Breath of Clarity

The Ring of Gyges

The Ring of Gyges has the power to make individuals invisible so that they can commit any acts without consequences. The idea is that if you give such a ring to a “just” person, he will not resist stealing other people’s goods, raping any woman he wants, setting prisoners free, and killing men at his pleasure. To really compare the lives of the just and unjust, we must imagine that the unjust person has consummate skill in appearing just, while the just person ends up with a reputation for injustice, and is otherwise stripped of every advantage. The story is meant to demonstrate that surely the unjust person’s life is far better, showing that we should aim to appear, not be, just.

The Ring of Gyges implies that self-interest and morality conflict with each other. According to Plato, this is false. Self-interest and morality don’t conflict. Acting with justice benefits our psychological health. Just men are superior in character and intelligence. A just man is wiser because he acknowledges the principle of limit. The life of a just man is happier. What’s more important than mental well being? Nothing is more important. This is in accordance with Locke’s theory of personal identity that the mind constitutes a person’s existence, independent of the body. It’s about what it is to be a human being that compels us to act out of virtue. It’s inherently good for you. Everyone ought to be moral because it makes your soul properly arranged. In being moral, we achieve the essence of being a human being. It’s not a temporary desire that makes us be moral.

Unjust souls who would take advantage of the Ring of Gyges would be out of balance. They are slaves to their appetites, lower-order desires. They are heteronomous because they are controlled by their own desires and cannot be stable as a result. Immorality is a psychological disease because an individual will never be happy if the individual allows his appetite to dictate actions. Utilitarianism is a species of consequentialism that says pleasure and pain are the only morally relevant features of the consequence of action. Utilitarianism is agent-neutral- the agent’s happiness is weighted no more or less than other people. Therefore, according to Utilitarianism, net pleasure is all that matters. For example, if a person steals a necklace under the Ring of Gyges from another individual who beat him in a race then their pleasure is the necklace and revenge. The only thing the person who was taken advantage of loses is the necklace. Therefore, in this case, the Act Utilitarian would say it is rational to take advantage of other people using the Ring of Gyges.

Kant disagrees, according to both formulations of categorical imperative. The Categorical Imperative forces you to consider the university of your principles of choice. That is, do not make exceptions for yourself. Choose actions that could be chosen by any rational person in similar circumstances. If everyone made a lying promise whenever they were in need of money, there would be no practice of lending. Indeed, no one would be able to communicate- we would never be able to assume that others are telling the truth. This universal perspective reveals that certain considerations could not be reasons for everyone. If everyone acted this way, deceptive or coercive actions would bring no advantage, and society would break down. Humanity formulation: persons are ends in themselves, not mere means. It is a mistake of reason to treat money as an end in itself. It is only a means to other ends. Analogously, it is a mistake to treat persons as mere means and to treat money as an end in itself- it is only a means to other ends.

We are free people because we are condemned to this rule of being compelled by reason. Kant’s theory of morality is related to questions about personhood and free will. Kant thinks that we are free because we are condemned by this rule we can’t get out of. What it means to be free is to be compelled by reasons. You act in accordance with the categorical imperative. This is because you give yourself that law. We are the own source of the categorical imperative, so it’s autonomous (self-governed). We are reasoning creatures. That makes us free because of our capacity to act on reasons.