Should we be just?

Prompt: “What, if anything, has been lacking in the defense of justice given by Socrates, with which Book 1 of Plato’s Republic concluded?”

„And this must be considered, most simple Socrates: the just man everywhere has less than the unjust man” (343 b) – with this statement begins a discussion that lasts for the later part of Book 1 of „The Republic”. Socrates tries to argue to the contrary, by approaching the problem from numerous perspectives, and by juggling with logic and with abstract concepts, but the lack of a solid foundation is preventing him from reaching a good conclusion. Thus, despite his best efforts, and in contrast with most of his interlocutors, I find myself firmly unconvinced by his arguments in favor of being just.

First of all, Socrates and his interlocutors have yet to define what justice and being just is. Part of the reason why they’ve been unable to get a definite grasp of the concept so far, is because they consider it to be a single vague entity, for which it is hard to find an all-encompassing definition. They have not tried to break justice down into its constituent parts. For example, they could try separating it into an individual point of view („how should one live his life?”, „what is the right thing to do for me now?”) and a group point of view („how should members of a city behave?”, „what is the right thing to do for the city and its inhabitants?”).

Furthermore, Socrates chooses the abstract approach over the specific (348 a). Instead of listing specific things belonging to the just and to the unjust man, and comparing them, Socrates gets the permission from his interlocutors to follow a more abstract way of reasoning, as he has done so far, and to continue discussing the issue until they reach a common point of view. It would make his arguments a lot more convincing if he would go into specific cases and details, testing his theories and showing how the just man has a better life than the unjust.

For example, let us consider Socrates’ arguments about the art of ruling. He separates it from the art of making money (346 d), and from other benefits that people may draw from it (342 e). He states that arts should cover different things, and each should “provide us with some peculiar benefit and not a common one” (346 a). So, all that remains is the art of ruling in a pure form, where a ruler only governs for the benefit of his people (346 e).

In theory, it sounds good, but in practice, even if we separate the art of ruling from the art of money-making, they will both still be in the human which is in the position of power. In fact, that human will probably have a large set of arts concerning his current position: the art of attaining and maintaining power, the art of propaganda, the art of making money, the art of negotiating, the art of manipulation, etc. Thus, even though the art of ruling may imply a purely selfless act in abstract theory, in practice it often goes together with other arts that are not so kind to the subject. And if some of these arts imply just actions by definition, and some imply unjust actions, can we really say about their practitioner that he is a just person, or he is an unjust person? Maybe we shouldn’t view morality in such black and white terms, and we should start to appreciate its grey nuances.

Therefore, another flaw in Socrates’ arguing is ignoring the middle ground. Socrates intentionally steers the discussion into talking about „perfect justice” and „perfect injustice” (348 b). They only compare the extreme cases, and they ignore the possibility in which someone would act both justly and unjustly depending on the situation and on his/her own interests.  For all we know, the middle ground might actually lead to a better life than the two extremes.

Using these extremes of justice and injustice, later in the book, Socrates argues that being perfectly unjust means being unable to work with others. He then tries to further extend this to also apply to an individual human: „And then, when it is one man, I suppose it will do the same thing which it naturally accomplishes. First it will make him unable to act, because he is at faction and is not of one mind with himself, and second, an enemy both to himself and to just men” (352 a). The analogy with the groups of people cracks at this point. The reason Socrates gave for why groups of unjust people could not function is because of „faction and difference” (352 a). How does that work for an individual human? Can a human be divided into pieces, which can be just or unjust, and which can then have conflicts between each other? Socrates never touches on this question.

Later in his argument for the just life, one of Socrates’ most important conclusions is that „the just man is like the wise and the good, but the unjust man like the bad and unlearned” (350 c). The conclusion is based on the fact that the unjust man is not knowledgeable about justice. For Socrates says „The man who knows is wise” and „The wise man is good”. Thus, if the unjust man was knowledgeable, he would be both wise and good. Socrates gives no satisfying explanation for why the unjust man cannot be knowledgeable. He ignores the possibility of a man who possesses knowledge about justice, and thus is both good and wise, but which chooses to act in an unjust manner.

Socrates also tries to use the gods to prove his points. He says that the gods are just, and thus „the unjust man will also be an enemy to the gods, […], and the just man a friend” (352 b). Yet, Socrates does not explain why the gods are just. He takes it for granted, without further questioning. just as he doesn’t question why justice is considered a virtue.

This issue, of justice being a virtue, is one of the biggest problems with Socrates’ arguing. His final conclusion, that „the just soul and the just man will have a good life, and the unjust man a bad one” (353 e) depends on the assumption that „justice is a virtue of the soul, and injustice, vice” (348 c, 353 e). Socrates so far never tries to question why this is so, nor does he ever explain why we should consider justice (a concept for which we have no definition yet) a virtue.

Socrates himself recognizes this problem, and at the end of Book 1 (354 b, c), admits he was rushing into tangents without solving the initial problem on which they depend: „So long as I do not know what the just is, I shall hardly know whether it is a virtue or not and whether the one who has it is unhappy or happy” (354 c).

Thus, the first book of „The Republic” ends on a humble note. Socrates and his interlocutors have only started to test the waters around the concept of justice, trying to figure out what it is and how to approach the subject. They experimented with some common sense definitions of justice, which quickly proved to be inadequate, and have seen the danger of rushing headlong into more complicated problems which depend on the definition of justice. For before they can even approach the problem of if we should be just or not, they still have to find an appropriate definition and paradigm for the concept of justice and of being just.

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