On Philosophy

September 29, 2007

The Method Of Glaucon

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Previously I discussed how Thrasymachus investigates what justice is, using a method I described as based on an ordinary language conception of philosophy. Today I am going to discusses the next method through which justice is investigated, that of Glaucon. Not only does Glaucon argue to one of the same conclusions as Thrasymachus, that the unjust are better off than the just, but he uses a method that is surprisingly similar as well. And Glaucon’s argument also seems to have its roots in some kind of ordinary language philosophy, although it proceeds with a different style of empirical investigation. In addition Glaucon, unlike Thrasymachus, is completely uncommitted to the idea that injustice is better, and thus he does not abandon his method midway simply to press for his conclusion.

Glaucon’s investigation of the nature of justice is rather short, most of his speech is concerned with elaborating on the idea that the unjust man is better off than the just man. Thus we can repeat it in its entirety.

“By nature, they say, to commit injustice is a good and to suffer it is an evil, but that the excess of evil in being wronged is greater than the excess of good in doing wrong. So that when men do wrong and are wronged by one another and taste of both, those who lack the power to avoid the one and take the other determine that it is for their profit to make a compact with one another neither to commit nor to suffer injustice; and this is the beginning of legislation and of covenants between men, and that they name the commandment of the law and the lawful and just, and that is the genesis and essential nature of justice-a compromise between the best, to do what is wrong with impunity, and the worst, which is to be wronged and be impotent to get one’s revenge.” (359a)

I would say that the logical order of this investigation is reversed, but it doesn’t really matter, given that it is so concise. The first step, I would maintain, is that which Glaucon puts last, namely the affirmation: “that they name the commandment of the law and the lawful and just”. The reasoning he has just carried out can only be part of a valid method for investigating justice if that which is named just actually is just. And so Glaucon’s method contains an implicit commitment to some form of ordinary language philosophy; if that which is called just is not necessarily just then Glaucon has shown nothing about justice by this argument.

And, as with Thrasymachus’ method, the next step is to empirically investigate just what kinds of things are called just, under the assumption that they share some common features, and that the fact that they are all designated by the same term is not a coincidence. Thrasymachus’ empirical “investigation” searched for similarity in the properties that the laws called just all have, which he concluded was being advantageous to the ruling parties, but which might be better said to be desired by the ruling parties. And this in analogous to the way we might try to discover what water is. By empirically investigating it we find that all water has the property of being composed primarily by a certain molecule and so conclude that that molecule simply is water, just as Thrasymachus concludes that the advantage of the stronger simply is justice. Glaucon, however, proceeds with what we might call a functional or evolutionary empirical investigation. Often when we come upon things created by people there are no immediately obvious properties that they have in common. Consider musical instruments. The things we call musical instruments have little in common with each other. Some are made of metal and some of wood. Some make sound by vibrating strings and some make sound by having air blown through them. Some are large and some are small. Thus we cannot put musical instruments under our investigative microscope and come up with something that they all have in common by investigating them individually. But when investigated in the context of society they do have something in common, namely that they are all used to make music.

Like musical instruments, laws, and thus justice according to the ordinary language approach, are human constructions. And so we might suppose that, like music instruments, they have nothing intrinsic in common, but rather a common purpose for existing. Glaucon attempts to uncover this purpose by considering why laws exist in the first place. To do that he considers what a world without laws would be like (in theory something that can be discovered empirically), and hypothesizes that without any regulation people would do whatever was best for themselves, which would often bring them in conflict with other people (again, an empirical claim about psychology). If we were ever to find ourselves in such a state we would attempt to get out of it by establishing laws, so that overall we are better off both as individuals and as a society. The function and nature of justice then, according to Glaucon’s method, is to regulate individual behavior so that everyone is better off by virtue of avoiding being harmed by others, even though such laws restrict how some would like to pursue their own desires.

Now some (Santas 2004) would consider this a kind of contractarian theory about justice. This does accurately reflect the content of Glaucon’s theory about justice, that it is a way of regulating individuals to overcome their natural tendencies for the benefit of all. However, I do not see any evidence that Glaucon proceeds to this conclusion in the same way that contractualists do, nor does his claim include many of the common contractualist ideas. For example, there is no need to understand Glaucon’s argument as implying that there really ever was a state of nature, Glaucon can be read as explaining the motivations behind laws, not their actual historical origin. Nor do we need assume that there is an explicit social contract or that anyone need agree to it. It could be that justice emerged without anyone intending it to, that groups of people regulated themselves in different ways, and those that regulated themselves in ways we now describe as just thrived and came to dominate.

Unfortunately, as with Thrasymachus, Plato does not really address the method of Glaucon’s investigation. In fact he doesn’t directly address Glaucon’s claims at all, he simply proceeds with his own method for investigating justice. Which leaves us in an interesting position. Clearly Plato will come up with some conception of justice, but just because Plato makes a claim about justice doesn’t mean that Glaucon’s claim is wrong. If they conflict surely one of them must be wrong, and although we might argue that they say much the same thing when it comes to society as a whole they differ greatly about whether it is better for the individual to be just or unjust. To decide which of them is right the method of one or the other (or possibly both) must be shown to be lacking, but this simply isn’t done. And so in a sense the nature of justice is actually left unresolved in the Republic, even though Plato clearly feels that his version is superior.


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