This post is based on chapter 6 of Julia Annas’s book ‘An Introduction to Plato’s Republic’. This considers the question of justice as discussed in Book 4 of the Republic.
In Book 4, Plato’s main argument is that justice is a case of having inner harmony between the three parts of the soul – reason, passion, and desire. Reason is the paramount part, and controls the other two, which both work to carry out the dictates of reason. Justice is analogous to health in that it benefits someone to maintain their own inner harmony.
On an initial reading of Book 4, Plato provides no arguments to suggest how ‘inner harmony’ affects our everyday sense of justice, that is, how we judge right and wrong when we interact with other people. The inner harmony argument only seems to be concerned with the agent’s own internal state. It says nothing about other people. The best Plato offers is an assertion that Platonic justice includes everyday justice. He does this by proposing that a ‘just’ person (one possessing inner harmony) would never perform unjust actions. However, this doesn’t really address the original challenge as raised by Thrasymachus. Why is being just more worthwhile than being unjust?
Plato re-iterates his earlier point about the just person. Someone who is just will not be unduly persuaded by money or pleasures of the body. However, all this tells us is that passion and desire will never cause a person to act unjustly. But what about reason? What if reason decides that acting unjustly is the correct thing to do? The person would still possess inner harmony in this case, so under Plato’s definition, you cannot say that he is acting unjustly. Reason acting alone does not guarantee just behaviour. It seems then that Plato has not adequately responded to Thrasymachus’s challenge.
To try to get around this difficulty, Annas notes that we can distinguish ethical theories on the basis of whether they are act-centred or agent-centred. Act-centred looks at the consequences of an act, and determines if these are morally right or wrong. Kant and utilitarianism are examples of act-centred theories. An agent-centred theory focuses on attaining a state of mind that corresponds to the just person. The right thing to do in any one circumstance is what a good person would do.
Plato’s theory is an agent-centred theory in that it focuses on having the right state of ‘inner harmony’. In the process, Plato dismisses the arguments of Cephalus and Polemarchus, who thought justice was more a case of following rules and acting in accordance with duty. By arguing that ‘inner harmony’ is preferable, Plato is also stating that justice is preferable as it benefits the agent himself. It isn’t a case of following any rules or pre-existing duties. Thrasymachus’s original challenge related more to justice under an act-centred approach, however Plato wants to reject this by showing that the agent-centred approach is better.
Having then argued the case for Platonic justice, can we find anything in Book 4 to suggest that Plato also intends to cover the ordinary sense of justice? Plato notes that a just person will not be one who rigidly follows rules, as this fails to promote virtue. For Plato, virtue is a case of establishing inner harmony of the soul. A good person knows what is the morally correct action without having to worry about what society says is correct. In effect then, Plato is not saying that ANY particular type of act is immoral. Even something like cannibalism might be the morally correct thing to do in certain circumstances. In later books of the Republic, Plato will stress the need for the just person to have an in-depth philosophical knowledge, and will therefore not require any form of empirical evidence.
However, Plato does speak of a ‘moral consensus’ arising in society, so this suggests that he does recognise certain practices being declared as moral or immoral depending on what society dictates. The Guardians will be driven by truth in their search for ultimate principles. They will reject any attempt to distort or deceive each other (even if they are happy to tell ‘white lies’ to the rest of the population). Because the Guardians are just, they will do whatever is right in the circumstances, and this may involve having to tell a lie.
One criticism of this is that it assumes that some members of society have more rights than others, and it is quite OK for the intellectually superior to tell the less superior what they should be doing. This does not seem especially just. Plato will explore this point further in the central books of the Republic.
To sum up Book 4, Plato has argued that justice is a state worth having for itself and not just for its consequences. In Books 8 and 9, Plato will return to this theme and argue that justice is worth having for its consequences as well (the consequence being happiness). In the process, Plato rejects the idea that justice should be based on rules and the consequences of an action. Rather, justice is based on what a ‘good person’ would do in the circumstances.