Why Bother Being Good if you Could Get Away with Being Bad? (Part 1)

Updated: Mar 17, 2021

Are you a good person? Or perhaps that is too strong. Would you like to think of yourself as a good person? Almost everyone answers this question with a resounding “Yes!” There is something about goodness that we human beings find attractive. We want good steaks, good sex, good kids, good government, and we want a good God. But why? What is it about goodness that is so wonderful?

The ancient Greeks used the word “justice” to describe what we now call moral “goodness.” In fact, St. Paul’s term “righteousness” (dikaiosuné) is derived from the same Greek root as the Platonic term for “justice” (diké.) By “justice,” in this sense, we intend not criminal or social justice but individual justice—the justice of one’s soul. It’s the age-old question: am I a just man?

But the question whether I am just assumes something pretty important, namely that justice is worthwhile. All of us would claim that it is very valuable, for that is why we desire a good or just life. But do you really value it? And, if so, how much?

The philosopher Plato poses this question in the greatest philosophical work ever penned, The Republic. His main dialogical characters—Socrates, Glaucon, Adeimantus—split good things into three categories. Some things are merely good for other things. Consider latrine-digging as an example. Who would ever wish to dig latrines? No one . . . unless that is the way to get a promotion. So, latrine-digging would never be chosen for its own sake but only for the sake of something better. Hence, Plato’s first category includes things chosen only for the sake of other things, never for their own sake.

That brings us to our second kind of good thing, namely something that is not good for other things but good solely for its own sake. Think about happiness. Who says, “I want to be happy in order to ride my bike?” No, we think we will be happier by taking a nice bike ride. So, happiness is that for which we do all the other things, and as such, happiness is something good solely for its own sake. Thus, some goods are sought not for the sake of other things, but solely for their own sakes.

And that brings us to our third category: something that is good both for its own sake and good for the sake of other things. Consider sight. Isn’t it true that sometimes you enjoy seeing just for its own sake? It is delightful just to look at the mountains, the stars at night, or your bride. And, yet, sight also serves as a means to other things, as when I wish to cross the street without getting hit by a car. So, some things can be good both for themselves and good for other things.

Right at the beginning of Book II of The Republic, two friends of Socrates (Socrates is the main character in Plato’s dialogues), Glaucon and Adeimantus, come up to him and ask him into which of these three categories of goods is justice of soul to be placed. “Socrates, is justice something good only for the sake of other things? Is it good solely for its own sake? Or is it good both for the sake of itself and for other things?” (The remaining alternative—that justice is good for nothing—is rejected out of hand because everyone thinks it has some value.)

Perhaps we only choose to be just because we are afraid of the bad societal consequences of living unjustly. If we were really powerful and could avoid social consequences, perhaps we would throw justice to the wind and act unjustly.

Socrates answers by asserting that justice is a good in the third category, both for itself and for the sake of other things. But Glaucon and Adeimantus think he might be mistaken, for they are worried about what we do when no one is looking. In other words, if justice is good for itself, then we should always choose it, even if no one is watching us. But what do we really do? Glaucon thinks that perhaps we only choose to be just because we are afraid of the bad societal consequences of living unjustly. He wonders if we were really powerful and could avoid social consequences, perhaps we would throw justice to the wind and act unjustly.

This really isn’t hard to imagine, is it? Why do we respect Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar? Why is Alexander “great”? Because he conquered half of the world. And Caesar by his own testimony killed a million Gauls. If you run into the next state and shoot ten people, we’ll call you crazy, not great. If you became a world leader and invaded a neighboring country and killed a million people but eventually lost as Hitler did, we’d also call you crazy, not great. But what if you succeeded? What if you crushed all opposition? What if you had so much power that you could do whatever you liked and could get away with it? What if you wrote the history books? Would you then value justice, goodness of soul?

Maybe the only reason we pursue justice is because we are weaklings. If we were really strong, we would just crush all those who got in our way. But because we are weak, we band together with the rest of the weak and invent this commitment to “justice.”

Glaucon and Adeimantus do not think so. They suppose that maybe the only reason we pursue justice is because we are weaklings. If we were really strong, we would just crush all those who got in our way. But because we are weak, we band together with the rest of the weak and invent this commitment to “justice,” so that we have a chance to survive against the more powerful. Thus, justice is merely a means to an end, something chosen only for the sake of other things since, if we really had enough power, we’d reject it in favor of power.

Socrates is faced with a most difficult ethical challenge. He believes that justice is valuable for its own sake, that it is greater than power. And so, we see here Plato pitting power against justice. Which is worth more?

To make this problem concrete, Glaucon and Adeimantus recall an ancient myth about a fellow named Gyges who discovered a magical ring that could make one completely invisible. Everyone has heard of Tolkien’s one ring that rendered Bilbo and Frodo invisible. But Tolkien’s ring is actually rather ineffective, since one leaves footprints behind when one walks, and the Great Eye can always see its user. The worst thing about it is that you have to remove it from your finger in order to turn off its invisibility effects, which means that you can lose it. The Gyges ring is far greater, for you turn it on by twisting a little gemstone mounted on the ring, meaning you can leave the ring securely on your finger at all times. What’s more, it is utterly effective at masking your presence. For example, when you wear this ring, bloodhounds cannot smell you, you can pass through laser light detectors freely, and you leave no footprints behind. The Romulans from Star Trek would be envious of this cloaking device.

So, once Gyges procures this magical ring, he heads to the pub one evening with some friends and, at about 10 o’clock, exclaims, “Hey everybody, I gotta get home early tonight, so I’ll see you all next week.” They all say their goodbyes, and Gyges leaves. But, once outside, he twists the gem on his ring and becomes completely invisible. Then he reenters the pub. Have you ever wondered what your “friends” say about you when you aren’t around? Well, Gyges was that fly on the wall, and oh, did he hear things that evening.

On their way home, his friends run into a series of unfortunate events. One friend keeps tripping over an unseen branch, again and again. The next day another one swears that he felt as though he was constantly running into a fist, and his bloodied lip and nose seemed to confirm this, but he never saw a thing. Gyges laughed about this for a few days until it occurred to him that this ring of his might be useful for much greater adventures than personal vengeance. And so, using his newfound power of invisibility, he eventually murdered the king, seduced the queen, and took over the kingdom—all the while appearing as the noblest man in the land! In an ending right out of Disney, he “lived happily ever after.” Or did he?

If one could be happy with such power, why bother with justice? Why not devote oneself to the art of power, replacing the Bible with The Prince?

Glaucon and Adeimantus wonder if Gyges was happy. If one could be happy with such power, why bother with justice? Why not devote oneself to the art of power, replacing the Bible with The Prince? I mean, ask yourself: if someone offered you a ring like this, what would you do with it? Could you resist its potential for evil?

We can update the story and make it quite provocative with a contemporary scenario. Imagine that you are in possession of the ring of Gyges, and you are walking through town completely invisible. Imagine further that you notice the First National Bank and decide to investigate. You see that the enormous vault is open and wonder what the inside of a bank vault looks like. I mean, is what they show you on TV real? But of course, there is a big sign that reads, “NO UNAUTHORIZED ENTRY,” and so you turn to leave. But, just then, you recall that you are completely invisible, so who can stop your entry? You jump over the turnstile and enter the vault. And you are stunned at what you find.

An enormous block of cash sits before you. Stack upon stack of tightly bound $100 bills are just sitting there in the vault. You recall seeing that Wells Fargo truck leaving the bank just as you arrived, so the presence of so much cash now makes sense. You wonder, too, whether anyone would notice a small stack of bills missing—or maybe more than one. But, since there’d be no possible way of your being found out, you could actually take a lot of that money. And just think what good you could do with it. I mean, imagine if you took one hundred million dollars (leave aside the difficulties associated with actually carrying it out of the bank or the FBI tracking down the serial numbers) and used it for good things, for charities, for schools in the inner cities, for hospitals in the Sudan, for programs to help the mentally ill. But that would be theft, you instantly counter. Your mind stalls for a moment looking at all that green until two words come to mind: Robin Hood. Didn’t Robin steal from the rich to give to the poor? If you were to take the hundred million and keep fifteen percent (oh, okay, let’s make it ten percent) for expenses, you could do an enormous amount of good—surely more good than the bank is going to do with that money just sitting there in a vault.

Unfortunately, your commitment to the truth in your life brings this argument up short because the money is probably the life-savings of tens of thousands of old widows who will starve if you take it. Thus, you’d not be taking from the rich to give to the poor but robbing Peter to pay Paul! That settles it, you think, and you turn to leave.

Not so fast, you realize, as you look at the teller station. There you see four big letters: FDIC. And it hits you! The Federal Government insures all depositors up to $250,000 against any bank thefts. Hence, you’d not be stealing from poor widows at all. And if a poor widow had put more than $250,000 in the bank, she’d not be so poor after all, now would she? No, she wouldn’t. So, you immediately head back into the vault and pick up the first stack of Ben Franklins!

Oh no, another problem occurs to you as you remember your history lessons about Ben Franklin and the early American Patriots. Americans don’t steal from their own country, do they? Would George Washington do that? No, so taking this money really means that you are robbing the government of the USA. And that is completely unacceptable. Sorrow fills your heart, and, in your confusion, you wish for some tea. And the thought of tea following so closely upon the thought of the American patriots allows a fairly potent objection to form in your mind. The American patriots refused to pay the tax on tea and so dumped it into Boston Harbor. In fact, the entire American Revolution was really motivated by exorbitant taxation from Parliament. And what was the tax rate? You try to recall your high school or college history course . . . ah yes, when all was said and done, and all the various kinds of taxes were added together, the American colonists faced a total tax rate of approximately 4% of their annual income. And over that they rebelled.

Hmm . . . you think about your taxes in America now. Federal income taxes, social security taxes, Medicare taxes, state income taxes, local income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, gasoline taxes, tolls on roads, airport taxes . . . when you add it all up, you easily lose 50% of your income to the government. Clearly, the government has been robbing you blind for years, and if the colonists had a just cause for revolt over 4% taxation rates, you’ve got your case made for a 50% taxation rate! Hence, the government has no cause for complaint if you help yourself to your own money. And since you are going to give 90% of it to the very widows and orphans who have been put into that situation by the taxation system in the first place, you are as noble as Robin Hood. So, you pick up the money and leave the bank.

Now, I realize that people are different. Some of you would pick up the money, head out of the bank, break into a sweaty panic, run back into the bank, return the money, and race down the street thinking, “What was I thinking?” Others of you would notice the vault’s workmanship and simply leave the bank and head to greener pastures, like some pistachio ice cream. And still others would need none of the elaborate reasoning I offered; you’d simply pick up the money and head home (or to the mall).

Would you take the money? What is your soul worth? That is the question. Would you be willing to trade the justice of your soul for the sake of great rewards?

But here’s the real question for you: would you take the money? And be honest here, because I can adjust the scenario. If a hundred million dollars seems like just too much to take, then might you help yourself to a mere five thousand? Or if a hundred million is far too little, and you’d go for a billion dollars, then substitute that amount in the scenario! What is your soul worth? That is the question. Would you be willing to trade the justice of your soul for the sake of great rewards (where you could not be caught in principle)?

Some of you will still insist that you’ll not take the money. Maybe you aren’t moved by money? Maybe you just couldn’t live with yourself if you took the money, come what may. But Glaucon and Adeimantus aren’t finished with you yet, and so they press their argument against Socrates. And we’ll advance their argument using the same storyline with which we’ve already begun.

Since you who won’t take the money obviously don’t need the ring, I’ll take it from you and imagine a person who did steal the money. What will his life be like? Well, he will achieve his wildest dreams based on anything that money can buy. Whether money can buy the things that are truly valuable is a great question, but for now we’ll start with what it can buy. Robberies will be occurring all over the world, and our ring-bearer will possess so much wealth that he’ll be able to hire the best money launderers in order to explain away the acquisition of all this wealth. And he’ll quickly realize what all rich people figure out, namely, that it’s not money that really matters but power. With unlimited wealth, you can still only eat so many ice cream cones and enjoy just so many cars or houses or shoes, right? At some point you wish to use your wealth for things that exceed your own consumption, and that usually means social, not personal, power. And so, our ring-bearer will begin to use his money in this way, building hospitals named after saints, establishing scholarships for poor children, creating safe havens for the victims of domestic abuse, and the like. He will thereby earn worldwide praise for his altruism. What’s more, he’ll give money to every kind of cause across the political spectrum, in order to gain the support of all the political parties. Similarly, with respect to religion, he’ll give money to the Christians, to the Buddhists, to the Muslims, etc., all in an effort to gain support among both gods and men. Like the Greeks building that altar to the unknown god, he’ll be covering all his bases. And eventually, he’ll run for political office, but because of his extraordinary philanthropy, he’ll be the first American in history to earn the nominations from both major political parties, and he’ll likely win by a landslide in the election.

However, he’ll have to make an important campaign pledge: to put a stop to the worldwide crime spree. And once elected, that presents a problem, doesn’t it? But since he’s clever, our ring-bearer will have to find himself a patsy, a fall-guy, someone upon whom he can blame the entire criminal enterprise. Well, that’s what we need here, a person who can take the blame for the robberies, and that’s easy enough to arrange. Our ring-bearer takes a few of the jewels from the Tower of London that he didn’t much like, the Mona Lisa from the Louvre (oh yes, that painting, since the smirk on the woman’s face probably bothers him so much), and a few gold bars from Fort Knox and gingerly spreads this loot out among our patsy’s things.

Here we have a just man, who will shortly appear unjust. And our ring-bearing unjust man appears completely just. We have taken the rewards typically attached to justice and reattached them to injustice, as well as taken the penalties typically attached to injustice and connected them to justice. Is justice then worth it?

Now, let’s back up just a moment and consider the nature of the situation. Here we have a just man, the patsy, who will shortly appear unjust. And our ring-bearing President appears completely just but is in fact totally unjust. So, in our scenario, we’ve managed to reverse seeming and being, appearance and reality. And that was exactly what Glaucon and Adeimantus wanted to accomplish: to take the rewards typically attached to justice and reattach them to injustice, as well as to take the penalties typically attached to injustice and connect them to justice. Hence, as our unjust ring-bearer is living a great life, so our just patsy will very shortly be suffering. How, you ask? Back to our story.

So, the FBI receives an anonymous tip, and guess whose apartment they raid? Yours, yes, all of you who insisted that you would refuse to take that money. We’re moving to phase two with you. You passed phase one, for you refused to exchange the value of your soul for great reward. But now we are going to figure out how well you handle pain.

First, you suffer the shame of being arrested and apparently being caught red-handed. Then the police begin to interrogate you, trying to figure out where you stashed the rest of the loot (by this point, the wealth of more than one small nation). Naturally, you insist upon your innocence. And, after a while, the police as well as the people get fed up with your intransigence and “gentle persuasive techniques” are authorized to help encourage your cooperation. But after not sleeping for several weeks and getting hit in the head with a telephone book repeatedly, you still refuse to confess to anything.

Finally, the (unjust) ring-bearing President himself comes in and tells you that if you will pin it all on Senator O’Reilly (his arch-nemesis), then he’ll arrange a full pardon for you. And you naturally refuse that offer too. So, the President arranges a special speech before the nation and declares you a “clear and present danger to the national security of the United States” as well as to the world, since you’ve committed robberies all over the world. Even Amnesty International joins in your condemnation because they were just cleaned out last week! So, the President decides to play hardball with you, and he phones his roommate from college who now works as the curator in a defunct Spanish cathedral. He asks him whether he still has some of that old medieval “equipment” in the church basement, and when his friend assures him that he does indeed, the President sends Air Force One to pick it up. And now you begin to learn the meaning of pain. After being burned, beaten, stabbed, whipped, skinned, stretched, and drowned for a week (Glaucon’s list is even worse in the Republic), the President returns with his original offer: blame it all on Senator O’Reilly and a full pardon and instant relief is yours.

So, we return to the question: would you be willing to trade the justice of your soul to avoid great harm? Would you blame O’Reilly? If you say, yes, then you’ve denied the value of justice as a good in itself, as something that in and of itself is satisfying. And this is just what Glaucon wanted to prove, namely that no one chooses justice except to attain a great reward or avoid a great harm. It’s for this reason that we must use threats to motivate people toward justice. But then why, Glaucon asks, should we bother extolling justice at all? Why don’t we just admit the fact that we’re weak, and that, if we were powerful, we would indeed reject justice in favor of power? Power must be greater than goodness.

Now, I suppose that some of you would still refuse to abandon justice and commit to going out in a blaze of moral glory. But why would you do that? I suppose you might have religious reasons. You might be unwilling to trade your soul for finite rewards compared with the infinite rewards of heaven. And you figure that the unjust President is really going to get his when the final judgment descends! But then, as strange as it might sound, you actually agree with Glaucon against Socrates. Think about what you are saying: you’ll go with the higher bidder on your soul. God offers eternal riches, so, obviously, you’ll opt with him! But then you don’t really value justice for its own sake but only because a just soul is the path to heavenly goodies.

If God could offer you all the pleasures of injustice in this life as well as all the pleasures of heaven for eternity without any condemnation in hell, what would you do?

To help you think about this further, imagine if God said the following, “I hereby decree a reversal of the Ten Commandments. You are now required to steal, to murder, to commit adultery, to bear false witness against your neighbors. In fact, all who obey the original Ten Commandments will go to hell, while those who follow the new commandments will go to heaven.” What would you do? Are you a religious person because you are scared of hellfire and want to walk on golden streets? If so, then, if God could offer you all the pleasures of injustice in this life as well as all the pleasures of heaven for eternity without any condemnation in hell, what would you do?

Now some of you more theologically inclined might object that God would never do this, that the scenario is bunk. But I wonder . . . “Abraham! Abraham! Get your son, your only son Isaac, take him up to the mountain and burn him to crispy waferness as a sacrifice to me!” Are you sure you know what God would and would not require?

Wow! Now we’ve got a very tough question, a horrible challenge to the value of justice. Is there any among us who would stick with justice come what may, regardless of any threats, regardless of any rewards? This is probably the greatest challenge to morality ever offered, and Socrates finds himself reeling from its force. But he does not give up. He still thinks that justice is worth it, even if one suffers horrible tortures. And perhaps you think so too. After all, the stories of the martyrs are compelling. Think of Nathan Hale: “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” And Socrates himself eventually suffered an unjust execution by the Athenian democracy. So, he put his money where his mouth was, so to speak. He believed that justice is necessary and sufficient for happiness. In other words, without a just soul, there is no possible way to be happy. And if you have a just soul, you are happy.

If happiness were whatever we wanted it to be, then we’d all be happy, wouldn’t we? It’s just because it is not what we want it to be, and many of us have never really thought about what it is, that we often find ourselves so far from achieving it.

Now, there are lots of people who would immediately disagree here, aren’t there? Some will say that happiness is different for different people—ice-skating for one, serial-killing for another. But is this really true? Is happiness in its essential form so fickle? If happiness were merely a feeling, then that feeling might well be attached to any particular activity, whether it be skating or killing. But there is some powerful evidence that happiness is more than a feeling. How many of us have realized the distinction between the illusion of happiness and the reality of happiness? We hear about the Hollywood star who has everything and commits suicide. We say that he had the illusion of happiness—the feelings—but not the reality, and his life rang hollow. If we recognize that distinction, then happiness has to be more than a feeling. Otherwise, if I offer you a syringe full of “H” (is it happiness or heroin?), is that happiness? Is happiness that easy? If not, if real happiness differs from its illusion, then happiness must be far more than feelings. This is the view that Socrates advances, that it is something real with a determinate structure that is the way it is, regardless of what we wish it were. And this is the reason that so many of us are unhappy. I mean, let’s be serious: if happiness were whatever we wanted it to be, then we’d all be happy, wouldn’t we? It’s just because it is not what we want it to be, and many of us have never really thought about what it is, that we often find ourselves so far from achieving it.

But asserting that justice is necessary and sufficient for happiness is a far cry from proving it. And so, Socrates must now proceed to prove his case, that justice is a good in itself, regardless if all of its usual rewards are detached from it and reattached to the evil man, and regardless if all of the usual penalties of injustice are detached from injustice and reattached to the just man. Even here, Socrates will argue in the rest of the Republic, justice is worth it.

Oh! I see that time has run away with me and we will just have to stop this posting at this point. What’s that? You want to know how Socrates will resolve the greatest threat to morality ever offered? While it is usually the case that I try to answer these tough questions in this forum, I’m going to hold off on that this time, not because I don’t know what Socrates is going to say, but because I want you to mull it over yourself. In fact, if you’d like to add your two cents about what you’d do with the ring and why you’d do it, become a site member today (it’s free), and you can then post comments on the blog! If you are already a site “subscriber,” it turns out there is a difference between being a site member and being a site subscriber—it took me a while to figure that out too. At any rate, become a member with your own login and you can post comments to the blog. I’ll do a “Part II” showcasing Socrates’ remarkable solution to this challenge in the near future. But in the meantime, really think about this: if justice truly is greater than power, how can we show that? Because if we can, then we will understand why we cannot ever be happy without being just people. And that is a wisdom our people desperately need today.

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