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Plato, ThoemmesPhilosophy 302: Ethics
Plato, "The Ring of Gyges" 

Abstract:  Glaucon argues that all persons are egoistic and selfish; the only reason people do not always do the unjust thing is the fear of being caught and harmed.

1.  According to Glaucon's brief, what do most persons act justly?  Explain whether you think Glaucon's explanation is psychologically correct.

2.  If a person could be certain not only that an action resulting in a personal benefit would not be found out but also that if this action were discovered, no punishing consequences would follow, then would there be any reason for that person to act morally?

3. Is it true that sometimes our self-interest is served by not acting in our self-interest?  Construct an example illustrating this view and attempt to resolve the paradoxical expression of the question.

4. Quite often people are pleased when they can help others.  Analyze whether this fact is sufficient to prove that the motive for helping others in ultimately one of pleasure or of self-interest.

5. According to Glaucon, how does the practice of justice arise?  On the view he expresses, would there be any reason prior to living in a society to do the right thing?  Does the practice of ethics only make sense in the context of living in a society? 


1.  According to Glaucon's brief, what do most persons act justly?  Explain whether you think Glaucon's explanation is psychologically correct.

Glaucon says that if you look at what people really are, then you will see that they believe to do wrong is desirable and to suffer wrong is undesirable. Since we do not want to suffer wrong, we compromise with others and form a compact (a social contract) not to harm each other. These agreements are the origination of justice in society. 

Genetic evidence does not support this theory.

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2.  If a person could be certain not only that an action resulting in a personal benefit would not be found out but also that if this action were discovered, no punishing consequences would follow, then would there be any reason for that person to act morally?

Glaucon believes human beings practice justice in order to avoid the harm that would come to them if they disobeyed the laws of the society. Thus, it is in our self-interest to obey the law because we fear the consequences if we were to get caught disobeying the law.

Glaucon's account is in accordance with the cluster of ethical theories such as psychological and ethical egoism, psychological and ethical hedonism, and ethical relativism. Essentially, he believes all persons are selfish, self-interested, and egoistic.

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3.  Is it true that sometimes our self-interest is served by not acting in our self-interest?  Construct an example illustrating this view and attempt to resolve the paradoxical expression of the question.
  • If I am an ethical egoist, then it is in my interest not to tell others. I.e., it is not in my own interest to tell others I act from self-interest. (Many persons avoid or try to get even with selfish people; avarice breeds avarice.)
  • The rational egoist, then, cannot advocate that egoism be universally adopted precisely because that would be an action not in his self-interest.
  • To say that an action is right is to say that it is right for anyone in that position. But the egoist cannot want others to act as he does because this is not in his self-interest.
  • Hence, ethical egoism cannot be an ethical theory because any theory must be universalizable, or it is not a theory.

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4.  Quite often people are pleased when they can help others.  Analyze whether this fact is sufficient to prove that the motive for helping others in ultimately one of pleasure or of self-interest.

We can distinguish between "selfishness" and "non-selfishness" by looking at the object of the want in the action of an individual.

If I want something for myself, the action is selfish. If I want something for someone else, then even if it gives me pleasure, the act is not selfish.

After all, as Rachels writes, isn't the unselfish person precisely the one who derives satisfaction from helping others? The selfish person would be the one who helps grudgingly.

Other exceptions to self-interested actions  include:

  • Sometimes people ordinarily do what they do not what to do. For example ...
  • Actions which are means to an end--going to college in order to get a good job, working to get a paycheck, going to the dentist, exercising, and so forth.
  • Actions which are a result of an obligation or a duty--keeping promises, studying, staying in good health, and so forth.

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5.  According to Glaucon, how does the practice of justice arise?  On the view he expresses, would there be any reason prior to living in a society to do the right thing?  Does the practice of ethics only make sense in the context of living in a society?

Glaucon believes human beings practice justice in order to avoid the harm that would come to them if they disobeyed the laws of the society. 

Glaucon proposes a mind-experiment: the myth of the magic ring of Gyges. Note how his account relates to the ad populum fallacy.

If anyone had a ring that would make him invisible, then that person would be a fool not to use it for personal advantage. Whether one were just or unjust, with such a ring, that person could do almost anything he wanted without fear of being caught. Both the unjust and the just person would use its magic powers because one would be a fool not to do what personally pays him much better. 

According to the implications Glaucon's view, ethics or the social contract is possible only in societies.

It is important to notice that in this essay from the Republic, Plato is using Glaucon's account as a challenge for Socrates to overcome.

 

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Recommended Sources

Social Contract:  The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. A short summary of the history of social contract theory.
Prisoners' Dilemma
:  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. An outstanding summary of a variety of characterizations of the philosophical and mathematical aspects of the dilemma.
Opening Pages of the Selfish Gene
The World of Richard Dawkins: Evolution, Science, and Reason. A short excerpt from Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene, introducing the biology of egoism and altruism. 

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