Philosophical Ethics: Whether It’s Worth It To Be Just With No Incentives Or With Disincentives

Before we get to the philosophy this time, let’s enjoy my favorite Flaming Lips song:

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In a series of posts this semester, I am going to blog all (or almost all) the lecture topics for the two Philosophical Ethics classes I am teaching this semester. Each of these posts will primarily explicate the reading or a theme that dominated class discussion in a way that should be accessible to novices (such as my students are). I will also offer some degree of analysis of the ideas considered and then pose suggested discussion questions. These posts will usually feature more speculation than argumentation from me as I try to stimulate your thinking rather than stake out my own positions. Some of my students will be responding to these short discussion primers in a private forum through the university. I’ve told the students they are free to discuss the blog post versions of these discussion primers as well, so they might show up here. The text we are using and from which all citations will be taken is Ethical Theory: classical and contemporary readings, edited by Louis Pojman. Wadsworth: California, 2007). This post explores Glaucon’s suggestion that it is not worth it to be just if complete justice would lead only to utter disgrace and misery in a hypothetical situation compared to another in which complete injustice would lead to all manner of honor, glory, riches, and pleasure.

No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with anyone at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men.  Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point.  And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right.  If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.  Enough of this.

Now, if we are to form a real judgment of the life of the just and unjust, we must isolate them; there is no other way; and how is the isolation to be effected?  I answer:  Let the unjust man be entirely unjust, and the just man entirely just…

I say that in the perfectly unjust man we must assume the most perfect injustice; there is to be no deduction, but we must allow him while doing the most unjust acts, to have acquired the greatest reputation for justice.

And the fate of the just man:

Let him be the best of men, and let him be thought the worst; then he will have been put to the proof; and we shall see whether he will be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences.  And let him continue thus to the hour of death; being just and seeming to be unjust.  When both have reached the uttermost extreme, the one of justice and the other of injustice, let the judgment be given which of them is the happier of the two.

The above is taken from Plato’s Republic Book II, sections 360b-361e, translated by Benjamin Jowett (Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1889) and found on Pojman, pg. 84.  There are two distinguishable issues raised in the above text.  The first is whether or not freedom from consequences would necessarily corrupt character.  Would we be restrained from evil were we assured there would be no consequences?  The second question is whether we would prefer a life of compete justice that was hypothetically accompanied only by unjust shame and misery to a life of complete injustice that was accompanied only by unjust honor and pleasure.  I’ll speculate answers to each question in turn.

To the first point, I am not sure human beings are as inherently corrupt as Glaucon fears.  While it is true that a lack of consequences would invite at least a few unjust indulgences to all of us to the extent that we already have unjust characters, it is not clear to me that we are so devoid of conscience that we would let our injustice overwhelm our character, nor that the most just people could not continue to prefer justice, even with unjust rewards so easy to attain.

The reason I doubt that we would take every available opportunity to be unjust is that psychologically a great deal of normal human happiness is bound up in concern for those with whom we have relationships and those ideals and institutions in which we have personal investment.  While some are so corrupt that they might just hurt those people, ideals, and institutions which they love simply because there were no consequences, I have a hard time imagining how this could bring them more happiness than otherwise.  Such a person may indulge the opportunity to be utterly selfish and other-disregarding but it is not clear to me that this person would be any happier for it.

Part of this is because of the paradox of hedonism so well elucidated by Joel Feinberg in his classic paper “Psychological Egoism” from Reason and Responsibility, Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy 12th edition, by Feinberg and Shafer-Landau, 2005, reprinted in Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues. edited by Stephen Cahn, and Peter Markie, Oxford University Press: 2009.  In that essay, Feinberg points out that in order for us to have happiness we must care about more than the bare abstraction of “being happy” or “being pleased.”  We cannot directly aim for happiness or pleasure in our actions.  We must actually care about particular things which bring us happiness or pleasure.  Only if we actually care about these things can they bring us delight.  If we are indifferent to them in themselves, then we will take no excitement in attaining them.  He vividly gets the point across when he writes (in Cahn and Markie, pgs. 552-553 and Ethical Theory: An Anthology, pgs 187-188:

To feel the full force of the paradox of hedonism the reader should conduct an experiment in his imagination.  Imagine a person (let’s call him “Jones”) who is, first of all, devoid of intellectual curiosity.  He has no desire to acquire any kind of knowledge for its own sake, and thus is utterly indifferent to questions of science, mathematics, and philosophy.  Imagine further that the beauties of nature leave Jones cold: he is unimpressed by the autumn foliage, the snow-capped mountains, and the rolling oceans.  Long walks in the country on spring mornings and skiing forays in the winter are to him equally a bore.  Moreover, let us suppose that Jones can find no appeal in art.  Novels are dull, poetry a pain, paintings nonsense and music just noise.  Suppose further that Jones has neither the participant’s nor the spectator’s passion for baseball, football ,tennis, or any other sport.  Swimming to him is a cruel aquatic form of calisthenics, the sun only a cause of sunburn. Dancing is coeducational idiocy, conversation a waste of time, the other sex an unappealling mystery.  Politics is a fraud, religion mere superstition; and the misery of millions of underprivileged human beings is nothing to be concerned with or excited about.  Suppose finally that Jones has no talent for any kind of handicraft, industry, or commerce, and that he does not regret that fact.

What then is Jones interested in?  He must desire something.  To be sure, he does.  Jones has an overwhelming passion for, a complete preoccupation with, his own happiness.  The one exclusive desire of his life is to be happy. It takes little imagination at this point to see that Jones’s one desire is bound to be frustrated.  People who—like Jones—most hotly pursue their own happiness are the least likely to find it.  Happy people are those who successfully pursue other things such as aesthetic or religious experience, self-expression, service to others, victory in competitiveness, knowledge, power, and so on.  If none of these things in themselves and for their own sakes mean anything to a person, if they are valued at all then only as a means to one’s own pleasant states of mind—then that pleasure can never come.  The way to achieve happiness is to pursue something else.

What do these observations from Feinberg have to do with the person who is completely unjust?  The unjust person could theoretically escape the paradox of hedonism to a certain extent, insofar as she enjoys the pleasures of nature, sex, food, aesthetics, intellectual curiosity, and positive power.  But it is hard for me to see how the unjust person can attain the genuine expressions of power that involve demonstrating a genuinely superior strength under fair conditions.  Dominating others through cheating may feel good to an extent, but it cannot feel as good as genuinely beating them fair and square with no need to cheat.  In other words, to genuinely enjoy victory, some justice is required.  In order to delight in artistic achievement, I cannot just turn invisible steal some paintings and show them to the world as my own.  I may delight in the honors I receive for this but I cannot imagine that that delight would be a fraction of the excitement I’d feel if I genuinely created them.  Similarly, I could fool those I loved into loving me but I don’t see how that would make me happier if I could be loved without having to deceive them.  And similarly, if I genuinely cared about ideals and institutions that inspired me by their virtues, I have a hard time imagining how I could get more satisfaction out of betraying them than by serving them.

In other words, I think too much of our highest happiness is bound up with intrinsic pleasures connected to intrinsic concerns for the flourishing of things that are good to us, whose forged imitations we cannot appreciate the same when we know they are forged, and whose attainment is only possible through justice.  Goods like honor, victory, creative expression, and love must be justly earned in order to be genuine.  As much as an unjust person may scheme or coerce their trappings from others through injustice, it is impossible for such a person to have the sort of knowledge of what it is like to genuinely achieve these things.  You cannot fake them.  The pauper who knows he is justly loved knows love better than the prince who coerces expressions of love or who depends upon his inherited position to give them to him where his own talents would never suffice on their own to earn it.

Now it is possible that psychologically the facts may in reality be less morally ideal.  It could be that frequently those with artificial satisfactions are so craven and self-deceived that they enjoy their unjust rewards more than those who justly earn them.  And it is possible that the miseries of impoverishment ruin the enjoyments of intrinsic goods in those who perform excellently without just benefits accruing to them.

And this leads straight to Glaucon’s second point above.  What if there are two people, one completely unjust and the other completely just where injustice in fact leads the unjust one to great honor and pleasure and where the completely just person is led entirely to disrepute and displeasure.  Socrates seems to think that simply being just is so intrinsically good that it would outweigh all the other miseries we suffered to be good nonetheless and being unjust is so intrinsically bad that it would outweigh all the pleasures it might bring to be bad nonetheless.

For a brief sketch of my overall considerations of these possibilities, I would say the following:  First, I think that our injustice is usually more a function of our lacking and insecurity (whether perceived or real) and that if we securely had the good things we genuinely cared about, we would put our energies into achievement of excellences about which we cared rather than focus them on committing injustices simply because we could.  Second, I think that when comparing two people attaining comparable honors, love, and pleasures in life where one is earning them while the other is cheating for them, the one who earns them has an indisputable intrinsic life advantage over the other and, in most normal psychologies, I predict should even be expected to get a far greater deal of satisfaction.  I would even say that the normal just, genuine achiever who is much less rich, honored, loved, and pleased than an unjust cheater who is honored, etc. is still better off for the strength of intrinsic satisfactions.

However, I would probably be a cynical realist in saying that at some point, justice is not a great enough good to genuinely make life worth living without any of the other goods in life.  While justice has intrinsic good dimensions (it is simply a sweeter, more intrinsic pleasure to win within the rules than to have to cheat, for example), it is ultimately instrumental to a life of self-overcoming, excellence, fulfillment of capabilities, pleasures, love, and honor.  To gain none of these things would make a life so objectively bad as to be inferior to the life of a completely corrupt person of power who enjoyed the goods of life.  I do not think that this proves that justice is not an intrinsic good in the various ways I’ve already indicated and nor do I think that extrinsic goods are necessary for justice to be worthwhile and superior to injustice.  Justice is usually preferable to many falsely gained honors, pleasures, and loves.  Only at extreme points do the sheer quantities of extrinsic goods in life overwhelm the intrinsic delights of internal excellence.  In those hypothetical extremes, I would agree with Aristotle that living well ultimately is impossible without at least some good fortune.  And, so, in this extreme case only, Glaucon’s devil’s advocate objection to Socrates is correct.  But, again, this does not negate the intrinsic character of justice or its intrinsic pleasures to generally weigh far more heavily than falsely gotten pleasures and goods.  Ultimately though enough fraudulently achieved pleasures and goods can accumulate to outweigh mere justice, heavy as it is, which both lacks all other pleasures and goods and suffers incredible indignities.

That’s not to say, you would be a better, more estimable, or ideal person if you took the completely happy but unjust route over the completely miserable but just route.  It’s not a morally excusable choice.  But it ultimately would make psychological sense given the most extreme option.  Otherwise I do think that rationally, morally, and psychologically that justice is preferable to injustice.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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