Biographies & Memoirs


The Ring of Gyges

People do wrong whenever they think they can, so they act morally only if they’re forced to, because they regard morality as something which isn’t good for one personally. (II, 360c)

With Thrasymachus silenced or sulking, his case is taken up by Glaucon, a character identified with one of Plato’s brothers, while the only significant other character, Adeimantus, is identified with a different brother. In the dialogue, they seem more or less interchangeable. Glaucon refines and adds precision to Thrasymachus’s own scatter-shot attempt at saying what he means. First, he carefully separates the question of whether morality is a benefit in itself, from whether it is only useful as a means to other ends (for instance, social acceptability, the result achieved by following the law of fashion). Socrates maintains both. So Glaucon tries to show that in fact people only practise morality when they lack the ability to do wrong, and seeks to show this by a story, or thought-experiment. A shepherd from Lydia (a part of Western Asia Minor, now Turkey), Gyges, is supposed to have acquired a magic ring that rendered its wearer invisible. – Armed with it he enters the royal palace, seduces the queen, kills the king and usurps the throne. This is a highly satisfactory outcome from Gyges’s point of view, so who wouldn’t do the same?

Suppose there were two such rings, then – one worn by our moral person, the other by the immoral person. There is no one, on this view, who is iron-willed enough to maintain his morality and find the strength of purpose to keep his hands off what doesn’t belong to him, when he is able to take whatever he wants from the market-stalls without fear of being discovered, to enter houses and sleep with whomever he chooses, to kill and to release from prison anyone he wants, and generally to act like a god among men. (II, 360b)

In other words, separate morality from its effects, and you will see that everyone regards it as a nuisance, an annoying brake on their freedom of action.

Glaucon does not stop there, but presses the point with a further argument. Put side by side a moral person and an immoral one. Now strip the moral person of his ‘aura’, and give him a reputation for immorality, sufficient to subject him to all the punishments the law can inflict, and eventual death. And imagine the immoral person clever enough to enjoy all the rewards that the appearance of morality gives, but with the added benefit of being able to profit from his immorality whenever he can get away with it. Clearly the second has the richer, more successful, better rewarded life. In Greek theology it is even suggested that the gods smile on him, since being wealthier he can offer them better sacrifices (362c). Adeimantus chimes in:

We find that not a single one of you self-styled supporters of morality has ever found fault with immorality or commended morality except in terms of the reputation, status, and rewards which follow from them. (II, 366e)

The challenge could not be clearer: show that morality, in and of itself and regardless of its consequences, benefits the possessor, and that immorality similarly harms him. For if this cannot be shown, the law of fashion is all that there is, and we have no answer to the Athenian envoys and their successors. The challenge echoes down the history of moral philosophy. In the eighteenth century David Hume posed the same problem in terms of the ‘sensible knave’ who takes advantage of the gains of cooperation and convention within society, but stands ready to cheat on them when he can gain by doing so.1 Plato’s thought-experiment merely shows us someone for whom this cheating is made especially easy.

From now on we shall call this Glaucon’s challenge. It might be ducked by playing the religious theme of life after death, with heaven for the good and hell for the wicked. But the hope of evading punishment or of being given a bribe or bonus, even by a supernatural agency, and even over a long haul into eternity, is really irrelevant to Glaucon’s challenge, as Adeimantus his brother insists. The whole point is that talk of rewards, either in this life or in one to come, is inadequate unless the rewards are of a kind that cannot possibly be achieved by immorality, or cannot be forfeited in spite of morality. We should act from principle, not from hope or fear, or, as Kant later put it, our moral motivation has to be pure, free from the calculus of self-interest.

The topic is often described by commentators as that of justice in the soul. This sounds a bit precious. But ‘the soul’ here is not a ‘ghost in the machine’. It is simply the person considered in respect of character, knowledge and motivations. As for justice, I usually follow the modern tendency to prefer putting it in terms of the relationship between morality in general and the internal, psychological harmony or discord of the agent. I shall therefore talk of the well-ordered or rightly ordered agent. The aim is to describe this right ordering or harmony so that it satisfies two conditions. First, it must correspond to the agent doing what is right, possessing the virtues we esteem, behaving well. Second, Republic wants to make the benefit to the rightly ordered agent apparent without invoking other benefits such as reputation or popularity. It is to be a benefit in itself.

It is important to bear this dual aspect in mind. Glaucon would not be answered if Socrates simply described a tranquil or serene agent, for example. Tranquillity and serenity no doubt benefit their possessor. They are pleasant states to be in. But they may have little to do with virtue or behaving well – in the myth, the ring of invisibility could have enabled Gyges to commit his crimes in serenity and peace of mind. As was suggested above, the Athenian envoys may have been serene enough about what they were doing. If there is a connection, it would need arguing for.

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