2 | “The just life is the happiest life.” Socrates on the proper constitution of the soul

[This is installment 2 in my Ethics 101 project.]

In my first installment, I posed the question: Why be moral?

Glaucon’s challenge to Socrates in Plato’s Republic suggests that this question is difficult to answer because there seem to be prima facie reasons to prefer acting immorally when it benefits us. The problem is that, intuitively, we think of morality as something intrinsically valuable – something that should carry weight in itself, regardless of whether or not it results in good consequences. Saying that one ought to be moral because, and only because, good things come from doing so seems to be a debasement of the idea of morality.

So anyways, this was the challenge posed by Glaucon at the beginning of Plato’s Republic. Hundreds of pages later (because Socrates has a tendency to ramble and get sidetracked), we finally get our answer.


As any good philosopher should, Socrates begins his response to Glaucon’s challenge by getting clear on the subject matter. Up until this point I have been using the terms “moral” and “just” somewhat synonymously, and indeed in everyday use we tend to associate one with the other. But Socrates has a very specific conception of justice: each part of a system playing its role and only its role, rather than taking over the role of another part for which it is less suited.

This can be applied generally, for example to a city: Justice in a city is achieved and maintained when everyone in that city knows their role and sticks to it; nobody is attempting to do anything they’re not supposed to do. Those who are best suited to rule are in positions of governmental power, those who are best suited to defend the city are soldiers, and so on for all the different roles a citizen may play.

This conception of justice can also be applied particularly, to individuals. Just like a city, an individual has different “parts” with different ideal functions. This is true in many senses – biologically, for example – but for Plato and Glaucon’s purposes the relevant sense is psychological.

According to Socrates, there are three main parts that make up our psychology (in the Republic he uses the word ‘soul‘): the rational part, the spirited part, and the appetitive part. The rational part of our psychology is in charge of weighing the options, making the best decisions for ourselves, and all that good stuff. Pretty intuitive. The appetitive part is also pretty intuitive: it’s the part of our psychology that deals with desire – whether that be hunger, lust, or whatever else one might crave. The spirited part of our psychology is probably the most difficult to grasp, but basically its job is to “help” the rational part. Oftentimes, what we rationally judge to be best for us conflicts with what our appetite craves. Our ‘spirit’ is supposed to help drive us in the direction of what’s rational.

Justice, then, when applied to the individual, means that each part of our psychology is playing the role that it ought to: the rational part is ultimately in charge of making decisions and the spirited part helps ensure this by keeping the appetitive part in check.

Conversely, injustice in an individual is when the parts of our psychology are out of whack; maybe the spirited part isn’t doing its job properly and our appetitive part is calling all the shots or something. I hope it’s immediately obvious to all of us how and why this could be a very bad thing.

So it turns out we do have reason to value justice as justice: we’d be pretty fucked without it! In some cases it may seem like not playing the part we’re supposed to (a law-abiding citizen, for example) can get us ahead, but Socrates thinks this is mistaken. If justice just is the parts of a system working together as they ought to, it’s pretty clear that we ought to want this wherever it can occur – whether it be in a city or in ourselves.


Reading this back to myself, I realize this is a bit anticlimactic. Honestly, I found Socrates’ answer to Glaucon’s challenge to be pretty unsatisfying too. In Plato’s defense, the book as a whole has a lot more to say – it was just irrelevant for my current purposes (i.e., the Bib Exam).

Next week I’ll discuss Hobbes’ response to the question “Why be moral?” from his work Leviathan.

1 | Why be moral? Glaucon’s Challenge in Plato’s Republic

[This is installment 1 in my Ethics 101 project.]

Why be moral?

On the face of it, this seems like such a pointless question. We ought to be moral because it’s good to be good, right?

Maybe. Turns out, it’s a lot more complicated than that. As all philosophers come to find, justifying our intuitions is actually really fucking difficult. So I thought I’d start here.

A variant of this question is posed in Plato’s Republic (~375 BCE), one of the oldest, most influential, and well-known works in Western philosophy. It is written in dialogue format, with Socrates (Plato’s teacher) portrayed as the main character. Plato’s philosophies emerge through the conversations Socrates has with other characters.

In Book II, Glaucon presents Socrates with a rather unsavory conception of justice and morality he has heard. Glaucon finds it uncomfortably convincing and wants his teacher to prove it wrong. Since then, countless pages throughout the centuries that followed have been spent trying to answer some version of Glaucon’s Challenge.


We tend to think of justice as something good in itself. If that’s true, then we ought to want to act justly simply for the sake of acting justly. The problem is that in practice this just doesn’t seem to be the case. People, according to Glaucon, are only just because it benefits them. This detracts from the innate value we would intuitively want to ascribe to morality.

The way that Glaucon has come to conceptualize it, we are all liable to suffer injustice at the hands of others to their benefit, and we are also liable to commit it to our benefit. In these sorts of conditions, it’s pretty much a lose-lose scenario for us – save for maybe the strongest in society who have the resources to commit injustice and defend themselves from such acts against others. But the vast majority of us aren’t this powerful, and having to live our lives in perpetual fear of others is quite a shitty way to live. Any injustice we commit to our own benefit isn’t likely to be worth such a grim state of existence.

To avoid this, we collectively agree not to commit injustices against one another. None of us can benefit from committing injustice (which is arguably the most efficient way to get ahead), but none of us have to fear suffering it, either. Thus, we feel the need to act justly not because we think to do so is good in itself, but because it is beneficial to us.

To make his case even stronger, Glaucon appeals to two thought experiments: The first is meant to show that we would act unjustly if we could get away with it; the second is meant to show that we wouldn’t act justly if it wasn’t beneficial to us.

First, imagine there was a ring that made its wearer invisible. They could do whatever they wanted without getting caught or facing consequences. Under these circumstances, Glaucon claims, who wouldn’t act unjustly?! Even the most just person would give in to the temptation to carry out all their dark desires. For some reason, the example Plato landed on in the Republic was fucking the king’s wife, but, y’know, sub that for whatever you fancy. The point is that if we could get away with it, we’d do some pretty fucked up shit.

Second, imagine a person who is just but doesn’t carry the reputation of being so. Instead, everyone thinks they’re the scum of the earth. Now, imagine the converse: a person who is unjust but is universally loved. Glaucon thinks that, given the choice, we would totally choose to have the latter life. This goes to show that, divorced from good consequences, we would not choose justice.


So let’s circle back to the question we started with: Why be moral? What at first seemed liked such a pointless question turns out to be a lot more complicated than we thought. As of right now, our answer is that we should be moral because it is beneficial to us. Otherwise, we actually shouldn’t be moral. And this just seems…wrong. Our intuitions tell us that we should do the right thing even when it’s hard. But, like I said, our intuitions usually end up being harder to justify than anticipated.

The next few installments of my Ethics 101 project will detail some classic philosophers’ responses to this question, starting with Socrates’ own answer.

An Introduction.

My name is Brielle and I’m a first year Philosophy PhD student. I kind of have an obsession with documenting things on social media, hence, this blog.

I kept a blog throughout undergrad and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. (Okay, that’s definitely an exaggeration, but it was still a really, really good decision.) It’s surreal to read things I wrote years ago back before I knew that this was what I was going to be doing. My academic journey from pre-law political science major to philosophy degree-holder and future PhD student is all there, complete with all the non-academic-yet-still-somehow-tangentially-related-to-the-general-topic-of-college-life bits and pieces.

And that’s the general sort of thing I’m going for with this blog, except perhaps a bit more professional and geared towards an audience of people like me (i.e., grad students and philosophers) – though I intend for the content of this blog to be accessible to all.

So, a bit about me:

I was born and raised in California. I lived with my parents in the Bay Area until I was 17, at which point I moved to SoCal for college. Like I said before, I came in as a political science major with plans to go to law school. At that point I had no idea what philosophy was, but after taking one introductory-level class I immediately fell in love and switched my major. I really excelled as a philosophy student: I got top marks in all of my classes and was recognized by my department as the Outstanding Philosophy Graduate. I even graduated summa cum laude. I credit a lot of this success to the simple fact that I loved what I studied.

Towards the end of my undergraduate career I decided to just make the jump and follow what was so clearly my passion; I abandoned my plans for law school in pursuit of a PhD in Philosophy. I also decided it would best for me to take a year off of school – both to experience life outside of academia (given that my new goal was to spend my life in it) and to prepare for grad school applications. My gap year was an incredibly taxing and stressful time – primarily, I believe, because I felt so out of place not being a student. After what seemed like a year of stumbling around and struggling to make decisions about the next chapter of my life, I accepted an offer from a school on the east coast. I moved across the country at the end of this summer.

I’ve been in grad school for about a month and a half now. The first few weeks were indescribably difficult, both because I had been out of school for more than a year and because I was ridiculously homesick in a brand new environment with no friends. But now I feel like I’m finally getting the hang of things and I’m so excited to start sharing my thoughts and experiences.

Welcome to PhilosoBri! 🙂 (Yes I came up with that name all by myself and I’m very proud of it!!!)