use the myth of the Ring of Gyges to support this argument?