Using Julia Annas’s ‘Introduction to Plato’s Republic’ as a starting point, this post considers Book 1 of the Republic, as discussed in chapter 2 of Annas’s book.
Book 1 is a typical Socratic dialogue in which Socrates attempts to prove that all the common views of ‘justice’ are faulty and lacking in depth. At this stage, Socrates does not offer an alternative theory of justice. He simply wants to show that all the typical views of justice do not really get to the heart of what justice is. Indeed, this is why Plato has set the scene for Book 1 in the way he has. He wishes to display everyday conceptions of justice as part of a normal conversation, that is, what people would really say in practice.
The first character to offer a view of justice is the old man, Cephalus. He believes that money plays an important role in justice. As a result, a poor man finds it hard to be just. The rich man, on the other hand, can die in tranquillity. He has a clear conscience about having lived a good life. Therefore for Cephalus, morality is a case of observing a few rules such as ‘don’t lie’ and ‘give back what you owe’. Right and wrong is purely a case of performing certain actions. The character of the agent does not matter. The only motive he might have is one of fear, of making sure he doesn’t damage his reputation by doing the wrong thing.
When Socrates starts asking some tough questions – about returning a knife to a friend who has clearly become deranged – Cephalus excuses himself, and his son, Polemarchus now takes up the central role of Socrates’ main interlocutor. Polemarchus agrees with his father on justice being an external obligation (‘giving what is owed’) but he also adds that justice is better for you in the long run. Polemarchus does not see justice as something especially difficult, which means it is not necessary to think about it too much.
Socrates rejects the views of Polemarchus by offering four arguments. Firstly, given that justice is a skill, there would not seem to be any benefit to being an ‘expert in justice’. By using the word ‘skill’, Socrates means something that contains an intellectual element to it. If we do perceive justice in this way (which is by no means a valid conclusion), this would suggest justice is a trivial thing since there are no specialists in justice.
The second argument is related to the first. If justice is a skill, then like all skills, it can be used for both good and bad purposes. So we have not proven at all whether justice is a beneficial state for the moral agent to have. At this point, Polemarchus alters his definition of justice slightly by stating that justice is helping your friends and harming your enemies. This would have been a very typical view offered by an Athenian citizen at the time of Plato.
The third argument of Socrates relates to the ‘friends’ definition. This is unsatisfactory as a friend may turn out to be an enemy, and vice versa. How can harming an ‘enemy’ who is really a friend be a just action? Socrates is trying to demonstrate that Polemarchus’s rules-based approach to morality ultimately fails as we can always find exceptions for any rule of morality. Socrates is attacking moral complacency – those who follows rules without giving any thought as to why they follow the rules.
The final argument of Socrates concerns the ‘excellence’ of a thing. A just person cannot do anything that would make somebody else worse off, and therefore more likely to be unjust in the future. For example, beating a good horse simply makes the horse worse (as it reduces the excellence of the horse), so this would not be seen as a moral action. Similarly, since justice is the human form of excellence, punishing someone for acting unjustly makes that person worse, so this cannot be the purpose of justice. However, we can argue whether ‘justice’ is really some form of paramount human excellence (what about health for instance?). Also, acting justly can never make anyone else unjust. The analogy with the horse is not quite the same as we are inflicting clear physical harm on the horse.
At this point in the Republic then, Polemarchus has run out of arguments, and Socrates has attempted to show that justice isn’t simply a case of following some external rules. There must be more to it than that however. Before Socrates can continue, Thrasymachus enters the picture with his own theory of justice.