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plato on the law

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

I saw this meme over on Pinterest. I don’t know the source or even if it’s authentic, but it does seem at odds with most of the Crito and a good slice of the Republic. Plato seems to view the law as something that could train us to become better people. It’s been a while since I’ve read the early Republic, but I *think* he also would agree with the position that the law can help avoid the impact of bad peoples’ actions.

I’m thinking of Glaucon’s discussion in Bk II, of how there are some things we might want to do if we could be sure no one else would pay us back, but that we can’t be sure so everyone flourishes most when we agree not to do them. Like stealing – it may be to my benefit to steal my roommate’s apple in the fridge, but only if I knew she wouldn’t steal my peanut butter in return. (On that note: yummy, apple + PB…) I don’t, obviously.

So the idea is we have an understanding neither of us would steal from the other, which is better than everyone stealing willy-nilly. In larger society this agreement often takes the form of law. I *think* Socrates more or less agreed with this part of the argument, even if he rejected Glaucon’s later point that the truly powerful have no reason to worry with justice. In the Crito he’s even more direct: the laws of Athens set up a society that was good, and he owed it obedience because he’d accepted those benefits.

This is a line of thought (the meme) that I see more and more often these days in politics. We divide people between good and bad, as if everyone were either a moral saint in no need of further moral development, or so bad that the law was utterly incapable of reaching them. But that’s just not so. The law is a big part of what trains us to be moral. It provides external restraint when the internal fails us. It also sets the threshold for how serious a situation needs to be before you can choose to break the law. (Maybe it’s worth risking a speeding ticket to break the speed limit if you’re wife’s in labor and you’re driving to the hospital?)

And as for the “bad people”? It assumes that all of them are equally bad. Some people will break the law no matter what the cost. I’m thinking of mass-shooters who typically don’t try to hide their crimes. We might also put Valjean in this category – he was so desperate for food, I’m not sure what penalty would stop him. But there are many, *many* people who would act unjustly in the right situations – if the penalty or risk of detection was sufficiently low, for example. There’s also the fact that when someone breaks the law, if you can catch him, you put him in a controlled environment where he can’t harm other people nearly as easily.

So I’m not sure if Plato said this. I’m a little skeptical, but I could be wrong on that point. I do think that he’d take issue with the implication a lot of people make with statements like this: that good people are going to be good, and bad people bad, with or without the law so we might as well not put restrictions in place. Thieves by definition steal – but the law has the ability to make less men willing to become thieves, and lock up those people who do make that choice in a room where they can’t get at my stuff. That’s not nothing.


May. 23rd, 2013 08:27 pm (UTC)
I'm no expert on Plato here. I know that for Aristotle, good was an absolute - he thought there was kind of an essential human function, something we did that made us human and not a cat or a mountain, and that the good human did that function well. Just as a good chair was one that did a good job of providing a place to sit. So for him there was a sense of goodness.

I know in the Republic at least, Plato talks more about justice than goodness. It's not just what we mean by justice today, it really is more in line with virtue. Plato sees being unjust as doing the kind of thing that corrupts you from your ideal self. It's about the balance of impulse and reason - a just person has those in proportion, and unjust acts train us to act a certain way so this balance is out of kilter. If we're unbalanced (and he thought most people were, at least at first!) you need something from the outside to help correct you, until you can act justly and rightly on your own. Think of it like training wheels. They are unnecessary to a good bike-rider; if you're riding well those wheels never touch the ground. But no one's born able to ride a bike, and having something that can guide us at first, keep us basically on line as we practice good bike-riding is a pretty good idea. And I'm fairly sure Plato would say the law is like that for people learning how to be just, or even people that are basically just but could be a little better if they work at it (and most folks fall into that category).

(This all depends on the idea that there's some essence to being human. I get that a lot of people are suspicious of that these days. I'll just point out that for Aristotle at least, who I know better, this isn't the straitjacket you might think. He'd say we should all be virtuous, which is about being guided by emotion in the right degree. He'd even say we should all be courageous, generous, honest, etc. But there are many different ways to live out these virtues, and he thinks it's perfectly fine for a businessman and a soldier and a politician and a craftsman to each be courageous in their own way.)

Anyway, enough Philosophy 101! I think what really bothers me about this line of argument is it seems to assume too hard a division between different kinds of people. Some people will break through the door whether it's locked or not, but I sincerely believe there are other people that would steal in some categories but wouldn't in others, like if the penalty was too high r there was enough risk of getting shot. We can also change the conditions driving them to steal - things like better jobs, drug treatment, other ways to get a thrill, whatever. In fact, I suspect most thieves are like this. The trick is to find the best way to change the situation, so less people will be willing to commit a crime.

I suspect your grand-uncle was wise: depending on the time period, there would probably be some people in a poor area of town willing to steal from him. That's the same reason I don't take my cellphone out on the street, particularly after dark. But I think there's a difference between saying "there's enough chance someone out there will rob me, it's better to let them do it with minimal damage" and "everyone would would rob me in any situation will still rob me if I lock this car up tightly, so I shouldn't bother."



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