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Plato

There were three main Greek philosophers: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Of these, Plato, who was Socrates’ pupil and Aristotle’s teacher, is widely accepted as the greatest. In the Republic, his most famous work, Plato examines many different topics, including psychology, logic, metaphysics, ethics and politics. These last two areas are intimately linked for Plato: he thinks that justice is the essence of morality. It is worth noting that the Greek use of ‘justice’ is different from our own. Our ‘justice’ is derived from the Latin ius, meaning ‘what is enforced by human authority’; as already mentioned, this sounds very legalistic. For Plato, justice is the root of all morality, and is most helpfully translated as ‘goodness.’ His aim in the Republic is to establish the nature of this goodness – the nature of justice.


The Republic, like most of Plato’s work, is written entirely in the form of dialogues. His method is to have speakers suggest certain theories, and then to disprove or discredit these theories with the words of another speaker. This other speaker, who represents Plato’s own view, is called Socrates; this has resulted in some dispute as to whether the views are really Plato’s or just reiterations of what he learned from Socrates.

Cephalus’ Definition of Justice


Plato’s discussion of justice begins with an attempt to agree on a definition of justice. Cephalus, a rich and retired merchant, suggests that justice consists in giving people what they deserve; give to each person his or her due. Socrates swiftly points out the problem with this definition: it is circular, as any concept of a person’s desert or due depends on a pre-existing definition of justice. How can we know what a man deserves unless we know what he justly deserves? We can’t – and to establish what a man justly deserves we need a definition of justice.
Thrasymachus’ Definition of Justice

An alternative definition of justice is offered by Thrasymachus, a Sophist. (‘Sophist’ then meant a wise man, rather than one who offers convincing arguments for weak positions.) He suggests that ‘just or right means nothing but what is to the interest of the stronger party.’ This means that the strongest individual or group in a society is always right, so long as they pursue their own interests. The actions of the sovereign power in a society are always right, since ‘right actions’ means ‘the actions of the sovereign power.’ It is acceptable for minorities to challenge the rightness of these actions, but only if they can make the strong majority accept their conception of rightness. To modern ears, this does not sound like a definition of justice at all; surely it is unjust to simply say

‘whoever is in power is always right’? Even when we bear in mind the Greeks’ wider use of the word, this still does not sound like a convincing explanation of ‘the nature of goodness’. Socrates offers three arguments to refute Thrasymachus’ definition of justice.
1. The strong individual or group (the sovereign power) does not always merely want to use its strength to get what it wants. The ruler is like a craftsman: his art is the art of government. To be a great artist, he must look after all those in his care; otherwise he is not governing well.
Like a good captain looking after his ship, the good ruler will look after his people well. A ruler who is interested only in dominating his subjects is not a good ruler.

‘No form of skill or authority provides for its own benefit, it always studies and prescribes what is good for its subject – the interest of the weaker party.’ (Socrates)
Does this refutation succeed? Surely some rulers do not care whether or not they rule well, as long as they retain their power. Socrates would reply that in fact such rulers do not stay in power very long, as the citizenry would not tolerate such a ruler, but it is not clear that this is so. If a tyrant’s power is great enough, he can stay in power for decades; look at Stalin.
2. A governor is like a musician. If a musician tunes his instrument too highly, it will not play in tune at all. Similarly, if a governor attempts to increase his power beyond a certain point, all his governance will collapse. Is this second refutation successful? The metaphor doesn’t really work as well as those given in the first refutation. A musician would not want to tune his instrument too highly, whilst a despot might well want to increase his power. But it is certainly true that Hitler lost his power because of his massive ambition for greater power, and it is widely accepted that ambition can often overreach realistic goals and lead to loss of power. Although the metaphor fails, this refutation is more successful than the first.


  1. Everything has a function. A man’s function is not to gratify his

desires, like an animal, but to think and act rationally. If a man

does not fulfil his function, he will not be content and happy.

Thus a ruler who merely exercises power to further his own interests

will not achieve happiness, as he is merely indulging his desires and

not acting rationally. This refutation seems to fly in the face of

empirical evidence: many dictators would claim to be perfectly happy and content with their lot.


All three of these refutations attempt to show that men do not desire power for its own sake. Rather, they seek to do what is best for those in their power by acting rationally in their best interests. Let us allow that this is true, though it may well not be. Even if Plato (Socrates) is right about this, he has missed Thrasymachus’ main point. Thrasymachus never said that men desire power for its own sake. He merely said that whatever actions strong men take in pursuing their interests are right. Such interests might well include caring for minorities and looking after all their citizens well. Socrates’ refutations are unnecessary, as Thrasymachus’ definition of justice agrees with them. Thrasymachus’ point is that the strong man’s (or group’s) conception of right must be accepted by those in inferior positions of power. Practically speaking, they have no choice but to do so, although they can always dissent theoretically.
It might seem that Thrasymachus was defending tyranny; he was not. All he was saying was that the morality of a society is identical to the morality of its rulers. The rulers could be a monarchy, a dictatorship, or a democratically elected representative. His Sophist view was that laws are made by the strongest men in a society. While this may be true of legal laws, it is not clear if it is true of moral laws; if it is also true of the moral laws, then there can be no such thing as absolute human rights, since there is no absolute morality. Thrasymachus does not allow for objective moral values, and his theory has consequently been rejected as too subjective.
Glaucon’s and Adeimatus’ Theory

Glaucon and Adeimatus (Plato’s brothers) do not subscribe to the theory that they suggest. They only put it forward so that they can hear Socrates’ rejection of it. Their suggestion is that no one acts virtuously for the sake of virtue itself; people only act virtuously for reasons of expediency. Human beings always have self-interested motivations, although they will often act in accordance with accepted moral principles because doing so serves their best interests. Equally, though, there is nothing wrong with breaking these moral principles in a given circumstance, if doing so will advance their interests more than conformity. It is this last part that Glaucon and Adeimatus find so disturbing: it means that it is acceptable to break consensual moral principles if doing so is to your advantage. The modern name for this theory is psychological egoism. (A variant of it was used by Thomas Hobbes in his political philosophy: see the John Locke part of

Section 4.) This theory reduces justice to the mutual service of selfish

interests; like Thrasymachus’ theory, it denies the existence of objective moral values, and is entirely subjective. Socrates has no simple refutation of this theory. Instead he offers an alternative, his own theory of justice, which he thinks shows the weakness of the selfish theory.


Socrates’ Theory (Plato’s View)

Socrates shifts from the consideration of individual conduct in Glaucon’s and Adeimatus’ theory to consideration of virtue on a larger scale, in the community. He believes that the natures of virtue and justice will be easier to discern given this larger scale. Socrates begins by giving an account of how social organisation comes about. He argues that, since no one is self-sufficient, people have to co-operate in order to obtain what they need to survive and have a secure life. Because of this co-operation, basic necessities will be ensured. This can be done ‘locally’, without anyone in the community going far afield. Once these basic needs are met, demand for luxuries will grow; since these are mainly obtained from ‘abroad’ (or at least far away), sources of supply will have to be found, and an army formed to protect trade routes. Also, it makes sense to have some kind of government that determines the policy of the community as a whole, and the organisation of its social structure. From all this Socrates reaches the conclusion that a community requires three classes of citizen:


1. The Producers: those who provide the goods required by the community, and who generate the community’s wealth (employers and employees).
2. The Auxiliaries: the police, who protect the community from internal dangers, and the army, who protect the community from external dangers.

(In Plato’s time the army carried out both these duties.)


3. The Guardians: those who make and carry out the rules of the state; government.
Each of these classes is characterised by a dominant trait. The producers should possess temperance – willingness to respect and obey the guardians. The auxiliaries should possess courage, so that they are ready to face danger and are good warriors. The guardians should possess wisdom – good judgement, especially regarding moral matters. But as well as these three classes of citizen, the community – or Ideal State as Plato calls it – also has a fourth element, which permeates all the classes and binds them together, ensuring they interact properly. This fourth element is justice; it is the fundamental virtue of a good state.

Justice ensures that the different parts of the state exist in harmony. Using another metaphor, Socrates conceives of the state as an organism. Its different parts (the people who constitute the different classes) are valuable because of their role in keeping the greater whole functioning well. Just as our hearts, lungs, brain and limbs need to function properly for us to function well, so the state needs its citizens, with their different dominant characteristics, to function well. But it is not enough for each part to function well; it must also function in harmony with the other parts. This is the role of justice in the state.


Now that he has established the role of justice in the state, Socrates returns to consideration of the individual. He claims that the three classes of citizen correspond precisely with the main three motives of action in the individual:
The Producers Appetite

The Auxiliaries Spirit

The Guardians Reason
The producers provide for our appetites, the auxiliaries face danger because of their spirit, and the guardians rule because they are the ones who reason well. In the same way that justice harmonises between the three classes of citizen in the state, virtue (in this context meaning individual justice) lies in achieving harmony between appetite, spirit and reason. As Socrates says:
Justice is produced in the soul, like health in the body, by establishing the elements concerned in their natural relations of control and subordination, whereas injustice is like disease and means that this natural order is inverted.’
So justice in the individual consists in harmony between his or her appetite, spirit and reason. Justice in the state consists in harmony between producers, auxiliaries and guardians. Morality is concerned with how efficiently a citizen discharges their role in society. Plato’s Organic Theory of the State, as related by Socrates, maintains that the whole (the state) is more important than the part (the citizen); not only this, but the part gains its worth from its contribution to the state. Plato’s theory also stipulates that some parts are more important than others. One guardian is more important than one producer, just as one brain is more important than one finger.
Socrates’ Reply to Glaucon and Adeimatus

Having established the nature of justice, Plato turns to consideration of democracy; he is not in favour of it, but that is not our concern. Socrates’ subtle reply to Glaucon and Adeimatus should be apparent. Just as he argued against Thrasymachus that people do not seek power for its own sake, so he argues against the ‘selfish theory’ that they should not simply use their power to indulge their desires. Human powers should always be used according to the dictates of the Good for the ‘right ordering of the state and of the individual.’ [VII, 540] Thus control of the community should be left to those who are least likely to be influenced by their desires and ambitions, and who will do what is right for their community. (This is why Plato disliked democracy, as it places governance in the hands of the ignorant and corrupt.) It is obvious that, if there can be certainty about what is right, then there are objective moral standards; the theories put forward by Thrasymachus, Glaucon and Adeimatus denied this.


Socrates makes a convincing case against Thrasymachus when he points out that most people would disagree with his conception of justice as ‘whatever is in the interests of the stronger party’. Many acts are called just which go against the interest of the stronger party. Indeed, is it not the role of justice to ensure that the weaker parties have their interests looked after?
The Problem with Plato’s Theory of Justice

The problem with Plato’s theory of justice is that he never says exactly how we can establish which course of action is the just one. What differentiates a belief that an action is just from knowledge that it is? Plato says that justice is ‘beyond truth and knowledge’, and makes both of these possible. This hardly helps us. But these difficulties arise because Plato is trying to establish the a priori nature of moral truths; he believes they are self-evident, without recourse to empirical evidence, like the truth of 2+2=4. There is no way of demonstrating to someone who denies this proposition that it is true; perhaps the same is true of moral propositions.


Many philosophers believe that Plato was too quick to dismiss alternative theories. Recent developments, such as the controversies surrounding capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, bloodsports and genetic modification suggest that there can be no a priori moral truths, and therefore that Plato’s conception of justice is far too abstract. But if he is right, then anyone who disobeys the imperatives of morality or justice is irrational, since anyone rational will act morally. This, though, is a separate question from the main concerns of justice.



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