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April 24 2014 20:29 PDT

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Plato

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Introduction to Philosophy

Plato, "The Myth of the Ring of Gyges"

Abstract: Plato sets up a case for egoism: If anyone had a magic ring making him invisible, whether or not that person were just or unjust, he would always act selfishly since he could do almost anything he wanted without fear of punishment.

  1. According to the Glaucon's brief, why 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 personal benefit would not be discovered but also that if this action were discovered, no punishing consequences would follow, then would there 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? Fyodor Dostoevsky writes: "Advantage! What is advantage? And will you take it upon yourself to define with perfect accuracy in what the advantage of a man consists? And what if it so happens that a man's advantage, sometimes, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous" (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, trans. Constance Garnett, 1864). 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 is 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. Plato (427-347 BC) puts forth a strong case for egoism so that he can, in a later chapter of The Republic, have Socrates demonstrate the shortcomings of this theory.
    1. Several related points help provide a context for his argument.
      1. In Plato's best known dialogue The Republic, Socrates constructs an ideal government in his attempt to define justice.
      2. In Book I of that work, Socrates opposes the sophist Thrasymachus's view that justice is that which is in the interest of the stronger agency. Thrasymachus holds, in effect, that the person who acts "unjustly" (in this sense, to one's own advantage) is normally happier than the just person. (Thrasymachus, to some extent, anticipates Niccolo Machiavelli's notion of "might makes right" and Friedrich Nietzsche's notion of "slave morality" as a societal construction.)
      3. In our reading, Plato turns his attention to Glaucon's view that persons are, at heart, selfish, or, at least, egoistic. (Historically, Glaucon is Plato's older brother.)
      4. Glaucon's argument is used as a stalking horse for Socrates to explain in a later part of The Republic that justice in the individual person can be understood by examining justice in an ideal state.
    2. For both Socrates and Plato, right action is neither that action which seeks to avoid punishment nor is that action resulting from a social agreement, law, or contract. (However, this outcome is not part of the reading selection of the myth of the ring of Gyges.)
    3. Important terms used in discussion of this reading include:
      1. Psychological egoism is the empirical doctrine that the determining motive of every voluntary action is a desire for one's own welfare.
      2. Ethical egoism is the normative or prescriptive doctrine that each individual should seek, as an end, only that individual's own welfare.
      3. Altruism is the ethical doctrine that each individual should place the interest of others before that individual's own interest. An action is right if it benefits others.
      4. Social contract is the political or societal doctrine that individual morality is dependent upon a tacit or an actual agreement with other persons in a society.
      5. Selfishness is a doctrine of self-interest without regard for others. Self-interest, however, need not be incompatible with the interests of others.
      6. Ethical relativism is simply the denial of ethical absolutism. More precisely, ethical relativism denies that there is a single moral standard, which applies to all people, all times, and all places.
  2. Focus Questions for Plato's "Myth of the Ring of Gyges"
    1. Notes are arranged in response to the questions stated above in reference to chapter "The Ring of Gyges" from Plato's Republic, translated by Benjamin Jowlett, Book II, 358—361d in Reading for Philosophical Inquiry as well as many other introductory philosophy texts.
      1. According to the Glaucon's brief, why do most persons act justly? Explain whether you think Glaucon's explanation is psychologically correct.
        1. 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.
        2. 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.
        3. On the one hand, William A. Rottschaefer in The Biology and Psychology of Moral Agency argues there is much good evidence that moral interaction among human beings is due to natural selection, especially the capacity of empathy.
          1. E.g., see the Science article discussed "New Pain Research Shows Mice Capable Of Empathy" where Dr. Jeffrey Mogil of McGill University concludes co-housed mice show pain sensitivity not shown individually.
          2. Or see the discussion Morals, Apes, and Us by Marc D. Hauser on empathy and altruism among rhesus monkeys from Discover (February 2000) Vol. 21 No. 2.
        4. On the other hand, Stuart Kauffman in At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity argues that moral interaction among human beings is simply part of the emergent order of the dynamics of self-organizations of living things.
        5. Neither the story of the myth nor the amassing of scientific evidence is relevant to the question of what ought to be done. Stories and scientific evidence are relevant to what is actual behavior.
      2. If a person could be certain not only that an action resulting in personal benefit would not be discovered but also that if this action were discovered, no punishing consequences would follow, then would there any reason for that person to act morally?
        1. Glaucon thinks not. He proposes a mind-experiment: the myth of the magic ring of Gyges. (Note how any effectiveness of his argument is actually an ad populum fallacy.)
        2. Glaucon argues that if someone had a ring which made him invisible, then that person would be foolish not to use it for personal advantage. Hence, Glaucon is arguing for ethical egoism.
          1. He states whether one were just or unjust, with such a ring, that person could do almost anything he wanted without fear of being caught.
          2. 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.
        3. If there were no fear of punishment, then Glaucon believes everyone, the virtuous and non virtuous alike, would no longer act morally. He thinks it is fear of punishment alone which is the basis of morality.
        4. Socrates, of course, would disagree. As expressed in the Socratic Paradox, he argues that you should only do what's right—irrespective of matters of life or death. This is part of the meaning of "tending your soul"
      3. Is it true that sometimes our self-interest is served by not acting in our self-interest? Fyodor Dostoevsky writes: "Advantage! What is advantage? And will you take it upon yourself to define with perfect accuracy in what the advantage of a man consists? And what if it so happens that a man's advantage, sometimes, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous" (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, trans. Constance Garnett, 1864). Construct an example illustrating this view, and attempt to resolve the paradoxical expression of the question.
        1. 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 tends to breed avarice.)
        2. The rational egoist, then, cannot advocate that egoism be universally adopted precisely because that would not be an action in his self-interest.
        3. To say that an action is right is to say that the action is right for anyone in that position. But the egoist cannot want others to act as he does because such an action is not in his self-interest.
        4. Hence, ethical egoism cannot be an ethical theory because any theory must be universalizable, or it does not qualify as a theory.
      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 is ultimately one of pleasure or of self-interest.
        1. As Aristotle observed in the Nichomachean Ethics, pleasure is a side-product (or natural accompaniment) of activity. In modern terms, this realization is part of the "hedonistic paradox": "Pleasure to be got, must be forgot."
          1. Persons do not seek pleasure—they seek those actions which are most likely to result in pleasure.
          2. When hungry, one seeks food, not pleasure.
          3. When bored, one seeks activity, not pleasure.
        2. Thus, the object of the desire to help others need not be pleasure per se. We can distinguish between "selfishness" and "non-selfishness" by looking at the object of the want in the action of an individual.
        3. Likewise, there are many possible motives for helping others—not all of which are selfishness or pleasure.
          1. If one helps others for some "pay off" of doing so, then that action could be considered selfish or self-interested. If I want something solely for myself, the action might be selfish. If I want something for someone else, then even if I derive pleasure from doing so, the act need not be considered selfish.
          2. After all, as James Rachels writes, isn't the unselfish person precisely the one who derives satisfaction from helping others? The selfish person is the one who helps grudgingly.
          3. However, if one help others for the sake of helping others, even though there is a "pay off" as a side-product, then that action could be considered nonselfish, nonself-interested, and perhaps altruistic.
        4. Thus, obtaining pleasure when helping others need not be considered egoistic.
        5. Other exceptions to the supposition that all persons act selfishly include the following types of actions.
          1. Sometimes people ordinarily do what they do not what to do. Sometimes persons act from spite or in self-defeating ways.
          2. Many actions considered apart from their long-term end are prima facie might not be in short-term interest: attending a boring college class, working a dull job, going to the dentist, exercising, and so forth.
          3. Actions which are a result of an obligation might not be in our self-interest: keeping the promise to give money to the needy, studying for a set period of time, staying in good health, and so forth.
      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. 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.
        2. Thus, he thinks, it is in our self-interest to obey the law because we fear the consequences if we were to get caught disobeying the law.
        3. 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.
        4. Essentially, he believes all persons are selfish, self-interested, and egoistic.
        5. According to the implications Glaucon's view, ethics, since it is based on a social contract, is possible only in a society. Essentially, Glaucon is supporting the 17th century view expressed in Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (1651) where Hobbes describes the state of nature as the war of all against all. Prior to government the normal state of affairs is everyone for himself as each person must defend himself as best he can.
        6. Hobbes' state of nature where “nature is red in tooth and claw“and Glaucon's state of nature where ethics is lacking is a view opposed by Thomas Aquinas, Richard Hooker, and John Locke who argue that moral duties as well as moral rights are instances of natural laws—hence intrinsic and prior to social contract and human law. Moreover, for Locke the following rights and duties are not initially created by society but exist prior to the development of government: “life, liberty, and estate.”
    2. It is important to note that Plato is not himself arguing for ethical or psychological egoism. Plato is using Glaucon's account for a challenge for his Socrates to overcome later in the Republic.
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“That Justice is useful to society, and consequently that part of its merit, at least, must arise from that consideration, it would be a superfluous undertaking to prove. That public utility is the sole origin of justice, and that reflections on the beneficial consequences of this virtue are the sole foundations of its merit; this proposition, being more curious and important, will better deserve our examination and enquiry.” David Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 183.

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