This past week across numerous different classes I am teaching in both ancient philosophy and ethics, I have been talking with my students about Plato’s Republic, Book II. We have discussed whether there would be any intrinsic goodness to justice such that it would be in our interests to choose just courses of action even were they lead to misery and that it would be not in our interests to choose unjust courses of action were they to lead to power, riches, love, fame, honor, sex, material gain, etc., etc. I have two lines of reasoning that lead me to think it is better to be just than unjust even under such circumstances. In this post, I will focus on just one of them.
Say you do something that you know, personally, is evil and it is something that everyone (or nearly everyone) around you whom you respect knows is evil too. Even though they do not know you did it, they hate the action itself and they would lose some significant degree of respect and admiration for you should they ever discover you do that evil action. They would likely develop feelings of disgust and contempt towards you. If they do not know you particularly well, this could become the most important, memorable, and morally decisive thing about you to them. You may become the poster child for such evil actions in their brain. If they do know you well, they may contextualize this one evil action or behavior as only a part of your larger, more generally admirable, person and admire you. Or this discovery may make them feel as though previously they were entirely deceived about you and want nothing further to do with you.
But what does all this matter if they don’t know? What it means is that to some extent, when you cross the line into an evil action or behavior, you start to be, in fact, the kind of person that the people you admire would likely hate. Sure, since they do not know about it, they still treat you affectionately. But this is only because they are deceived about who you are and what you do. They can only love you the way they do if they never know you for what you really do or what you really are. And every time you hear them disgustedly denounce others who do what you do (or have done), you know that they are denouncing you too, even if they do not realize it. So what are all their deceived showerings of love upon you worth to you if they are aimed only at the non-existent person they think you are and if you see quite clearly that they despise those who are like you as you really are?
The only pleasure I can take in myself is the pleasure in what is genuinely good about me. If others think they see something good about me that I know is not there, this is only embarrassing and a painful reminder of what I am not. To the extent that I realize that someone’s love for me is only predicated on their misapprehension of who or what I am or have done, I am alienated and ashamed before them. On the flip side, what I know is good about me or about what I have done is also something that goes unchanged even when people fail to appreciate it or, worse, confuse it for evil.
As far as I can tell, our minds are wired to try to deceive ourselves and others a great deal. We are always interpreting what we do for ourselves and for others in the ways that are most advantageous to ourselves. Most of the time, we can face up to harsh truths only when deceptions would hinder our long-term advantages worse than confronting reality would. But the rationalizations we tell ourselves and the deceptive modes of presentation which we offer to others do not alter the realities that we have actually done what we have actually done, that when others rightly hate those actions they hate us whether they realize it or not, and when others love us mistakenly by believing we are better than we are they do not truly love us as either they or we would like to think they do.
In fact, the only way not to rightly infer that those you love and admire would not hate your actions or your very self for doing the things you have done which you know that they hate, is if you do the scariest thing in the world and confess everything to them and submit yourself to their informed judgments. Only if you let them think for themselves about the fullest possible account of the facts of who you are and what you have done can you be assured that their overall judgments of you and their feelings towards you are authentically about the “real” you—i.e., the one who has actually been manifest in behaviors in the world. This is an extraordinarily vulnerable place for any of us to be. And—potentially an incredibly freeing one that makes genuine intimacy possible.
But if you do not want to have to be so vulnerable and so subject to a potential, rightful moral rejection by those you most respect and most love, and if neither do you want to live in doubt that what you have done or who you are makes you someone that those you love would still love if they saw you clearly, then it is best that you avoid in the first place doing the secret hatable actions that create alienation and make necessary the need for precarious reconciliation processes. Ultimately there is no real getting away with it without being caught. Because when you do the evil, you will inevitably be caught—either in confusion, in denial, in alienation, or in confession or in unwilling exposure.
Ideally, you would avoid doing the evil only because it was evil, of course. But insofar as our actual, successful psychological motivations to be good are indeed social (or socially reinforced), these considerations should be of some importance. I know they are for me.