Plato’s questions about justice Notes for January 26

Main points

I gave a brief lecture about Book I in order to put the work into context. Plato was worried that a failure to reflect on questions about justice left his society open to positions like Thrasymachus’s. He was also deeply concerned about the contradictory pull between the need to engage in politics, if only in self-defense, and questions about whether it’s possible to do so honorably.

We then discussed some questions about Glaucon’s challenge.

Incidentally, here’s a link to the audio version of the Republic that I referred to.

Glaucon’s challenge

Here are some of the questions I raised about Glaucon’s challenge.

First, how is Glaucon’s position related to Thrasymachus’s? Thrasymachus describes justice as involving deception and exploitation while Glaucon describes justice as what looks like a perfectly reasonable deal. Seth and Fowler had persuasive answers, in my opinion, though I still feel a little uneasy about it.

Second, how do we decide whether something falls into Glaucon’s second category or not? And can we extend whatever story we tell for knowledge, sight, etc. for justice as well?

Seth proposed that we value knowledge for its own sake because we’re curious. As long as there is no similar urge to be just, that would be a way of putting knowledge in the second category without necessarily showing how to put justice there as well.

Third, is the story of the Ring of Gyges relevant to questions we might have about whether to be just? “If I had superpowers, I would do X” is not obviously an answer to the question, “should I do (or want to do) X?”

Fourth, how are we supposed to imagine the life of the just person in Glaucon’s challenge? Are we supposed to imagine someone who is indifferent to what everyone thinks? That sounds like the life of a crazy person. If that’s the test, it might be unfairly slanted against justice.

Finally, why should we make the just person’s life miserable in order to say whether it’s good for it’s own sake? Isn’t that like asking whether vision is worth having for its own sake by imagining that it’s incredibly painful? As an alternative, couldn’t we imagine the just life as being more like the life of the man who doesn’t experience seeing things but nonetheless manages to avoid running into things? We were persuaded that this tells us something about why we value sight for its own sake, apart from its effects. Might seeing the life of a just person who has no particular reputation for justice one way or the other tell us something about whether we value justice for its own sake?

Incidentally, the condition I was describing is called “apperceptive agnosia.” Here’s a description.

At the age of 35, D.F. suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a defective Italian gas heater. … As a consequence, D.F. is unable to visually recognize the forms and shapes of objects — shapes seem to “run into each other”. This disorder is called apperceptive agnosia, or form agnosia. Nevertheless, D.F. appears normal when walking, even negotiating mountain paths, and so must have retained the ability to use vision to navigate through the world.

Thanks to the magic of Google, you can get started reading about it without leaving your chair.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2009. It was posted January 26, 2009.
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