Glaucon’s challenge Notes for January 28

Main points

I began by recounting what happens in Book I (which is well worth reading, by the way). Then we described the challenge that motivates the rest of the book: Glaucon’s challenge to show that the just life is preferable to the unjust one.

I raised a number of questions about Glaucon’s test. These concern my difficulty in understanding what the lives that we’re supposed to compare with one another are like. Of course, given that I have that problem, I have a hard time making the comparison. I also suspect that Glaucon’s test is far too hard. That is, that we could do a perfectly good job of explaining why it makes sense to be just even without passing the test.

As I said, Plato’s political philosophy emerges out of his attempt to answer this question about individual lives. He will describe the just state first and then argue that there is an analogy between the just state and the just individual. This analogy is supposed to answer Glaucon’s challenge.

What’s an unjust person like?

My first question concerned what an unjust person is like. I offered two options. I said that only one option would provide a genuine challenge. And then I said that this option put injustice in the third category of goods.

Well, so what? It’s true that Glaucon and Socrates are trying to show that justice does not belong in this third category. It seemed to me that the fact that injustice winds up in the third category ought to make things easier.

Nick gave an answer: the consequences of, or, in other words, the instrumental value of, being unjust always outweighs the instrumental value of being just. So if justice is to be better than injustice, it has to be because it has some intrinsic value or, as they put it in the Republic, it has to be valued for its own sake.

I agreed in class, but I’m not sure that I should have done so.** I edited these paragraphs on Jan. 30. Here’s why. The Republic ends with an argument for the opposite conclusion (Book X). There, Plato maintains that the consequences of the just life are superior to those of the unjust life. If Plato believed that, why did he think it was important to show that justice belongs in the second category? Perhaps he didn’t really believe it or he didn’t believe it is always true.

Here’s another explanation of the importance of that second category. I think that it has to do with a kind of asymmetry between how we think of justice and injustice. We think it makes sense to be motivated to do the just thing, simply because it’s just. But we don’t think the same thing about injustice.

As we said, someone who just wants more than others has a condition, not a superior life.

Qualification‡‡ I added this section on Jan. 30

Whoops, I forgot that the unjust person wants power as well as money and other material goods. Power is zero sum: how much I have depends on how much you have and vice versa. In this case, it isn’t crazy to care primarily about where you stand relative to others.

So is the just person said to want power or not?

If not, then I don’t understand what the just person is like. How do you get by without power? Luck? Not wanting anything else?

If so, won’t the just person have to behave pretty much like the unjust person? At least, won’t the just person have to think like the unjust one, namely, about how much he or she has relative to others?

We’ll talk about this in Wednesday’s class.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2008. It was posted January 28, 2008 and updated January 30, 2008.
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