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Justice for its Own Sake

Given a ring of invisibility, nobody “would be so adamant as to stick by justice and bring himself to keep away from what belongs to others and not lay hold of it, although he had license to take what he wanted from the market without fear, and to go into houses and have intercourse with whomever he wanted, and to slay or release from bonds whomever he wanted, and to do other things as an equal to a god among humans.” So says Glaucon in book two of Plato’s Republic. This shows that justice is praised, not for itself, but for the good things that come from it.

What would I do with such a ring? I pondered this as I walked from the diner, where I ate breakfast, to the Met, where I am now. Would I break into these well-kept brick townhouses to rape beautiful women? This is unappealing even to the basest part of me. Would I take what belongs to others? I’m quite fortunate, and “the possession of money contributes a great deal to not cheating or lying to any man against one’s will.” I have enough of everything, except reading time. Or so I say now, but would my knowledge of the ring in my pocket increase my appetites? My work is meaningful most months, but after a bad quarter I could be tempted. I may think: “I’m spending my life, starting at a screen, fooling myself into submission by calling it my vocation.” I could replace our index funds with a careful pick of stocks, guided by secrets I procure with the ring, and live freely. This isn’t really stealing, right? A few clever trades and I could fill my appetites: the One Thousand and One Nights, the remaining Classic Chinese Novels, the Mahābhārata—ten times as long as the Iliad, The Tale of Genji, all of Aristotle.

Then it occurs to me that I, like Frodo, could throw away the ring! But, Glaucon points out, if justice were good for its own sake, why would you need to? Discarding it would show Thrasymachus that he’s right and that justice is merely a means. He would say: “If justice were an end, how could the ring lead you astray? Use the ring for good! Isn’t Socrates always saying that injustice is ignorance, and that once the right path is known it will always be taken?”

If Thrasymachus said that, I would respond: “I think Socrates is mistaken when he says injustice is ignorance. ‘For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.’ To throw away the ring is not to admit that justice is a means to the praise of men and other good things, but it is to admit my flawed nature. Blush again.”