Might Makes Right: The Illusion of Strength

Originally written for an OSU philosophy class.

How would you go about responding to the Thrasymachean position (in Republic 1-2) that "justice is the property of the stronger" (might makes right)? How would you convince a bully that s/he is not just in engaging in bully-behavior? Again, be sure to lay out exactly what position you're discussing.

In Plato's Republic, the subject of justice is discussed at length. Socrates and his competitors strive to determine what justice is and is not. Thrasymachus proposes a position that has been echoed to the present, that "justice is what is good for the stronger" or 'might makes right' (338c). Thus in living one's life, it is injustice that will make one's life better, not the traditional values of justice one is used to. Is this true? I will argue, as Socrates does in The Republic, that it is not.

Both Socrates and Thrasymachus agree that what is good for a person is just (339b). They disagree in the fact that Socrates views the beneficiary of justice to be the common man, while Thrasymachus views it as the strong. Classic justice helps all mankind, specifically those who uphold it. Justice of the strong means that the rules are followed only by the weak. It is the powerful who reap the reward of the obedience of the weak. They make laws to keep the weak in their control. Then they break the laws for their own advantage. It is these two views that must be weighed against each other. Depending on which is true, we should strive to live our lives in very different ways.

Thrasymachus clarifies that justice is good only when the strong are truly strong. That is, if justice is the weak following rules to the advantage of the strong, it is only good when the strong make rules truly in their best interest. Else the laws would be followed to their detriment, and justice would be both good and bad for them (339e). So, to the extent that they don't make mistakes, making them weaker, justice is the good for the strong (341). He maintains that justice only serves the strong, whoever is in that category at the time.

Socrates argues for his position saying that an art or skill is concerned with the good of its subject not itself, so an authority is concerned with the good of those under him. A doctor helps those in his care as does a ruler look after those under authority. Therefore justice is an advantage for the weaker because those on top are really looking out for the best interest of those under them (343).

Thrasymachus counters that shepherds fatten their sheep with their own interest in mind not the sheep (343b). Justice is what is good for the ruler. So thus far, it is inconclusive. Depending on the motivation of those in power, either definition of justice could fit. If the rulers are using their position for the advantage of those they are ruling, then Socrates is right. If they are doing so for their own profit, then obeying them helps only them and Thrasymachus has a valid point.

Another argument against a traditional value of justice is that just people are worse off than the unjust that use the just to make themselves happy (343d). "What is just is what is good for the stronger, whereas injustice is what is profitable and good for oneself" (344c). Not only is justice beneficial only to the strong, injustice is the way in which one can succeed for oneself. It is claimed that advantage will be had in wealth and power using unjust methods. This is possible, as history has shown. Thus this strikes a powerful blow for "might makes right". Tyrants and kings throughout the world use injustice for personal gain. It seems that Thrasymachus is right unless it can be shown that there is an additional negative consequence to injustice that outweighs its benefits. Or that justice leads to rewards greater than those of wealth and power.

Socrates states that no one rules for pleasure, they demand to be paid (345e) and tries to separate the idea of earning a living from arts and skills such as shepherding (346c), thus nullifying Thrasymachus point about the shepherds fattening their sheep. He says that rulers provide what is good for their subjects not themselves. That is why they demand payment (347). I ask, what of those who rule for power, fame, and riches; for unjust reasons. While it is true that some people are eager to lead clubs and organizations to help those who are members, others take delight in the fact that they are on top. Many of these will use unjust methods to get to the top, expecting some reward in money, power, or recognition once they are there. So, in a way, Socrates comment is accurate. Those who rule often do so for some benefit or else they wouldn't do it. Still whether they are helping themselves or helping others depends on the motivation of those in charge. This is difficult to know and could be argued either way.

So Socrates gives three arguments against an unjust life being more fulfilling. First, he says that though Thrasymachus claims that the unjust are wise and good, they are in fact ignorant. It is the unjust who competes to outdo the just and the just who would not compete against those also just (350b). Yet, the ignorant will compete to outdo the wise, the unskilled to outdo the skilled. The knowledgeable person is wise and the wise person is good. Hence, it is the unjust that are ignorant and bad (350c). They cannot succeed the righteous way, so they must cheat to try to gain advantage. Secondly, Socrates claims that injustice creates factions and disharmony both in society and an individual (352c). The unjust find themselves incapable of action and enemy to everyone. Thirdly, he states that the function of a soul is decision-making and living life. Justice is the quality that perfects the soul to do its job, therefore good decisions and a good life will belong to the just (353e).

If true these arguments are convincing. After all, if a just person is wise and good, living in co-operation with themselves and all those around them, while making good decisions, it is hard to see how their life would be unhappy. Socrates has hit a key point. Unjust behavior is ultimately self destructive while just behavior builds one up. Acting unjustly may bring temporary power, wealth, or fame, but it does so at the cost of relationships and inner peace. Justice and love are at the heart of wise decision making that will help one get the most out of life. Not only does injustice have negative consequences that outweigh material benefits, justice is rewarding in terms of peace and happiness.

It is here that Glaucon picks back up the debate. He argues that justice is done out of necessity, as a contract between people, and injustice would reign if there were no consequences (359b). People only act just because of the social penalty of injustice. If they were really strong enough they could avoid those pitfalls and would certainly act unjustly. He says, "Those who practice justice do so reluctantly, being too weak to do wrong" (359b). If, for instance, the unjust could retain a just reputation while promoting injustice, they would get the best deal. They would still receive the benefits of co-operation and respect while the benefits of wealth and power of the unjust.

While his analogy of the rings of invisibility is a good commentary on human nature, it is inconclusive on the benefits of injustice.1 Man may find himself compelled to do unjust things to his own detriment if his desires are evil. Just because everyone would do this does not mean that doing these things would be good for us or make us happy in the long run. If we are always invisible, getting away with crimes, what time is spent where people get to know us? People crave to be understood. Can we live two lives, one of pleasure and injustice in secret, and one of apparent justice in the open? We cannot. Inner turmoil and the ill effects of unjust behavior on us and others will still be destructive.

Glaucon's definition of the perfectly unjust is also unrealistic, as no one can cover all their mistakes and their reputation for injustice will rob them the benefit of a good reputation. Adeimantus tries to address this in line 365d saying "nothing great was every easy". I think it not only difficult, but impossible to hide evil deeds forever as their effects become evident. Humans do not have the self-discipline or power to control events and their outcomes that well. The might that is needed to make justice good for the strong is not possible.

Adeimantus also argues that injustice is shameful only in the reputation it brings (364). I argue that injustice is harmful not just in reputation but that being unjust harms oneself, being self-destructive in internal faction and potentially outwardly destructive. If gods are not deceived by hypocrisy then they will not reward injustice. The Greek assumption is that the gods can either be ignored or appeased and that they have no concern for intent or attitude. The God of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam cannot be deceived so easily. This God may punish the unjust even if their reputation is intact on earth.

Though it appears that injustice can be a shortcut to the things we desire, this is not the case. Unjust actions have negative consequences beyond our control. Thus in living one's life it is justice that is actually fulfilling and worthy. Justice aids all while injustice harms not only those who are wronged but ultimately the one who fancies himself the stronger.

Ferrari, G.R.F. ed. Plato: The Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

1. Glaucon tells a story of a ring that makes its wearer invisible. He argues that if two such rings existed and were given one to a just man and one to an unjust man that their actions would ultimately be similar. "No one could bring himself to keep his hands off other people's possessions...if he was free to take whatever he liked...or go into people's houses and sleep with anyone he liked; or if he could kill or release from prison anyone he chose, and in general go round acting like a god among men" (360c).