Why be Moral? Plato’s ‘Ring of Gyges’ Thought Experiment

Author: Spencer Case
Categories: Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy, Historical Philosophy
Word count: 995

What if you could steal, cheat, and violate any other moral norm without fear of punishment? Would you still have reason to do what’s right?

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato (427—347 B.C.E.) considered this question in his dialogue, the Republic, which offers a blueprint for an ideal society.

Plato thinks that you should do what’s right, even in these circumstances. This essay explains one of the strongest objections to his position.

The Ring of Gyges.
The Ring of Gyges.

1. A Conversation about Justice

In the Republic, at the opening of Book 2, Plato’s teacher, Socrates, and brother, Glaucon, are discussing justice, though much of what they say in the ensuing conversation applies to ethics in general. Socrates says justice is both good in itself and good as a means to other good things such as individual security and prosperity.[1]

Glaucon is inclined to agree, but he wants Socrates to prove it. So Glaucon plays the devil’s advocate. Socrates, who isn’t known for passing up opportunities to debate, agrees to hear Glaucon out.

Glaucon sketches a philosophy of justice – which philosophers now call “contractarianism” – that’s at odds with Socrates’ view.[2] On this view, what’s ideal is to be able to commit injustice without getting caught or punished, and without having to worry that others might do the same to you.

The problem though is that if there weren’t enforced rules against injustices, no one would be safe from the wrongdoing of others. It’s to everyone’s advantage, therefore, to have fair rules.

That, however, doesn’t mean that justice is good in itself, only that it’s useful for protecting things we really care about.

2. Glaucon’s Challenge

To motivate his view, Glaucon introduces the “Ring of Gyges” thought experiment:

A man named Gyges is a humble shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia. One day, an earthquake opens a hole in the ground where he’s tending his flock. He descends into it to find, among other strange things, a ring, which Gyges takes and puts on. Later, at a shepherd’s meeting, Gyges discovers that when he turns the ring toward the inside of his hand, others can’t see him. He’s invisible!

Gyges, realizing this, gets up to some really bad stuff. He finds an excuse to deliver a message to the court, then seduces the queen. The two of them conspire to murder the king to whom Gyges has sworn loyalty, and Gyges takes his place as ruler.

Many have noted the similarity between this story and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.[3] But unlike the ring in that fantasy epic, Gyges’ ring has no special power over the wearer. The ring doesn’t corrupt Gyges; it reveals what he was all along: someone who only ever restrained himself out of fear of punishment.

Glaucon thinks that this thought experiment exposes human nature generally. we’d all act like Gyges—stealing, murdering and raping according to our fancies—if we could get away with it.  

3. The Argument

What does this psychological speculation have to do with justice?

Glaucon’s argument seems to go something like this:

The only evidence we could have that justice, or anything, is valuable in itself is that it seems good even when there are no other goods that come along with it. But when we isolate justice from goods like being thought well of by others, it no longer seems good to us. The good things that justice (usually) brings fully explain our belief that justice is good. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that justice is more than instrumentally valuable. 

Glaucon has one more twist to add:

Imagine a perfectly unjust person and a perfectly just person whose normal fates are reversed. Perhaps Gyges frames someone else for his misdeeds. That innocent person is then tortured and executed for crimes he didn’t commit, while Gyges relishes all the advantages of a good reputation.

Surely, no one would prefer to be this hapless just person when they could be Gyges instead! Just as the moon doesn’t shine by its own light, justice only seems bright, so to speak, because of the goods it helps us (individually) to obtain. Valuing justice when it doesn’t get us those things is like valuing money that has no purchasing power.

4. Criticism

Does this argument succeed in showing that justice isn’t good in itself? There’s room for doubt.

It’s unclear whether Glaucon is really so cynical about humanity. Regardless, he’s overstating things. True, most people would cross some moral lines if they had the ring—there’s surely some politician you’d be sorely tempted to punch. But we wouldn’t all act like psychopaths.

Presumably, some people would even use the ring to do good, like superheroes. Humans are self-interested, but most people also care about others to some degree.

It’s true that not many would prefer to be punished as a just person rather than rewarded as an unjust person. That could show any number of things. It might show, as Glaucon implies, that we don’t always have the most reason to be just.

Even if that’s right, it’s compatible with thinking that justice is valuable in itself, though our reasons for doing the just thing can sometimes be overruled by countervailing reasons. But it might also show that it can be extremely difficult to do what we should do.

5. Conclusion: Plato’s Reply to Glaucon

The rest of the Republic constitutes Plato’s extended reply to Glaucon.

In a nutshell, Plato agrees that we ought to do what’s in our own best interests, but insists that it’s ultimately always in our interest to do what’s just, or right, because wrongdoing damages our souls, or characters as persons. Plato also defends this idea in an earlier dialogue, Gorgias.[4]

Some have thought that there’s no ultimate answer to the question of what we ought to do when our reasons of self-interest and moral duties conflict.[5] The intuitive possibility of a rational person who doesn’t care about morality continues to make the question “why be moral?” a pressing philosophical topic.

Notes

[1] Plato, Republic. Trans. by Benjamin Jowett. The Project Gutenberg eBook.

[2] For an introduction to views similar to contractualism, see David Antonini’s Social Contract Theory and Daniel Weltman’s “Nasty, Brutish, and Short”: Thomas Hobbes on Life in the State of Nature.

[3] Tolkien, J.R.R. Lord of the Rings, with a new forward by the author. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.

[4] Plato, Gorgias. Trans. by Benjamin Jowett.  The Project Gutenberg eBook.

[5] 19th Century British utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick famously thought that the perspectives of self-interest (“egoism”) and impartial morality couldn’t be reconciled, so that whenever our duties of self-interest and moral duty conflict, there’s no one thing that we ought to do all things considered. (Sidgwick, Henry. The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. London: MacMillan and Co. LTD, 1963, 508). David Copp argues that this is precisely the lesson that we should take from the tale about Gyges. (See Copp, David “The ring of Gyges: Overridingness and the unity of reason,” Social Philosophy and Policy 14 (1) (1997): 86-106.)

References

Copp, David “The ring of Gyges: Overridingness and the unity of reason,” Social Philosophy and Policy 14 (1) (1997): 86-106.

Plato, Gorgias. Trans. by Benjamin Jowett.  The Project Gutenberg eBook.

Plato, Republic. Trans. by Benjamin Jowett. The Project Gutenberg eBook.

Sidgwick, Henry. The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. London: MacMillan and Co., LTD, 1963

Tolkien, J.R.R. Lord of the Rings, with a new forward by the author. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.

Related Essays

Ethical Egoism by Nathan Nobis

Virtue Ethics by David Merry

Social Contract Theory by David Antonini

“Nasty, Brutish, and Short”: Thomas Hobbes on Life in the State of Nature by Daniel Weltman

Plato’s Crito: When should we break the law? by Spencer Case

(Im)partiality by Shane Gronholz

Practical Reasons by Shane Gronholz

Plato’s Form of the Good by Ryan Jenkins

About the Author

Spencer Case has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Colorado Boulder, where he is currently a lecturer. He hosts Micro-Digressions: A Philosophy Podcast and does a lot of writing, academic and otherwise. SpencerCasePhilosophy.com

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