Justice is Wise

In Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus asserts that justice is whatever is to the advantage of the stronger, and injustice is that which is in one’s self-interest. He even goes so far as to say that injustice is virtuous, delivering more to the person who embraces it than justice. Socrates disputes this with three arguments, one of which tries to show that justice is wiser than injustice. First, Socrates asks whether a just person would attempt to “outdo” another just person. Thrasymachus concedes that while a just person may try to outdo an unjust person, he would not do so with a just person because then he would not be as “polite and innocent.” An unjust person would try to outdo everyone. Socrates then makes a comparison to a musician tuning his instrument. Would he try to outdo another musician in achieving the correct pitch, and would he deserve a better result than another musician?  No, but he would deserve a better result than a non-musician. A similar comparison is made with a doctor, who upon seeing another doctor finding a correct prescription for an illness would not try to outdo that action. Then Socrates points out that a knowledgeable person will agree with other knowledgeable people, but an ignorant person will try to outdo both the knowledgeable and the ignorant. Since being knowledgeable is clever, and being clever is good, and being good is virtuous, then since a just person behaves the same way as a knowledgeable person in not trying to outdo others of his kind, it follows that a just person is wiser and more virtuous than an unjust person.

I think Socrates generally makes a strong argument for justice to be wiser than injustice. He does this in two ways—by comparing a just person to a knowledgeable person, and by pointing out the deliberation that a just person goes through to determine what is good. To assess the strength of Socrates’ argument, it is necessary to first characterize Thrasymachus’ view. He thinks that stronger people seize power and enforce policies that benefit themselves. Injustice is better, he thinks, because people who only look out for themselves can secure more external goods (wealth, property, position) for themselves. He is aligned more with the Homeric ideal of virtue, in which excellence is defined through strength and force. In his universe, the goal is to attain more material goods. Socrates brings in the concept of “outdoing,” and thereby begins to express a different goal and to define virtue differently. If all a person strives for is to outdo everyone else, Socrates argues, then that is to give into a sort of thoughtless, ignorant appetite. A just person has another faculty involved, which is involved with discerning how much is enough, or how much is deserved. Because this discerning quality within the just man involves applying knowledge and reason, it follows necessarily that there are more qualities of wisdom in justice than there are in injustice.

When Socrates uses the metaphor of a musician, he establishes the concept of justice as being something that has limits and that is a goal in and of itself. He thinks that justice is like tuning an instrument to the right pitch. There is no “more in tune” or “less in tune,” there is only “in tune.” Among a group of musicians, there is no advantage in twisting a tuning peg too much or not enough. For their combined musical efforts to have the highest virtue, it requires that all of the musicians are tuned the correct amount. When musicians play in a group, the goal isn’t to play louder or more often than the other players, it is to play just enough to complement the ensemble. The success of the music comes from everyone taking up enough of the rhythmic and tonal environment to support a sound which is something more than the individual contributions of the musicians. This reminds me of evolutionary science and the strategies by which we have thrived as a species. The concept of “survival of the fittest” has been seized and promoted as supporting the idea that “might makes right” in the deceptively named “Social Darwinist” view. Thrasymachus would approve. In fact, our greatest asset has been our ability to communicate with one another and to moderate our impulses to satisfy individual needs in favor of communal effort. A grizzly bear in a one-on-one contest would easily defeat a human being but cannot play a musical instrument very well and doesn’t stand a chance against an organized human defense. Justice is wise because it recognizes the nuance that is required to live within a social order rather than giving in to the blunt tool of unjustly using superior strength to assert one’s will on others.

Matthew Ebert
PHIL 211 – 1001
Professor Achtenberg
December 6, 2016