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The Ring of Gyges

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The Ring of Gyges [Glaucon, the brother of Plato, argues in the Republic about justice as a social construction]:
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[Glaucon, the brother of Plato, argues in the Republic about justice as a social construction]:

359c The story goes that he [Gyges] was a shepherd in the service of the ruler of Lydia. There was a violent thunderstorm, and an earthquake broke open the ground and created a chasm at the palace where he was tending his sheep. Seeing this, he was filled with amazement and went down into it. And here, in addition to many other wonders of which we’re told, he saw a hollow bronze horse. There were windowlike openings in it, and, peeping in, he saw a corpse, which seemed to be of more than human size, wearing nothing but a gold ring on its finger. He took the ring and came out of the chasm. He wore the ring at the usual monthly meeting that reported to the king on the state of the flocks. And as he was sitting among the others, he happened to turn the setting of the ring towards himself to the inside of his hand. When he did this, he became invisible to those sitting near him, and they went on talking as if he had gone. He wondered at this, and, fingering the ring, he turned the setting outwards again and became visible. So he experimented with the ring to test whether it indeed had this power—and it did. If he turned the setting inward, he became invisible; if he turned it outward, he became visible again. When he realized this, he at once arranged to become one of the messengers sent to report to the king. And then he arrived there, he seduced the king’s wife, attacked the king with her help, killed him, and took over the kingdom.


Let’s suppose, then, that there were two such rings, one worn by a just and the other by an unjust person. Now, no one, it seems, would be so incorruptible that he would stay on the path of justice or stay away from other people’s property, when he could take whatever he wanted from the marketplace with impunity, go into people’s houses and have sex with anyone he wished, kill or release from prison anyone he wished, and do all the other things that would make him like a god among humans. Rather his actions would be in no way different from those of an unjust person, and both would follow the same path. This, some would say, is a great proof that one is never just willingly but only when compelled to be. No one believes justice to be a good when it is kept private, since, wherever either person thinks he can do injustice with impunity, he does it. Indeed, every man believes that injustice is far more profitable to himself than justice. And any exponent of this argument will say he’s right, for someone didn’t touch other people’s property would be thought wretched and stupid by everyone aware of the situation, though, of course, they’d praise him in public, deceiving each other for fear of suffering injustice. (360d, Plato’s Republic, trans. G. M.A. Grube, revised by C.D.C. Reeve, Hackett, 1992)




How ‘truth’ comes out in the legal system

“In the American legal system the “adversary” method of truth discovery is generally used, in which the parties (or more usually their lawyers) take an active role in litigating the questions of fact before the court, rather than a method in which the judge conducts an independent inquiry into the factual issues surrounding the dispute. It is believed that the adversary method promotes the cause of legal justice, because each party will bring to the attention of the court all the material it holds to be favorable to its side of the dispute, and no relevant evidence will be ignored. The truth, it is believed, will emerge out of the clash between the parties. It is also thought that in a criminal case, the rights of the accused are best protected under the adversarial system. Whether or not all this happens depends, of course, on a number of factors, for example, the competence of the lawyers. If one may assume that these truth-discovery procedures are fair and rational (the rationality of the adversary method has been attached on the ground that judges and juries are not necessarily the most competent weighers of evidence), losing litigants are likely to feel that they got a “fair shake” and will not complain about the outcome. The losers should feel, at least, that the outcome was reasonable, if not right. But even if they are dissatisfied with the outcome, independent observers will not think them entitled to complain. And this extremely important, because society has a strong interest in maintaining the integrity of the processes by which citizens are deprived of their liberty or their property.” ( Legal Reasoning, by Martin P. Goling, Broadview Press, 2001, p.7)



Michael Walzer (1935–)


Dominance, monopoly, and political power


“Dominance describes a way of using social goods that isn’t limited by their intrinsic meanings or that shapes those meanings in its own image.”

“Monopoly describes a way of owning or controlling social goods in order to exploit their dominance.”

But “No social good ever entirely dominates the range of goods; no monopoly is ever perfect.”

One group wins, and then a different one; or coalitions are worked out, and supremacy is uneasily shared. There is no final victory, nor should there be. But that is not to say that the claims of the different groups are necessarily wrong, or that the principles they invoke are of no value as distributive criteria, the principles are often exactly right within the limits of a particular sphere.


The claim that the dominant good, whatever it is, should be redistributed so that it can be equally or at least more widely shared: this amounts to saying that monopoly is unjust.

The claim that the way should be opened for the autonomous distribution of all social goods: this amounts to saying that dominance is unjust.

The claim that some new good, monopolized by some new group, should replace the currently dominant good: this amounts to saying that the existing pattern of dominance and monopoly is unjust.


“political power is a special sort of good. It has a twofold characters. First, it is like the other things that men and women make, value, exchange, and share: sometimes dominant, sometimes not; sometimes widely held, sometimes the possession of a very few. And, second, it is unlike all the other things because…. political power is the regulative agency for social goods generally. It is used to defend the boundaries of all the distributive spheres, including its own, and to enforce the common understanding of what goods are and what they are for. (But it can also be used, obviously, to invade the different spheres and to override those understandings).”


Walzer’s position:

1. “I want to argue that we should focus on the reduction of dominance—not, or not primarily, on the break-up or the constraint of monopoly. We should consider what it might mean to narrow the range within which particular goods are convertible and to vindicate the autonomy of distributive spheres.”

2. “Equality is a complex relation of persons, mediated by the goods we make, share, and divide among ourselves; it is not an identity of possessions. It requires then, a diversity of distributive criteria that mirrors the diversity of social goods…..We search for principles internal to each distributive sphere.” (Walzer, Spheres of Justice)

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