The introduction to Plato’s Republic invites us to eavesdrop on a conversation about one of humanity’s dearest questions: what is justice? The three characters in the debate are Thrasymaschus, Socrates, and Glaucon.
I say that justice or right is simply what is in the interest of the stronger party… what is good for someone else, imposed at the expense of the subject who obeys him. (Thrasymachus, in Plato, Republic 338c, 343c)
Thrasymaschus argues that every state has a “strongest element” that determines what is right and wrong. Right and wrong, therefore, are nothing more than the rules established by the most powerful. When a “wrongdoer” breaks a law or behaves unjustly, he has only acted against the interest of this most powerful element in the state. He is subsequently reprimanded or punished by those who are more powerful than he is. Indeed, the “strongest element” in the state has one objective — to remain the strongest element. Therefore, the laws it decrees are imposed in its own self-interest. (338e-339a) Justice is leverage for the powerful.
Socrates, who believes that justice itself is the highest calling of humanity, argues back. A ship captain’s greatest interest is the safety of his crew. The same goes for medicine: a doctor’s greatest interest is the health of her patients. (342c-d) Therefore, Socrates proposes that the greatest interest of a ruler is ultimately the wellbeing of those under her authority. (342e) Justice is therefore not simply whatever is in the interest of the most powerful, but rather whatever is in the interest of everyone. Rulers are entrusted to maintain justice because it is the right thing, not because they gain a personal advantage for doing so.
Glaucon proposes a third interpretation. He suggests that justice exists because people hate suffering the abuse of others. Inflicting wrong on others might be beneficial to you, but when there is nothing to protect you from others hurting you, the payoff is outweighed by the cost. “This is the origin and nature of justice,” he explains. Justice is merely a pact: I agree to not hurt you and you agree to not hurt me. “It lies between what is most desirable, to do wrong and avoid punishment, and what is most undesirable, to suffer wrong without being able to get redress.” (358e-359a) Justice is therefore nothing more than a negotiated, utilitarian invention to alleviate suffering.
For Thrasymaschus, justice is an apparatus of the powerful.
For Socrates, justice is an ordinance of the divine.
For Glaucon, justice is a contractual agreement between parties who are tired of playing tit-for-tat.
By squaring the characters against each other in a debate, Plato forces his readers to reflect on their own assumptions about morality. Do you avoid sneaking into your neighbour’s house and taking his stuff because it breaks a transcendent moral code of conduct? Or because your government threatens to lock you up if you do it? Or because you’re acutely aware that stealing from him might incite him to take revenge?
Today, when you allege that a certain behaviour is just or unjust, how do you define the essence of justice itself?