fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

on the lure of rings of power (more political/philosophical than Tolkieny, alas)

In the second book of the Republic, Plato imagines a conversation between his teacher Socrates and his brother Glaucon where the two Athenians try to nail down just what justice is. As part of that dialogue, Glaucon tells a version of an old myth. In the original story, a Greek shepherd named Gyges stumbles upon a cave containing a corpse wearing a golden ring, which Gyges pockets. He later discovers that when he wears the ring, no one can see him.

Glaucon tweaked this story a bit to make his point. He says,

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just [man] put on one of thema nd the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. 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 any one 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 justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. (360b-d)

(Tolkien fans may recognize the basic storyline here. Yes, it is similar to Gollum's finding of the Ring. But unlike with Sauron's Ring, the Ring of Gyges isn't inherently evil. It just lets you get away with whatever you want.)

Glaucon's building off an argument he gave earlier. The truly strong man, he says, takes what he wants without fear of reprisal. If my university's president were so inclined he could march into my department's breakroom and commandeer my soda in the fridge, because there's such a power-difference between us that there's really no way I could hurt him back. (Not that our president actually would… feel free to substitute Dr. Joe Sixpack or whomever else you like.) That's power, according to Glaucon.

Now, in most circumstances it is to our advantage not to act like that, because people might strike back. If I was to take Chris's coffee mug without asking he would be quite rightly ticked off and might retaliate by eating my candy bar. It's to all of our advantage to have a kitchenette where we can leave stuff, and it's also to our advantage not to have our own stuff messed with. After all, you lose more when someone takes from you than you gain when you take from someone else, because when you lose something you also feel violated. This is where laws come from. Glaucon thinks we agree to follow laws because we will be better off if most people follows the laws, rather than no one doing that. But if there's really no chance of blowback, it doesn't really make any sense to obey the law.

Glaucon fairs better than many of Socrates's interlocutors (many of their arguments are famously bad), but I still find myself disagreeing with him. First, there's Socrates point that even Gyges is affected by his actions. Glaucon seems to assume the only consequences worth messing with are what other people can do to you, but Socrates recognizes that's just the flea on the dog. The real trick is living with yourself, and Socrates thinks acting unjustly does affect us.

But I want to go one further than Socrates here. I think that the best things in life are relational. Aristotle was right when he said man is a social animal; it is how we learn and exercise our virtues, and with perhaps some very rare exceptions, life isn't as full as it could be if you only care about yourself. Caring about others is not optional. Oddly enough, this is the kind of thing Glaucon should be all over because he recognized there was a difference between short-term and long-term good (so perhaps we should act one way because it will help us in the long run, even if it's kind of a drag just this minute).

Why am I bringing all this up right now? Yesterday, I wrote an open letter to President Obama about the National Defense Authorization Act. Basically this is the law that funds the U.S. military, but there's an amendment attached to it that will authorize President Obama to imprison American citizens indefinitely, without trial. Alex rightly asked why I was so upset about Americans being imprisoned. The truth of the matter, though, my anger here has very little to do with indefinite detention. I am a pacifist and have protested the abuses of war just about every way I know how, from Occupy-style protests to writing letters to a hunger protest. So I really don't need the reminder that indefinite detention is wrong on that level.

But there's something else going on here. I don't know whether it's actually worse than the other stuff, but it's new, and it's poignant. Obama's decision not to veto the NDAA is a slap in the face to one of the motivating factors behind democracy. Not only does might not make right, but just being able to doesn't mean you have the right to take away someone else's right. We are all alike in dignity, and if someone doesn't have the power to stand up to the very powerful, that is where the laws are supposed to come in. But Obama initially said he would veto It because there were some limits on what the law said the president could do – to paraphrase John Stewart, the Congress was giving him virtually unfettered and he threatened to balk if they didn't give him absolute power.

As awful as the imprisonment of non-Americans is, it is Americans who have entered into a contract with this particular government. (The same can be said for people in whatever government they live under, if it's a legitimate one. There's no way to mess around with that and not tick me off. This is worse than not getting some law or other through. No amount of health care reform, Osama-busting, or whatever can make up for it in my mind, because the president showed he thinks the law shouldn't apply to him. I honestly can't see that as anything other than an attempt to bring us back to Glaucon's view of justice. And since I think he was wrong, that we have to look out for more than just ourselves I find that… disturbing. A vote for me is a moral thing, and if I can't vote for either side in good confidence, I don't see any way to keep my honor but to abstain.

All of that is in addition to the humiliation and injustice of indefinite arrest. You get no argument from me there. But my issue here is really about the brazen way Obama said this was all about power. His own power. Not the rule of law.
Tags: philosophy, politics
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