[1.] Might Makes Right (Republic I).
[1.1.] Thrasymachus' Position. In book I of Plato's Republic (336b - 367e), Thrasymachus argues that might makes right ("justice is simply the interest of the stronger"; 338c, Cahn p.40).
Thrasymachus gives the following argument:
…in all cities the same thing, namely, the interest of the established regime, is just. And superior strength, I presume, is to be found on the side of regime [sic]. So that the conclusion of right reasoning is that the same thing, namely, the interest of the stronger, is everywhere just. (339e, p.40)
Thrasymachus' Might-Makes-Right Argument
1. Justice is whatever is in the interest of the ruling party ("the established regime").
2. The ruling party is always the stronger.
3. Therefore, justice is always whatever is in the interest of the stronger party.
For our purposes, the first premise is actually more interesting than the conclusion. That first premise implies that a government cannot act wrongly so long as it is promoting its own interests, i.e., so long as it is acting to benefit itself.
Thrasymachus seems to think that governments always act so as to benefit themselves:
4. "each regime has its laws framed to suit its own interests" (338e, p.40)
And this, together with (1), implies:
5. Therefore, the laws of a given regime are always just (so its citizens are always obligated to obey them).
All of this amounts to the following claim about political authority: whoever actually wields political power rightly wields that power (so long as they are acting to further their own interests). If Thrasymachus is right, then there is never any difference in practice between authorityN (legitimate, morally justified authority) and authorityD (actual power) -- whoever does in fact rule has the moral authority to rule. At most, there is a mere conceptual difference between the two sorts of authority; they are never separated in the real world.
[Also, if T. is right, then civil disobedience is never morally justified -- e.g., the actions of civil rights pioneers like MLK Jr. and Rosa Parks were immoral!]
[1.2.] Socrates' First Criticism.
At 339c (p.41), Socrates gets Thrasymachus to agree that
(A) rulers sometimes mistakenly pass laws that are not in their own interests.
Since those who are ruled are (according to T) always morally obligated to obey the law, it follows that those who are ruled are sometimes morally obligated to do what is not in the interests of the rulers -- and this contradicts the first premise of T's argument (that justice is whatever benefits the ruling party).
Cleitophon suggests that what T meant was not that justice is what actually benefits the ruling entity, but that justice is what the ruling entity believes benefits itself:
But, said Cleitophon, by the interest of the stronger he meant, what the stronger conceived to be for his own interest. His position was, that this must be done by the weaker, and that this is the notion of justice. (340b; Cahn p.41)
But Thrasymachus objects to this revised claim. His objection is this:
(B) If a ruling entity makes a mistake regarding what is in its best interest, then that entity is not really a ruling entity.
...a ruler, in so far as he is a ruler, never errs, and so long as this is the case, he enacts what is best for himself, and ... this is what the subject has to do. Therefore, as I began with saying, I call it just to do what is for the interest of the stronger. (341a; Cahn 42)
[1.3.] Socrates' Second Response.
Socrates now uses (B) against Thrasymachus; in particular, he uses it to criticize premise 4 of T's original argument. Socrates argues that rulers, considered as rulers, never act merely to further their own interests; rather, they act primarily to further the interests of those who are ruled!
...all who are in any place of ruling, in so far as they are rulers, neither consider nor order their own interest, but that of the subjects for whom they exercise their craft; and in all that they do or say, they act with an exclusive view to them, and to what is good and proper for them. (342e, Cahn p.43)
...every regime, in so far as it is a regime, looks solely to the advantage of that which is ruled and tended by it, whether that regime be of a public or a private nature. (345d-e, Cahn p.45)
Here's his argument:
1. An art (considered as such) is flawless. [Here S is picking up on T's claim (B) -- to the degree that a ruler makes mistakes in governing, he is not a ruler; to the degree that a physician makes mistakes in medicine, he is not a physician; etc.]
2. Therefore, an art (considered as such) does not look after its own interests; it only looks after the interests of its object. (E.g., medicine does not seek to improve medicine; it seeks to improve health.)
3. "An art rules and is stronger than that of which it is the art," i.e. its subject. E.g., medicine "rules and is stronger than" the body. (342c; Cahn p.43)
4. Therefore, "no science or knowledge investigates or orders the interest of the stronger, but the interest of the weaker, its subject." (342c; Cahn p.43)
5. Therefore, no artisan (considered as such) (e.g., ruler, physician, pilot) "considers or orders what is for" his own best interests; rather, they "all seek the good of their" subjects (ruled, patients, sailors).
[1.4.] The Rest of Book I…
Two more things to note about Book I:
At 347b-e (pp.46-47), Socrates claims that a just man will seek political office, not because of concomitant wealth and honor, but only to avoid the penalty of being ruled by someone worse than himself; he'll seek office if he fears that there's no one else who can do a better job. In a society of good men, no one will want to hold public office -- because every person will believe that everyone else could do at least as good a job as himself.
Much of the rest of book 1 is devoted to Socrates' argument against T's claim that injustice is better for a man than justice. This is only indirectly related to the question of rightful political authority. Almost all of the rest of the Rep, up through Book IX, is devoted, either directly or indirectly, to Socrates' examination of justice. We'll be following Socrates through much of this work, but we'll be attending only to the things that are relevant to political philosophy, especially our Questions 2 (moral justification of political authority), 3 (structure of a political society) and 4 (the rightful scope of the power of a ruling authority).
This page last updated 1/10/2003.
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