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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 09:15 pm (UTC)
We do tend to think of "good" and "bad" in the most extreme forms--one form of extreme good would be a hero-martyr who sacrifices his/her life for another person or for a cause he/she considers right and the other extreme would be a mass killer who simply enjoys having the power of death over people and enjoys the pain and suffering those actions cause.

But there are people in who aren't so extreme who are "good" or "bad"--the person, for example, who quietly performs anonymous acts of kindness or charity on a daily basis, and the person who goes through life belligerently demanding his or her own way in the loudest and most offensive manner possible, and claiming that no one can tell them what to do (or not to do). (I've recently seen an appalling example of the latter.)

But most of us fall in between, generally good most of the time, sometimes tempted--but reasonable enough to wish to avoid unpleasant consequences of our actions, whether it's merely the disapproval of our friends and family or not getting a ticket.

And some are frequently bad in small ways, but wish to avoid the harsher consequences, such as getting fired from a job or getting put in jail.

In those ways rules and laws do make the world an easier place to live for the majority of people.



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