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.

The Demands of Morality: 3 Lines of Inquiry

I have recently (within the past two years) gotten interested in the demandingness of morality. When I first started looking into it I may have confused myself a bit because of how many different interpretations, and therefore approaches and responses, there were to this problem. I was at a loss to explain what it was about the problem of demandingness that I found intriguing because I had trouble synthesizing and making sense of all the things I had read about it.

As I see it (sas far as I have read; as related to my interests), questions on what is appropriate to morally demand of us are interpreted are interpreted in one of three ways:

1. Can morality demand us to do the impossible?

Here I have in mind views like Tessman’s in her book Moral Failure: On the Impossible Demands of Morality (2014), wherein she argues that there are such things as genuine moral dilemmas. That is, there are times were morality demands us to do (or not do) things which cannot be done simultaneously. In meeting one moral demand we necessarily fail in meeting the other, and thus have done something wrong. Tessman claims that, despite the intuitive plausibility of “ought implies can”, allowing for impossible moral demands is the best way to make sense of the complexities of the human moral experience.

2. Can morality demand things which require us to take on a great burden (such as giving up a significant amount of time, effort, or resources)?

Questions of this sort are most popularly applied to act consequentialism, a common objection against the theory being that the act that does the most net good is one which takes a great (and even seemingly unfair) burden on the agent – donating 90% of their income to an effective charity and living a maximally frugal lifestyle with the remaining 10%, or donating all their organs to save multiple dying people, for example. The argument goes that morality could not possibly demand us to go to such great lengths, and so act consequentialism cannot possibly be the correct moral theory.

On a less theoretic level, we can ask more direct questions, such as: Are we morally required to be vegan? Are we wrong to buy from Amazon given its business practices, even if we only do so because we want to save money? Should we pursue a career we don’t enjoy because the extra money will help our parents? Some would argue that we are not required to go to such great lengths, while others are fine with the idea that morality sometimes requires significant sacrifice.

3. Can morality demand us to do things which are out of our control?

Adams tackles this question in his paper “Involuntary Sins” (1985), arguing, perhaps surprisingly, that it can. The subject of morality, he claims, is not merely how we should act but also how we should be as persons. Thus, morality can demand of us things like, “Do not be apathetic about the hardships of others,” “Be grateful to those who have helped you,” and “Do not be angry at someone without reason,” even though what we believe and how we feel are not under our control.

I think I became interested in the problem of demandingness in general through this interpretation – albeit a rather twisted version of it. My main interest as an undergrad was the Free Will Problem. Specifically, I was interested in whether it was possible to make sense of moral responsibility in a deterministic universe. The problem, classically posed, is that we lack real control over our actions in a deterministic universe because control requires the ability to have done otherwise. Moral responsibility, on the other hand, intuitively requires control. Assuming this lack of control, how – if at all – can we make a place for moral responsibility?

While these questions are all related in that they each give insight into how demanding morality can (or ought to?) be, a “yes” or “no” answer to each of them gives a different kind of insight. While the answer to one may suggest, or even necessitate, a certain answer to another, ultimately these are all separate questions which prompt unique lines of inquiries.

Conceptualizing the different approaches to the demandingness of morality in this way has really helped me organize and clarify my thoughts on the matter. I can now say a bit more about my specific interest in the matter:

I am most interested in questions of the second kind, and have secondary interests in questions of the third kind. My intended area of research has to do with moral responsibility and appropriate praise/blame, and I am wondering how different answers to the latter two questions affect how much blame is appropriate to confer on an individual for failing to meet a moral requirement (or moral supererogation).

The Ethics of Attraction

I think I have a view different than most of the people I tend to associate with when it comes to dating preferences. At the base of my view is the idea that you can’t really control who or what you’re attracted to, and that’s okay. So long as you’re treating everyone with respect, you’re not doing anything wrong if you don’t find yourself attracted to certain features of a person (and therefore, the person as a whole).

We can find some insight into why I hold the views that I do about attraction by looking at same-gender attraction. It is widely acknowledged that gay people cannot control the fact that they are gay. Furthermore, it is quite common among people who experience same-gender attraction to fail to realize they do until later in life because heteronormativity is so ingrained in today’s society. That is, due to overwhelming societal influence, they believed themselves to be straight. (To add some weight and credibility to these statements, it’s worth noting that both of them apply to me.) Both of these things we generally take to be okay, i.e., it is okay to be gay and it is okay to mistakenly think you are straight. Also noteworthy is that we do not pressure straight people to critically examine their feelings to make sure they are genuine and not merely the result of societal pressure.

My unusual views (within my circles, at least) on dating come from generalizing this analysis of same-sex attraction.

Thus, failing to be attracted to fat people, refusing to date a man who isn’t over 6′, not wanting to date a trans woman as a straight male, preferring that your female partner have shaved legs or your male partner have a six-pack, not finding yourself attracted to a specific race, and finding blue eyes to be the most attractive are all permissible to me. At the very least, I suspend judgement on their wrongness. This may seem unpalatable to many, but I fail to see how these cases are significantly different from what is described with regards to same-gender attraction above.

That is, we ought not blame someone for failing to be attracted to a fat or trans person because they have been influenced by the fatphobic or transphobic attitudes of society, in the same way we do not blame someone for mistakenly believing they are straight because they have been influenced by the heteronormative culture of society. In all cases, we ought to just accept it. (The same argument goes, mutatis mutandis, to the other things I’ve mentioned.) It is even puzzling what the correct course of action would be if we didn’t accept it – as evidenced by thousands upon thousands of testimonies from gay people, attraction is not under our control. It cannot simply be demanded that we alter our feelings of attraction (or lack thereof) towards any person or group of people, nor is it plausible that there is some sort of process we can undertake to change our feelings overtime, as evidenced by the failure of conversion therapy.

Again, the key point is that, regardless of who or what we are attracted to, we still treat everyone with respect. This means supporting people’s right to use whichever public restroom they identify with, denouncing body-shaming done under the guise of “concern for their health”, defending women’s right to do what they want with their body, standing up against the racism propagated by the Trump administration, and the like. So long as we are being good members of society in this respect, our dating/attraction preferences are not the appropriate objects of moral scrutiny.

We do not owe our attraction to any specific group of people, nor are we required to critically examine and consequently change our attractions. How could we be? This seems impossible.

I will admit that one phenomenon I have not managed to completely square away with my intuitions regarding attraction is that of fetishization, e.g. white men exclusively dating Asians precisely because they are attracted to the feature of “Asian-ness” (often referred to as “yellow fever”). As a preliminary response, however, I will say that this sort of attraction seems phenomenologically different from the ones listed above. We might also say that in the case of fetishization one is failing to see an individual as a person, whereas in the aforementioned cases it is merely a failure to be attracted because of some feature of that person, so the former is necessarily dehumanizing while the latter is not.

If I were trying to make my argument conservatively, I would say that at the very least there is some tension between the way we regard some instances of selective attraction in comparison to others, and there is at present no principled way in which to distinguish them. However, I am more inclined to take the stance I currently have, and tentatively suggest that there are ways to address the fetishization problem. More work needs to be done on the topic, but the point is that work can be done. I do not think this is an insurmountable problem for my position. And, if it were, what are we to say of same-sex attraction? It seems any route we go which deviates from mine runs into problems.

Procreation, Adoption, and Anti-Natalism

Here’s a recap of a conversation about having kids and anti-natalism that I recently had with a friend:

> One of the reasons I don’t want kids is because I think it would be difficult for me to unconditionally love someone, and simultaneously pour so much of my time and my resources into them and yet accept that they don’t owe me anything for doing so. Being a parent is so demanding. I don’t want that.

>> You said you weren’t completely closed off to the idea of adopting, though. Why is that different?

> In the case of adoption, perhaps the good I can do for an individual outweighs the costs to me. I could be taking someone out of an orphanage or a foster home or some other terribly abusive situation and give them a home and a stable environment to grow up in. Presumably they’d be much worse off if I didn’t adopt them. I have the ability to make someone’s life infinitely better. That’s not the case with having a biological child. They wouldn’t exist without me. I wouldn’t be making their life better nor would they be missing out on anything – they don’t exist. There’s no good I can do in having a biological child that would outweigh the costs to me.

>> Maybe, but I think there’s something to be said about raising a child to be a good person with good moral values. Regardless of whether that child is adopted or biological, doing that is a good thing.

> True, but you need to take into account the environmental footprint a person leaves on the earth over the course of their lifetime: how much waste they produce and resources they use up – especially in a first-world country. With adoption, you can still produce the good involved with raising a morally upstanding person but at no additional cost to the earth and the environment, since this person already exists and is going to produce waste and use resources regardless of what you do. To bring a new person into this world is to increase the amount of waste/resources that would have otherwise been produced/used-up.

>> That reasoning makes sense, but what happens if we universalize it? Would it be good if everyone stopped reproducing? It doesn’t seem like we’d want that.

> Well, that depends. Good for who? Good for sentient beings and the planet overall? Honestly, yeah it probably would be good if everyone stopped reproducing. Humans wreak so much havoc and destruction on the planet, the other beings that live on it, and even on each other. None of that would continue to happen if we no longer existed.

>> But what if we allowed for our species to live on and we eventually found a way to live peacefully and more environmentally consciously, such that we didn’t pose a threat to the earth or the other animals living on it anymore?

> Well, if we’re going to speculate about “what-ifs”, what if, instead, we continue to live selfishly and without regard for our impact on the greater ecosystem, eventually run ourselves into the ground, and do irreversible damage to our planet such that our way of life drastically changes for the worse because we can’t adapt to the environmental changes we’ve brought about? Now, based on what scientific experts are currently saying, which “what-if” seems more likely?

The Morality of Internal Responses to Violence

Recently (and by “recently” I mean like over a week ago, which just goes to show how little free time I have for blogging) I was at a party with some friends and we ended up discussing porn and violent video games. (Yes, this is what we do at parties. Philosophers get weird in social situations.)

The question under debate was whether or not there was something morally objectionable to watching (certain types) of porn or playing violent video games, the idea being that doing so might promote problematic behavior in real life, e.g., prompt men to see women as mere objects or encourage aggressive behavior.

Personally I have mixed thoughts about the morality of the porn industry and the consumption of porn, but with respect to violent video games, at least, my stance is that if there is no evidence that engagement with such games raises the probability of acting violently in real life, then I see no compelling reason not to play them.

The conversation got interesting at this point because my friend, who holds the position that playing violent video games is morally objectionable despite there being no tangible outward negative effects, raised the consideration that being exposed to so much violence might make one less sensitive to it. Becoming desensitized to such acts, he argued, is reason to avoid violent video games.

Given that we have already stipulated there to be no outward behavioral changes, I take him to mean by “insensitivity” something completely internal, happening within the mind of the individual. So he is making a moral claim about the qualia of violence: You must experience violence in a certain way (internally), otherwise you are, in some moral sense, wrong.

And here is where my disagreement with him becomes controversial: I see no reason to consider a lack of internal sensitivity to violence morally wrong. Whether you feel sick to your stomach when you see someone get stabbed or you feel nothing at all, either is morally permissible and the person who experiences more discomfort upon witnessing violence does not earn any “moral brownie points”. (Again, this is with the stipulation that, regardless of how you feel on the inside, your outward behavior/actions will be the same.)

A different friend then offered the suggestion that it is wrong because you are missing out on some level of connection with other humans; you lack to ability to empathize. I am willing to admit that this is true, and also that a lack of empathetic ability is sufficient grounds for the claim that your life is missing an important part of the human experience. But while this is a problem, it is not a moral problem.

So long as you are acting in the ways you ought to, I find no moral significance in the variations of internal response with respect to violence.