The Ring of Gyges: Is Justice Always Self-Interested?

Anam Lodhi
Jun 27, 2017 · 7 min read

Glaucon and Adeimantus, both Plato’s brothers, were seeking to come to a conclusion on whether justice is better than injustice. The Republic book II begins with Glaucon arguing against Socrates’ position of justice. Glaucon argued that by nature humans are selfish and unjust, and that justice is not good in itself; instead justice is a consequential good (it is only valued for the beneficial consequences). Glaucon told the story of The Ring of Gyges to illustrate his point that justice is always self-interested. Adeimantus supplemented Glaucon’s argument and he further claimed that people are only just because of the benefits it brings; for example, being just gives you a good reputation.

At the start of the Republic book II, Glaucon stated that there are three types of good; the first category is good desired for its own sake (intrinsic goods), for example, happiness. The second category is goods that are desired for their own sake and also for their consequences. The third category is consequential goods (instrumental goods), for example, medicine. Socrates said that he believed justice falls into the second category; according to him justice is good intrinsically and instrumentally. However, Glaucon said many people would argue justice falls into the third category:

It is normally put into the painful category, of goods, which we pursue for the rewards they bring and in the hope of a good reputation, but which in themselves are to be avoided as unpleasant.

Glaucon argued that, by nature, doing injustice is good but the law can force you to act against that. According to Glaucon, justice is naturally bad and injustice is naturally good. No one willingly is just; therefore if you gave people the power to be unjust without suffering any penalty then they would all do it. He then went on to say that by nature we all have these selfish desires; we all want what is best for us. Consequently we will want to commit injustices and not worry about what is good for other people but simply to pursue our own natural good. He argued that we only do the right thing because we have to; anybody with the power to do otherwise would in fact do otherwise-in other words, they would eventually act unjustly.

Glaucon told the story of The Ring of Gyges in an attempt to illustrate his point that justice has a “relative value due to our inability to do wrong.”

Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia. He found a ring, which turned him invisible when he twisted it onto his finger. Gyges used this power of invisibility to commit unjust acts; he seduced the queen and then worked with her to create a plan to kill the king, and take over the kingdom. Because the ring made him invisible, Gyges was protected from the consequences of his actions.

Glaucon then went on to propose a thought experiment; he said if two of these rings existed and we gave one ring to a just man and the other ring to an unjust man, then they would both proceed to do unjust things. If the just man also did become unjust when given the ring, then it would prove Glaucon’s point that people are not just out of choice; justice does not serve us personally and we would always do the wrong thing if we had the chance. Glaucon was challenging the intrinsic value of justice.

He claimed that anybody would do the same as Gyges if they had the chance:

Now if a just man came into possession of such a ring, claims Glaucon, he would use it do exactly what the unjust man does — kill his enemies, have sex with anyone he fancied, get his friends out of danger, and all with impunity.

If you had the power to do whatever you wanted with no consequences and without punishment, everybody would choose to be unjust and gratify their own desires, no one would worry about whether they are being just or unjust. The story of The Ring of Gyges tells us that if we had this sort of power no one would be able to be trusted and therefore, it shows us that justice is always self-interested and thus really not justice but a form of injustice.

Glaucon concluded his speech by saying that the unjust man will be rewarded and respected, whereas the just man will be wretched. Glaucon said that many people would argue that the unjust person would ultimately benefit more, as the life of the unjust man is better than the life of a just man. Everybody seems to keeps up the hypocrisy of praising justice because they are all afraid of suffering injustice. The real reason people praise justice is not because they actually believe in it; they praise just people to keep up the pretence.

Adeimantus then went on to bolster Glaucon’s argument. Unlike Glaucon who was very much focused on the individual and innovative arguments against justice, Adeimantus was much more concerned with the community, education, and broader opinions of justice and how it affects people. Adeimantus, much like Glaucon, said that when people try to praise justice, they do not praise justice itself; they praise the good consequences and honour that comes with it. Adeimantus wanted to look at the arguments in favour of justice. He stated that:

Fathers tell their sons, and pastors and masters of all kinds urge their charges to be just not because they value justice itself, but for the good reputation it brings.

In other words, parents tell their children to be just, but what they focus on is not that justice is good for its own sake. Instead, parents tell their children to be just because they will have a good reputation; people practice justice for the sake of the consequences, for the sake of reputation and the good things that come from the reputation. In addition to gaining a good reputation, Adeimantus said that people are just because they fear the punishment in the afterlife. People do not act just because they think justice is good, but because they believe the gods will reward them for being just. Hence, this suggests that justice is self-interested. It is stated that “the unjust and the irreligious they plunge into some sort of mud in the underworld.” Therefore, according to Adeimantus, this suggests that justice is self-interested as people may act just because they want to be rewarded in the afterlife, and fear punishment from the gods. Adeimantus made a further point by saying:

…if we do wrong we shall get the profits and, provided that we accompany our sins and wickedness with prayer, be able to persuade the gods to let us go unpunished.

Adeimantus is arguing that if there are gods and they care about people, they can be persuaded by sacrifices; in other words people can seek forgiveness from the gods even if they have been unjust. In addition, he says if there are no gods, we may as well be unjust. Either way injustice wins. The story of Gyges’ ring fits in with Adeimantus’ argument as he says:

If I am just, it will bring me no advantage but only trouble and loss, whereas if I am unjust, but can contrive to get a reputation from justice, I shall have a marvellous time.

Adeimantus is saying that no one really has any respect for justice. Gyges’ ring implies that living a just life is difficult, and if you could get away with being unjust then you would live a better life as Gyges went on to rule the kingdom. Therefore, Adeimantus’ argument tells us that justice is, in a way, a form of injustice as people only act justly because they know they will get a good reputation, or be rewarded by the gods in the afterlife.

In conclusion, it is clear that the story of The Ring of Gyges is significant in the Republic book II as the ring is connected with injustice because it tempted Gyges and gave him the power to do as he pleased. The ring takes away consequences for you and Glaucon seemed to be arguing that if we took away all of the consequences for our actions then people would satisfy every desire; if we could break the rules and get away with it, we would. The story of The Ring of Gyges raises the point that people will most likely act unjust when unobserved, as this seems to be a rational choice. According to Glaucon, only a fool would act morally when unobserved; his actions would be seen as irrational, as people tend to do right only when they cannot get away with doing wrong.

Glaucon believed that justice is something like an arrangement we come to. It is only valuable because it keeps a certain order and security. The reason why we have systems of justice is only because we want to keep people who would commit injustice, and abuse the rules, out. Therefore, he is claiming that justice itself is really a form of self-interested injustice.

Glaucon also stated that by nature people are unjust; for example, if you gave a just person a ring, which made you invisible, they would instantly go out and be unjust because although the law can coerce them to act according to the law out of fear of punishment, it cannot convince them that what is natural is unnatural.

According to Adeimantus, people do not value justice itself; instead, they value the reputation and reward that comes with being just. If people only act justly out of fear, then this shows that justice is purely self-interested, and thus, not really justice, but a form of injustice.

Both Glaucon’s and Adeimantus’ arguments suggest that justice is desirable so you can make sure injustice does not happen to you; so, it appears to be the case that people act justly because they are motivated by selfish reasons. The story of Gyges’ ring bolsters both of their arguments because it tells us that people only act justly out of fear of being found out and punished. Therefore, people act justly for selfish reasons, for example, for a good reputation. Thus, Glaucon and Adeimantus’ arguments suggest that no one acts just willingly, and that justice is always self-intereted.

Thoughts And Ideas

An attempt to bring all heart-touching and thought provoking writings under one roof to make an impact.

Anam Lodhi

Written by

Teacher | Manchester, UK

Thoughts And Ideas

An attempt to bring all heart-touching and thought provoking writings under one roof to make an impact.

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