Why Be Moral? Plato, The Republic Book II

Plato: Introduction to Why Be Moral (aka Glaucon’s Challenge)

The first question of philosophy is “how should I live?” Implicit in this question is a similar question: “what does living a good life entail?”  Amongst other things, over the course of The Republic, Plato tries to answer this question. One of the central issues to be resolved in answering the above questions is whether being moral is required for the good life.  If it is, then presumably moral person will live a “more good” life than an amoral person.  The further implication is that there is some value in living a moral life that living an amoral life doesn’t have.  

In this passage from Book II of the Republic, Plato attempts to defend the view that we should behave morally/justly for its own sake rather than for the potential beneficial consequences.    In philoso-talk we’d say acting morally is also a good “in itself” and not just an instrumental good.

An instrumental good is something that is good because of some consequence it brings about.  For instance, money is an instrumental good because it is a means to obtaining some other goods like paying for our university education or going on vacation. The “good” that money possess is to allow us to get the things that are more gooder than money.  If money didn’t allow us to get good things, it would cease to have any value.  It’d just be colored paper.

An intrinsic good is a good that has value not because it allows us to get other things but because it just fundamentally is good.  Things that are intrinsic goods might include happiness and pleasure.

Anyhow, in this passage, Glaucon and Adeimantus argue that people only behave justly because (a) they are afraid of the consequences of getting caught acting unjustly or (b) they are too weak or cowardly to do what they really want to do or (c) they pursue the instrumental value of being perceived as just.  People don’t act justly because they see some intrinsic value in behaving justly.

Note:  Although they aren’t completely equivalent, for our purposes we can use the word “moral” interchangeably with how Plato uses “just”.

Setting the Scene:  Justice Is Only an Instrumental Good, It Has No Intrinsic Value
Glaucon identifies 3 categories of goods:  (1)  purely intrinsic, (2) intrinsic but also having good consequences, (3) purely instrumental goods.  In the first category we can put things like (harmless) pleasures and happiness.  We don’t want them because of any additional consequence they might bring us.  We don’t seek happiness in order to obtain some other thing.  We just want happiness as an end in itself.  Same goes for pleasure. 

In the second category are things that are ends in themselves but also bring about further good consequences.  Health is something we desire for itself but also for its consequences:  being healthy “just is” good but it allows us to enjoy aspects of life we can’t enjoy without it.

In the third category are things like money.  If money didn’t allow us to get the things we really wanted, it would have no value–we wouldn’t try to get it.  Since money is an instrumental good, it has no value of its own.  It’s value is only in the other things it allows us to get.

The Main Issue:  Glaucon says justice (or behaving morally) belongs to the third category.  Justice is an instrumental good.  People only behave morally because of what it gets them (or what being perceived as failing to behave morally will get them): acting morally gets you a good reputation and status–the real goods we’re after.  Like money, behaving morally isn’t desirable in itself.  Doing so is a burden without the consequent benefits.

Socrates on the other hand says justice belongs in the second category.  It is good in itself and it has good consequences.  

In this passage, Glaucon presents his argument for why justice is a purely instrumental good rather than a good that also has intrinsic value.  Part of his argument is also to show why acting morally isn’t an intrinsic good. 

Argument 1:  What Justice Is and Where it Comes From
Justice is the result of a compromise against having to suffer injustice and the benefits of being able to act unjustly.  Consider a pre-legal group of individuals living in the same area;  i.e., people in the “state of nature.”  If there are no laws and you are stronger than others you can take and do what you want. This is good (for you).  However, in such a state you’re also vulnerable to people or groups of people doing the same to you…which would really suck.  Justice is a way of reconciling this situation: in order to protect themselves from being at the receiving end of unjust acts, people enter into a contract of laws.

The down side is people no longer get to take and harm whomever they want whenever they want.  In short, people enter into a society of laws, not because they think justice is intrinsically good, but because they don’t want to be at the receiving end of injustice.  What most people actually desire is be able to do whatever they want.  If you suspended all laws, this is exactly how people would behave.  In short, this proves that people don’t act justly because they see it as some intrinsic good, rather, they do it for other reason. They do it as a means to avoid harm done by others:  just behavior is an instrumental good.  Boom! Goes the dynamite. 

Issue:  Is Glaucon correct that people only enter into social contracts to avoid harm?

Issue:  Is Glaucon giving a purely descriptive account of people’s behavior or is he putting forward a meta-ethical position?  What might his meta-ethical position be?

Issue:  Glaucon implies that the law is a perversion of our natural desires: it is the middle road between what is good (acting on our natural desires without consequence) and what is bad (suffering injustice without being able to avenge one’s self).  This implies that the true good life would be act on our natural desires without their being impinged upon.  Is he right?

The Ring Thought Experiment
Glaucon then proposes a thought experiment that has an eerie resemblance to Lord of the Rings (plagiarism alert!). Suppose someone we considered to be just found a ring that could make herself invisible.  It’s inconceivable that this person wouldn’t take advantage of this in someway to advance her position in a way that she wouldn’t without the ring.  Eg.  eavesdropping on conversations, stealing expensive things, free friends and family from prison (I’d love to get my family out of prison), etc… Even if she didn’t advance her own position, maybe she’d do things to help her loved ones (that she couldn’t do otherwise).  This again goes to show that we don’t value justice in itself because given the chance to do injustice, we will do it.  Given the opportunity, we will act according to what benefits us and/or our loved ones.

But what if the honest person with the ring didn’t take advantage of the rings powers to benefit themselves or loved-ones?  If we found out, we might publicly praise them as to preserve our public image as just individuals, however in private we’d say this person is a fool!

Issue:  Is the fact that everyone else might think this person a fool an argument against the intrinsic value of acting morally?  

Issue: “We would catch the just man red-handed going the same way as the unjust man out of a desire to get the better […].”  Is this true?

Uber-Just Man vs Uber-Unjust Man
If being just has value in itself, then that value should be visible to even the unjust.  But consider the following:  there a person who only does things for justice-sake.  He doesn’t care about the reputation or praise he acquires for his acts.  In fact, lets suppose that he gets none of these benefits.  Not only that but the just man is perceived to be the exact opposite!  For every just act, he gets accused of being unjust and is punished accordingly.  Yet, he continues to act this way.  In other words, lets strip away from acting justly all the instrumental goods and see if there is any good left over.  If there is, then Socrates might have a case.  If not, then he doesn’t.

On the other hand, consider the most unjust man of diabolical cleverness.  He does everything for personal gain no matter what the consequences to others.  No only that, but because he is so clever, he is perceived to be and praised as just!  This is true injustice!  He can harm his enemies, help his friends, he wins all contests.  He has power, wealth, and reputation to bring about or rectify whatever he wants.  If he gets caught or is accused of injustice he can uses his resources to coerce or persuade his detractors.  In short, this person gets all the instrumental goods associated with being perceived to be just but doesn’t get any of the yet-to-be established intrinsic goods for actually being just.  

Lets consider how we might perceive the life of each.  The just man lives and dies despised by all because they all perceive him as unjust.  The maximally unjust man lives a life of happiness and is perceived to be honorable and just by all.  He has wealth, friends, power, status, and his own realty tv show.  Who would you say had the better life?  If justice is an intrinsic good then we must answer it was the just man.  But this is contrary to what most consider to be a good life.

Issue:  What is the measure of a good life?  Glaucon seems to imply it is measured by happiness.  Is he right?  

Issue: Is Glaucon right that a good life being able to do whatever you please while maintaining reputation for being just?

Issue:  Could any good come out of the uber just man’s life?

Issue:  Glaucon’s initial line of argument was to show that there in no intrinsic good in being just.  To illustrate his point he compares the life of the uber just and uber unjust man in terms of happiness.  Is this an effective line of argument?

If that doesn’t convince you that justice is merely an instrumental good, then Adeimantus has a different argument…

Justice Vs Appearance of Justice
When we teach our children to be moral why do we do it?  Is it simply because we want for them to be just; full stop?  Or is it because we want our children to have the things that perceived just behavior attracts such as respect and a good reputation?  It seems like it’s the latter.

Issue:  Is this why we teach our children to be moral?  Is it so they can function in society or is it because we believe there is some intrinsic good that comes out of being just apart from the desirable social consequences?

Reward and Punishment
Also, consider another reason for which parents implore their children to be just.  If they aren’t just, they are told they will be punished in the afterlife but if they are just they will be rewarded.  Again, this is not an argument for the intrinsic good of being just, but one more example of why acting morally is an instrumental good.  If you act morally YOU will be rewarded, if not YOU will be punished.  As one of my favorite professors (Dr. G. Brown) called it, this is “‘lolly-pop’ morality.”  If you’re good, you get a lolly pop.  If you’re bad, you get punished.  This has everything to do with personal interest and nothing to do with intrinsic good.

Justice is Difficult and Unprofitable and Injustice is Sweet, Easy, and Shameful only by Opinion and Law
Acting unjustly is sweet and easy.  Also, many unjust people are happy and looked up to (often because of their gains–not from the gym, tho).  On the other hand, justice is difficult and often runs counter to personal interest.  To make matters worse, those that live justly and in poverty are often looked down on while those who got rich off of unjust actions are looked up to (see: contemporary American culture).

The Unjust Can Escape Divine Justice
God/gods can be bought off or can grant forgiveness (often hand in hand).  The rich man with his ill-gotten gains can make a sizable donation to whatever religious organization he belongs to and be forgiven.  Or after a lifetime of ill-gotten gains and immoral behavior, he can ask for forgiveness.  God/gods can be persuaded. Instead of struggling through life, why not live the fun life then pay off the gods/ask for forgiveness at the end?

The very gods can be moved by prayer too.
With sacrifices and gentle vows and
The odor of burnt and drink offerings,
human beings turn them aside with
their prayers,
When someone has transgressed and
made a mistake

All the sources we have to know about God/gods tell us this is true.  The evil can be forgiven on their death bed even.  

The Seeming Overpowers the Truth
Given the difficulty and lack of any guarantee of happiness or reward for being good and all the benefits that come with being perceived as just, why would anyone choose to be just?  What value is there?  It seems clear:  it makes way more sense to seem just than to be just.  This way you get all the instrumental benefits and none of the self-sacrifice.

Sure, it’s not always easy to get away with things, but this is why you need to cultivate your skills of persuasion (i.e., take phil 102) and organize into secret societies to impose force and coerce when necessary.

Issue:  Is it true that “Seeming just is what leads to a happy life, there is no intrinsic value in being just” and “the seeming overpowers even the truth.”

But what about God/gods?  If there are none or they don’t care about human affairs, then it makes no difference.  If there are God(s), the books through which we know them tell us they can be “persuaded and perverted by sacrifices, soothing vows, and votive offerings”.

Sympathy for the Wicked
If someone can show these arguments to be false and has an argument for why we should be just (rather than appear to be just), he must have great sympathy for those who do injustice.  The arguments in favor of seeming to be just are very compelling and so it should be understandable to someone who comprehends them, yet opposes them, why people adhere to them.

Haters Gonna Hate
Also, it seems that the only reason people are willingly just is because they lack the power, courage, or strength to act as they truly would if they could.  (See:  Nietzsche) 

Why Be Moral?
Can you think of any reasons for being just other than the instrumental benefits?  What good does the unjust man who appears just miss out on that just man who appears unjust gains?  And even if we can show some good that the just man gains, does it outweigh all the instrumental goods the clever unjust man gains?

Boom! Goes the Dynamite.

Issue: Is this true? “In all history there is not one who praised justice for something other than its consequences: reputation, honors, and gifts that come from it.”

7 thoughts on “Why Be Moral? Plato, The Republic Book II

  1. Really? You’re teaching now? If that is the case, and your blog posts are for educational purposes, then I must urge you to get a better grasp of the English language since there are numerous grammatical errors and peer-unsupported neologisms such that a student might find your posts confusing, at best, or misleading, at worst. Informality has its place, certainly, but is about as appropriate to an educational setting as having sex with your students (you didn't, right?).I’m heartened to see you took my previous advice concerning the expression of your own opinions, instead of simply reiterating the opinions of others: it certainly affords a rhetorical value to your arguments that was previously lacking. However, regarding your section headed “Sympathy for the Wicked,” I feel I must counter that ‘understanding’ does not necessarily connote ‘sympathy’. Perhaps you are confused by the translation of the term ‘mitleid’, from Nietzsche’s native German, which correlates more closely with the English concept of ‘pity’ (see \”The Anti-Christ,\” F. W. Nietzsche), being an emotional response that Nietzsche himself would have vilified.One can ‘understand’ without either ‘sympathy’ or synonymous ‘pity’, since a more appropriate synonym for ‘understanding’ in this case is ‘cognizance’, which connotes how one can be in possession of awareness and knowledge on a purely intellectual level without feeling even the smallest degree of pity nor any other emotional response for a subject. A person who ‘understands’ the behaviour of sociopaths may be entirely 'unsympathetic' to their plight.You boldly cite Nietzsche, but evidently without truly comprehending, beyond anything but the most superficial of levels, or perhaps wilfully misinterpreting to suit your own purposes (as did the German nationalists and neo-Nazis before you), his concept of ‘Noble/Master Morality’ which values open-mindedness, courage, truthfulness, trust and an accurate sense of self-worth: in describing possible reasons for moralistic behaviour, you entirely overlook that which Nietzsche held as central to his philosophy, i.e. that a ‘noble man’ is able to determine for himself (please forgive the masculo-centrism – this is antiquated source material that predates considerations for gender equality) that which accords honour to things, that which determines the creation of value, without the need for social consensus or public approval.


  2. An accurate sense of self-worth alone is sufficient to enable a person to determine that which is ‘moral/just/good’, as you describe in your post, setting aside any concept of divine or societal judgement: a ‘noble man’ conducts himself in such a fashion that his own sense of self-worth is not compromised by his behaviour, that he may live a life without regretting his actions at the end thereof. Nietzsche saw and explained this quite clearly in the concepts of ‘nobility’ and ‘honour’. There is a simple reason why you were not able to comprehend this for yourself: you lack what Nietzsche would have described as ‘nobility’, i.e. that which sets a man apart as a person of substance and self-determination, that which makes him a ‘master’, instead of a ‘slave’ characterized by pessimism and cynicism, exerting one's will not by masterful strengths of character but by careful, passive-aggressive subversions.The equivalent of 'nobility' in Buddhism, much admired by Nietzsche as a religion promoting critical thought processes, would be the quality of ‘wisdom’, by which, hand-in-hand with the complimentary qualities of courage and compassion, one is able to determine a course of action resulting in value-creation over those that do not, or those of more limited capacity such as those creating value only for oneself, i.e. selfish and self-promoting or nepotistic actions. Nietzsche's 'noble man' is capable of acting for the 'greater good' even in cases when this results in persecution for his actions, because when all is said and done he remains self-assured that he committed to the 'right/just/good/noble/etc.' course of action, and finds comfort and solace in this fact.Should you take the trouble to look back over your life, I imagine you would see a pattern of such behaviour, wherein you used your persuasive skills (Phil 102) to subvert others into complying with your wishes and fulfilling your desires contrary to their own, thereby turning ‘masters’ into ‘slaves’ like yourself. This is not the behaviour of a ‘noble man’, as Nietzsche would have understood it.Out of concern (but not ‘pity’) for your health I should point out at this stage that you have been identified by your words and deeds as expressing potentially sociopathic tendencies by a qualified mental health professional, and I strongly urge you to seek an independent clinical diagnosis and treatment for that condition. I refer you, and anyone who knows you, to the following website for further information:http://www.wikihow.com/Determine-if-Someone-Is-a-SociopathI sincerely wish you the best, and hope that clinical treatment will ultimately lead to future value-creation in your life, and in the lives of those adversely affected.


  3. Dear gfreetek, I thank you for your valuable feedback and the time and care with which you wrote it. I won't have time to adequately respond to your criticism this week, but I will make an effort to reply over the weekend. In the meantime, I'll do my best to curtail my sociopathic tendencies. Also, you'll be happy to know that my job comes with health insurance and so I will look into whether is covers clinical treatment for my sociopathic condition. I'll keep you posted.


  4. Mr. Amitabha, Maybe the unjust man’s life is happy, but he spreads negative consequences around. Maybe the just man’s life is misunderstood but he spreads justice around. Perceived or not, it can be added in the aggregate and to all the people who’s lives he has touched. In the aggregate, the just man’s life is WAY better. From a personal perspective, his life sucks. It sucks to be misunderstood (Elvis and The Animals know). However that is one man’s life against all the justice he brings to others! Bring it on Justice Man. He knows for himself about all that aggregate good he does. The perception of the unjust man is equivalent in the opposite direction. Lots of people love him though he does them wrong. Reminds me of certain presidents. Nex queshon. In the example of the extreme unjust man: will an unjust man’s life be happy if he always has to concern himself with getting the better of others by treating them unjustly? Maybe he’ll get caught one day. It doesn’t happen because this is a made up scenario, but it might! He’ll never know until his head hits that last pillow. How many criminals live an unhappy life, even when they succeed? Happy unjust people have a name: sociopath. Dan Ariely in “The Honest Truth about Dishonesty” found that it wasn’t the getting caught that caused people to be honest, it was the social contract, personal dignity or facing the disappointment of a loved one if they found out…in other words “social and personal consequences”. Thank you Dr. Brown. He seems like a Just Man.


  5. Mr. PIn the example of the parent teaching the child to be just: they teach their child that “even without consequences in this life, there will be consequences in the afterlife”. But now comes the question: why would they say that, unless there WERE consequences, even unseen to the child, in THIS life, or at least they think there are? Moses bringing the Ten Commandments down was his way of saying, “Hey, I didn’t give you these laws, God did.” He darn well wanted the laws, so he said “God did it”. Parents know the intrinsic value of justifity, so they teach it like it’s God’s word (unless they’re economists). The statement “see contemporary American culture” is of those looking at some dude on a TV screen, not meeting him in real life! Real life is different. How many of your favourite musicians/actresses/politicians would you hate if you had to deal with them in real life? While at the same time I might become good friends with Kenny G. if I met him. But his music is pure evil. Also, take that favorite, @sshole musician, he might be a jerk just for the cameras because he thinks like you, “People like it”, but be a super-duper guy in real life. Just my humble opinion. Love the blog.


  6. Dear gfreetek,Again, thank you for taking the time to comment on my blog. Here are a couple of replies to what you have said:(1) Regarding original content: (a) As stated in the header of the blog, the main intent of this blog is to provide summaries of articles and issues that philosophy undergrads will likely encounter. The intent is not to produce new philosophical work. (b) I understand how you might perceive my lack of original work as a sign of intellectual poverty, however, I think this is to misunderstand good scholarship. Consider an analogy to science. Modern science has been around (arguably) for 300 years–depending on where you want to mark the beginning. With this in mind, how would we regard someone who, without reading and engaging with previous literature, went out to \”prove\” some hypothesis? I think most would regard this as foolish and perhaps a bit arrogant. Now consider philosophy. For most major issues, there is not just 300 years of thought and literature but well over 2000 years. To my mind it would be positively foolish and arrogant for me to come up with my own philosophical theories on these matters without having a good grasp of what has already been said. As I understand it, the point of academia is to engage in an ongoing dialogue and to eventually contribute something original to it. This cannot occur without prior engagement and comprehension. Of course, one might say that after an MA one should know all there is to know about the respective dialogue. But this assumption would betray that persons ignorance regarding the sheer quantity of views, arguments, counter-arguments, and replies there are on any given topic. An MA only gives me a superficial knowledge of what the major positions are. Perhaps, there are people more gifted than I that can immediately contribute in original ways without repeating what was already said millennia ago…Unfortunately my cognitive abilities are limited in that respect.(2) Regarding the Nietzsche comment I consulted a professor who teaches classes on Nietzsche before including it. I suppose he could be wrong… Also, as I'm sure you well know, Nietzsche was very well read in Plato and drew quite heavily on aspects his ethics (see: GofM).(3) Your primary criticism of this article concerns a parenthetical remark about Nietzsche. I thank you for your subsequent discourse on Nietzsche's ethics however it is largely irrelevant to the content of the post. If you have any substantive constructive criticism (i.e., not typos or minor grammatical errors) regarding how I am explaining the actual passage I'm addressing in the post, I and subsequent readers would be very grateful. Once again, I appreciate your input and will continue to take it into account in future posts.


  7. Strange: I didn't mention 'original content', but rather indicated that the blog content was made more interesting to read (and comment upon) by you expressing your own opinion by at least choosing to agree with someone else, which was lacking in previous posts I've read. So that makes roughly two thirds of your response irrelevant.Re: (2) certainly, the professor could have been wrong, but you could also have misinterpreted his meaning, as many have misinterpreted Nietzsche himself.Re: (3) actually, my main 'criticism' of the article was in the informal (poor) use of English, which is unlikely to help struggling students understand the material. The rest of my comment, far from being irrelevant to the content of the post, was an outright and substantive disagreement with the opinion you decided to express throughout, with which I completely undermined your claim (by using your own citations, no less) that there is no reason to behave morally except to obtain the benefits of being perceived as a moral person and explained (as did 'Anonymous November 12, 2013 at 5:09 PM') that this is sociopathic thinking.If this is indeed an expression of your own opinion, it would seem to indicate that your intent in entering the teaching profession is not a noble one, i.e. that you amorally seek to obtain the perceived benefits of being a teacher without the onus. That being said, you never answered my parenthetical question regarding having sex with your students….


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