Humanities
University of Manitoba Ring of Gyges Notion of Justice Paper

University of Manitoba

Question Description

Choose one of the following to write on:

Word count at least 750

  1. From the "Ring of Gyges," assess Glaucon’s notion of justice (holiness or virtue) as a social contract. Put another way, is the moral life a matter of the soul or a means to self-preservation? In your view does he successfully respond to Socrates’ desire for a definition of justice? Why or why not?
  2. Hume challenges the notion that “all benevolence is mere hypocrisy, friendship a cheat, public spirit a farce, fidelity a snare to procure trust and confidence; and that all of us, at bottom, pursue only our private interest, …..” Do you think he is successful in showing what is wrong with this view? Why or why not? [A word of warning and caution: Hume is NOT an egoist. He and Rachels are in the same moral camp. This is why a careful read of his essay (especially the opening paragraphs) is important if you choose to write on his arguments.]
  3. In light of the larger context of Rachels’ essay evaluate his claim that, “Indeed, a man without sympathy at all would scarcely be recognizable as a man; and that is what makes ethical egoism such a disturbing doctrine in the first place.”

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Lecturette Four What motivates us to be moral? Assuming most people aspire to goodness, why do we desire to be so? Do we seek the good because there is something to be gained in it for ourselves? Are we good because it is in our interest to be good? Do we ever practice goodness from pure motives or does personal gain have a role to play in our entire moral decision making? The collection of essays we explore in this unit pursue an analysis of why human beings are attracted to the notion of becoming and being good. You will find these essays challenging and thoughtful as their authors examine the roots of moral goodness. They want to determine if we are good because it gains us social and personal approval or are there at least some people who are good for the sake of goodness itself. For example, would be good if there was nothing personally beneficial to living the moral life. Such concerns are found in thinkers across the range of human history and culture. The kinds of questions raised above are addressed in the persons of Plato, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and James Rachels. PLATO A contemporary philosopher once quipped, “Philosophy after Plato is a footnote.” This comment attests to the greatness of Plato’s thought and its lasting impact on even modern thinking. For western philosophers (and many eastern philosophers as well) Plato has set the enduring questions that philosophers still find intriguing and worth investigating. As you might expect, many of those questions involve the moral life. It is important to set the philosophical context of the piece you are reading that is embedded in one of Plato’s most important works, viz. The Republic. “The Ring of Gyges” is but a snippet of an extensive dialogue that seeks to describe the state (country, nation, political organization) that practices true justice. For Plato, justice rarely means courtroom or legal justice. Rather, he has righteousness, holiness, or moral goodness in mind when he speaks of justice. At the center of this conversation is the constant but enigmatic figure of Socrates. Almost everything we know about Socrates comes from the records of Plato, who was Socrates’ most famous student. It is important for Plato to show that Socrates was put to death at the hands of unjust and immoral men. Plato makes it clear that the charges of atheism, corrupting the youth, and making weaker arguments appear to be stronger are trumped up by an Athenian jury that finds Socrates inconvenient. In “The Ring of Gyges” we are dropped into the middle of a conversation where one of Socrates’ opponents, a fellow named Glaucon (and maybe Plato’s brother) thinks he has the answer to the question Socrates continually raises, viz. “What is justice (moral goodness, holiness, righteousness)?” He answers by saying it is a mean or middle between two extremes, those being the power to do wrong with impunity (without fear of punishment) and to suffer wrong without the power of revenge. In Glaucon’s view, we desire the first arrangement as the best and are repulsed by second arrangement as the worst of circumstances. Since living together as a community is impossible in either of these situations, Glaucon proposes that we steer a middle course and form social contracts (laws) that are beneficial for all. To make his point about these matters he tells the Gyges story as a thought experiment showing what any of us would do if given the power of the ring. Even the most saintly amongst us would use the removal of all moral restraints as an opportunity for personal advantage. In Glaucon’s view, this reveals something about the core of our being and shows why we all need the limits of law to protect ourselves from each other. The upshot is that none of us is good because we want to be; we are good because it brings many personal advantages. As you read “The Ring of Gyges,” think about how Glaucon is impugning our characters and arguing that at the core of our being is an unchangeable element of selfishness, motivating us to “goodness”? On a side note, it is hard not to notice the themes here that seemingly have influenced Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. HOBBES AND HUME Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and David Hume (1711-1776) are two English philosophers who take up the matter of moral motivation in very different ways. Though they are both British they are at opposite ends of the spectrum when considering what it means to live the moral life. You might find them hard to read at first because their language is distinctly 17th and 18th century English. A little practice and diligence is in order here. Hobbes is famous for his work, The Leviathan, which attempts to address the matter of civil society in the midst of a political upheaval in England. Hobbes essentially wants to show that when we become a part of civil society we do so as an act of self-preservation. It is safer to live in a society that has an efficient government that provides protection and the required services for a pleasant life. Without these features of government around us life tends to become, “nasty, poor, short, and brutish” and eventually devolves into “a war of all against all.” Hobbes is recognized as one of the chief proponents of what is known as “social contract” theory. Morality, then, is a useful instrument for society by which we become genuinely human rather than animals. We do not choose to be civil of our own accord but acquiesce to the compulsion to preserve our own lives. Though our individual freedoms are somewhat diminished by this arrangement, it is worth it in the long run so that we can stay alive. Hume thinks such a reductionism is so much rubbish. He worries when we reduce all of our moral actions to personal advantage and self-preservation. For example, we jeopardize our most cherished values. Matters such as benevolence, friendship, public spirit (love of community), and fidelity become a farce because underlying these “values” are selfish motives that make such practices advantageous to us. Hume thinks there is a certain futility in probing for these hidden motives and appeals to our common experience as a means to explain why we uphold the values noted above. Hence, Hume rejects the idea that loving others is really a case of loving ourselves and puts himself in opposition to Hobbes. RACHELS James Rachels is a contemporary philosopher (1941-2003) who is decidedly opposed to Glaucon and Hobbes, and much closer to the thinking of Hume. It is important to understand that Rachels is not a moral skeptic but someone who thinks “…people are not wholly selfish and that they sometimes act in the interest of others.” Rachels wants to describe thinkers like Glaucon and Hobbes as egoists but notes that egoism is to be understood in two forms. First, psychological egoism is descriptive in nature, i.e. without judging whether we should or should not be egoists, proponents of psychological egoism simply claim that we are. Psychological egoists believe that we always do what we want to do because so called “unselfish” actions have positive payoffs. But Rachels thinks psychological egoism can be shown to be flawed in a philosophical sense. Be sure to give attention to the arguments he forms against this kind of egoism. One of the most telling and interesting arguments is the distinction he makes between actions that are self-interested and those that selfish. For Rachels, psychological egoists fail to see this distinction, not recognizing that we do all sorts of selfinterested things that are not selfish, e.g. exercising, brushing our teeth, eating nutritious food, and having an annual physical. Further, Rachels argues that just because certain actions have positive payoffs is not proof that these actions were done to get the payoff. Positive payoffs may simply be a by-product of doing the right thing. Rachels recognizes another species of egoism he calls ethical egoism. Ethical egoists go further by noting that not only are we selfish but that we should be, i.e. ethical egoism is prescriptive in nature. Rachels thinks this form of egoism is invulnerable to philosophical attack. Those things that can be shown to be wrong with psychological egoism do not have any impact on ethical egoism. Ethical egoists want a world where their interests are maximized even though the interests of others must decrease for this to come about. There is nothing philosophically inconsistent about such a claim. Ethical egoists may be reprehensible but they are not illogical, says Rachels. Philosophy cannot cure their ills but it can be noted that ethical egoists would have to make extraordinary claims for their views to remain intact. They must believe that hurting others is somehow justifiable in their frame of reference. Rachels claims that an ethical egoist must be “…a man without sympathy at all…” and this means he “…would be scarcely recognized as a man…” While we may not have philosophical grounds for rejecting ethical egoism we can in an intuitive manner see that something is amiss here. ...
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Final Answer

Attached.

Running head: RING OF GYGES

1

The Ring of Gyges
Name:
Institution:

RING OF GYGES

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The Ring of Gyges

Glaucon wanted to examine whether justice is better than injustice. He argued that by
nature, all humans are unjust and selfish. He goes ahead and said that justice is not good in itself,
which means that individuals only care about the consequential good. In other words, a person
will do something just because of the benefits that will accrue. For instance, a person may be just
because that earns them a good reputation. Glaucon posits that at the core, all humans are unjust
and will only focus on the benefits they get rather than the positive effects their actions will have
on other people.
To support his view, he uses the ring of Gyges, which made Gyges invisible upon putting
the ring on his finger. Gyges was a shepherd for the King of Lydia. He used the power he gets
from the ring to commit unjust acts. He seduced the queen and worked out a plan that was about
killing the King and take over the kingdom. Glaucon argues that because the ring made hi...

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Duke University

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