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.

Ethics 101: An Introduction to the Course

So I’m about to start studying for my ~big, scary, super intensive 3rd-year bibliography exam~. Basically, I need to choose a branch of philosophy that I intend to develop a strong, thorough foundation of knowledge in (ethics, obviously) and then read through a pre-selected bibliography of core texts and ideas in that branch. I take the exam based on this bibliography at the end of this school year.

I would like to share some of my notes here on my blog as I work through this reading list. The first reason being that I think it’ll help me personally (as a philosopher, as a communicator, and with motivation to study and keeping me on track). The second – and probably more important – reason is that I think (if I do it right) this could be a great resource for people (particularly, undergrads or non-academics) who want to get a good lay of the land and major ideas in moral philosophy in an accessible and manageable manner.

These two goals kind of feed into each other: I need to have good notes in order for this to be genuinely helpful to people other than myself, and if I am focused on creating genuinely good notes on my reading I am more likely to do better on the exam. Win-win 🙂

So throughout this school year I’ll be posting notes which:

  • Cover core and landmark writings in ethics/moral philosophy from all eras (ancient Greeks to present day)
  • Contextualize these writings in the greater sphere of relevant debates and ideologies
  • Are accessible for everyone and (to the best of my current foresight) will not presuppose any familiarity with moral philosophy
  • Maintain a(n albeit introductory-level) sense of academic rigor
  • Individually, are intended to give one a gloss of the topic at hand
  • Collectively, are intended to give one a fairly solid foundation of the basics of moral philosophy

These posts will be given their own hyperlink in my main menu and organized by topic for ease of access and use.

Class is in session 😉 Welcome to Ethics 101.

How to Write a Philosophy Paper (Undergrad)

One thing I’ve come to realize upon completing my first year of grad school is that my writing process needs some work. I had a system that worked stellar for me as an undergrad, but for whatever combination of reasons, is harder for me to execute as a grad student. Maybe I’ve just become out of practice since taking a year off.

But, since I’ve gotten quite a few questions over the years about how to write a paper for a philosophy class, I figured I would share the process I used here. I expect this to be most helpful to undergrads, especially those who are somewhat new to philosophy. [Insert the usual cautionary preface about how “this might not work for everyone,” blah blah blah…]

I always kept my philosophy papers very structured, explicit, and to-the-point. I created an outline-centered approach that catered to my desired style of writing:

1 Create bare-bones outline

Like I said, I like my papers very structured. Almost every paper I’ve ever written has had the following structure:

outline

I really like having my papers read like a standard argument, so the entire body of my paper is ordered based on the general argument I present in my introduction. (Just keep in mind that, given that this is a bare-bones outline, “general argument” and “premise” here can be interpreted quite loosely.)

Sometimes, instead of addressing (an) objection(s) at the end of the main body of my essay, I’ll tack them onto the end of one the previous sections III A-D. It just depends on what I think makes my paper flow the best.

2 Add main details to intro paragraph

A Formulate thesis

Usually it starts with “I will argue that . . .”

B Formulate general argument

Something like “I hope to establish this by first . . . , then . . . , and finally . . .” – just something that both resembles the flow of an argument and sets up the structure of the main body of your paper.

3 Provide background info

The essays I wrote in undergrad were always a response to some paper(s) we read in class. My rule of thumb is to assume I’m writing for someone who has some philosophical background but not necessarily in the topic at hand. So throughout my paper I would feel free to use philosophical jargon, but in this section of my paper I would provide a relevant summary of the current discourse/body of work I was addressing and define all technical terms.

4 Organize topic sentences

Each of my topic sentences are an assertion of each premise (loosely interpreted) from my general argument (also loosely interpreted); I dedicate each portion of my main argument a section in my essay body.

5 Fill in each section in outline

For my intro paragraph, this usually means adding a sentence or two to introduce my paper before I present my thesis and possibly also one sentence briefly addressing the importance/significance of my thesis.

For each of my body paragraphs, this means arguing for each of my topic sentences (kind of like mini arguments for the premises of your general argument).

6 Objection(s) + Response(s)

Usually I introduce an objection with “One may try to argue that . . .”

Again, I place the objection where I see fit. Sometimes it’s within the discussion of an individual premise (usually if it’s an objection against one of my premises) and sometimes it’s at the end of the body of my essay as a whole (usually if it’s an objection against the argument in its entirety, e.g. its structure).

7 Add transitions

For example, at the end of intro paragraph I’ll put something like: But before presenting my argument, it is useful to first provide the background against which this conversation is taking place, to help connect my intro paragraph to the next section of my paper.

8 Conclude

A Summary

“In this paper I have attempted to show that . . . I did this by first . . . I then argued that . . . Lastly, I responded to the objection that . . .”

B Implications and significance

I conclude my papers with a short discussion of where my conclusion situates us in the discourse, why it might be important/significant, and address any shortcomings of or possible future lines of inquiry from my arguments.

9 Stitch essay together

Usually at this point I have enough material to organize into an essay by simply deleting my headers and C&P-ing. I’ll read over what I’ve stitched together and make minor edits/additions as I see fit.


I think I’m going to make a “Student Advice” section for my blog which will include practical help information such as this, as well as things like time management tips, mental health advice, and the like.

This will be the first post in this category.