The Ring of Gyges: Morality and Hypocrisy


J.R.R. Tolkien, professor of Anglo-Saxon studies at Oxford University, was asked to do etymology research on an ancient Roman ring found in English the countryside—where the Roman Empire once extended—which was found in the 16th century.


Lecture by Dr. Tamar Szabó Gendler / 01.14.2011
Vincent J. Scully Professor of Philosophy; Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science
Dean, Faculty of of Arts and Sciences
Yale University

Introducing Plato and The Republic

Statue of Plato outside the Academy, Athens / Wikimedia Commons

So today’s lecture is about the question of the challenge that Glaucon posed in the story of the ring of Gyges in Book II of Plato’s The Republic. The question is: what sort of motivations do we have for acting morally, and what expectations should we have with respect to those around us about whether they act in that way–for reasons intrinsic to moral motivation, or simply because they wish to appear a particular way?

So what I want to start by doing, is tell you a little bit about the extraordinary person whose dialogue, The Republic, we read excerpts from today. It’s hard to overestimate the influence of Plato on the Western intellectual tradition. There is no educated person in the Western world in the last 2500 years who wasn’t influenced in some way or another by the thought and by the framework of understanding that Plato provided for us some 2500 years ago.

Plato was an extremely interesting figure. He was born into an aristocratic family in Athens. Some think that he was descended from one of the Athenian kings, but regardless, it’s clear that the family of which he was a part were among the leaders of Athenian political society. Several of his uncles had been part of a coup in the government that took place several years before Plato came to maturity.

And the expectation of people like Plato was that they would go into civics or government, public leadership. It was as if he were a Kennedy or a Bush or a Clinton. He came from a family with a long history of political engagement. And the assumption was that he would become politically engaged, himself.

But interestingly, for reasons about which there are great speculations, Plato came under the influence of a man about thirty years his elder named Socrates, who, in the portraits that we have of him, looked remarkably like Plato himself. [Image: two faded marble statues] Socrates was a gadfly. He wandered around Athens and asked people to reflect on their commitments. Asked people to think about what the nature of fundamental things like justice, and truth, and reality, and friendship, and love, and honesty were. He asked people to reflect on common opinion, and to ask themselves what, of the things that they believed, were well grounded, and what, of the things that they believed, were simply matters of received opinion.

And in part because of his provocation, Socrates was sentenced to death in 399, before the Common Era. When Plato was roughly thirty years old, Plato attended the death of his great teacher. And he describes the story of the trial at which Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens in an extraordinary dialogue known as The Apology.

And the legacy that The Apology provides is something like the legacy that the Gospels provide for the life of Jesus. It’s a story of a person willing to die for the sake of principle in a way that became a trope for Western civilization.

So in an extraordinary painting, which you can see if you go to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, there is a depiction of the death of Socrates. [Image: Marat’s “Death of Socrates”] And here is Socrates, drinking from the chalice of hemlock, which is to put him to death. Here are his disciples, including Plato, calmly at the end of the bed, and Crito, holding his leg. Up the stairs here, which you can’t see, are some other figures leaving.

But what’s extraordinary about this picture is that it was painted in 1787 by one of the artists involved in the French revolution. It was, in fact, displayed to Thomas Jefferson, who admired it greatly. And one of the striking things about its composition is that in some ways, it echoes Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of The Last Supper, where those of you who are familiar with the painting know Jesus sits at the center of the table surrounded by disciples.

Whereas that is a story of death for the sake of faith, Socrates’s story is a story of death for the sake of reason. And the idea that a life lived on the basis of principle, recorded by disciples who can explain the motivation for that life, the idea that that can influence thousands of years of history and can inspire political change and principled commitment, is one of the legacies that Plato left us.

Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, oil on canvas / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

After Socrates’s death, Plato devoted himself to a life of learning, and in 385 before the Common Era, started what many call the first university, or academy, in the Western world. At that academy, Plato trained many of the thinkers of ancient Athens, including Aristotle, whose works we’ll be reading next week.

While there, Plato composed a number of works that have endured. Among them is The Republic, which we read excerpts from for today. And here’s a particularly beautiful third century manuscript of The Republic, one of the tens of thousands of documents discovered at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, roughly a century ago. And I’ve put the spelling up there, so that those of you who are intrigued can go and read about the story of the Oxyrhynchus papyri, which is one of the most incredible detective stories of discovery of a huge trove of documents. As I said again, only a century ago, many of them retrieved only during and after the First World War.

So Plato’s Republic, as I mentioned, is one of roughly thirty dialogues that Plato composed. So you might have noticed in the course of reading it, as the reading guide indicated, that it’s not written as a treatise. It’s written in the form of a conversation. And except for some letters that we have of Plato, nearly all of the work of his that we have comes in the form of dialogue. And they address almost every philosophical topic imaginable. The nature of knowledge, the nature of truth, the nature of love, the nature of friendship, and so on.

The Republic, in particular, is focused on the question of how society ought to be structured to allow human beings to flourish. And the work, as we’ve inherited it, is structured into ten books, of which we will read in this class excerpts from the second book and most of the tenth.

In the particular part that we’re reading, we overhear a conversation among three characters. One of them is Plato’s teacher Socrates, the fellow with the snub nose that I showed you the slide [of] earlier, and the other two are Plato’s brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus. And the conversation that we hear takes place first between Socrates and Glaucon, and then between Socrates and Adeimantus.

But we’re, of course, not reading off the Oxyrhynchus papyrus. We’re not even reading, as some students at Yale are this semester, the text in the original Greek. There’s a seminar being offered in my department on Plato’s Republic, a full semester, during which they are reading the text in ancient Greek. And there’s an extraordinary Yale-London collaboration of a decade during which one week each year, professors from Yale and professors from London get together and read one book of Plato’s Republic.

So this is a book that is read seriously here. We, however, are fortunate enough to be reading an edition, which I’ve asked all of you to purchase, which looks like this. And I want to explain to you why I’ve asked you to buy a book given that, as many of you might have noticed, the translation of the Republic, a late nineteenth century translation by Benjamin Jowett, is available, on the Internet.

And I just want to say a few words about what value there is in getting editions of books which are designed to help students engage seriously with the material. So in the copy of The Republic that I’ve asked you to purchase, there are extensive introductory materials. There are extraordinarily helpful footnotes. There’s an annotated bibliography in the preparatory material that tells you what books to look at if you’re interested in Plato. There’s an incredibly valuable index. And in the margins are what I’ve told you are called Stephanus numbers, which allow you to make reference to any other translation.

Glaucon’s Challenge

Lady Justice statue / Shutterstock

So let’s now move to the substance of the material that we read for today. What is it that Glaucon, Plato’s brother, is seeking to do in the course of his conversation with Socrates? There are three questions that Glaucon wants to answer. The first is that he wants to say something about the nature and origin of justice. How is it that people come to behave in cooperative ways, and what is it that we speak of when we talk about the norms of justice?

This is a topic that we’ll discuss when we get to Hobbes, and so I’m not going to say more today about the particular argument that Glaucon offers there. What I want to focus on, instead, are two things: Glaucon’s second and third questions.

The first is Glaucon’s claim that people act justly unwillingly. That the only reason people act and conform with the laws of morality is because they will gain good reputations thereby. And the second is Glaucon’s claim that they are right to do so.

So the text begins with a fundamental contrast. One that is useful, not only in the context of Glaucon’s discussion of justice, but one that is fundamental throughout Plato’s work: and that’s the contrast between the way things seem and the way things are. And it’s a crucial insight to recognize that seeming and being can come apart, and that in some cases, our concern is with the way things appear, and in other cases, our concern is with the way things are.

So the text actually begins with a challenge that Glaucon raises to Socrates. He says: do you want to seem to have persuaded us that it is better to be just than unjust, or do you want truly to have persuaded us? And clearly, Socrates’s goal is the latter. He wants to engage in true persuasion.

This theme of seeming versus being is then taken up by Glaucon, who asks Socrates the question, whether there’s value in being just or whether the value of justice comes merely from appearing to be that way.

So we find a contrast in the opening pages between three kinds of value that things can have. Things can be intrinsically valuable–valuable as ends in themselves, valuable for what they are. Socrates gives the example here of things like joy, and harmless pleasures. These are things we value not because of what they provide in addition, but things that we value as ends in themselves.

There are, by contrast, things that are merely instrumentally valuable. Things that are valuable as means. Things that are valuable in enabling us to do something else, or in seeming to be a particular way. And into this category fall things like money, which is valuable, let me remind you, not as an end in itself, but as a means to other ends. And, for example, things like seeming dangerous. It’s what you’re trying to do in an evolutionary sense, or as a nation, is to prevent others from attacking you, it doesn’t matter whether you are dangerous. What matters is that you seem dangerous.

And there are, of course, things that are valuable for both of these. Things like, Socrates says, sight, which we value both because it enables us to do things, and because it brings pleasure in itself. Or health. Or learning. Or knowledge. And the question which Glaucon and Socrates are disputing is, into which category justice falls.

Now, if we had our clickers, this would be a chance for me to reengage all of you by asking you into which category Glaucon thinks justice falls, and into which category Socrates thinks justice falls. But in our last low-tech day, I will instead ask you to raise your hands. Into which of the categories, intrinsically valuable, instrumentally valuable, or both, does Glaucon think justice falls? How many think he thinks justice is merely intrinsically valuable? [pause] How many think he thinks it’s merely instrumentally valuable? [pause] And how many think he thinks it’s both? [pause]

By contrast, Socrates. Intrinsically valuable? [pause] Instrumentally valuable? [pause] Both? [pause]

So it’s a dispute between them. Both of them expect that there is value to seeming just, but the dispute between them is about whether, in addition, there is value to being just. Does it matter that you actually act in a just way, or does it matter only that you seem to act in a just way?

Now, in order to answer this question, Glaucon, as a character in Plato’s Republic, makes use of a technique that is and has become one of the fundamental techniques in philosophical thought. It’s basically an application of scientific method to our idea. If you’re trying to figure out what makes a seed grow–does it require soil, does it require water, does it require light, does it require air, does it require you to sing sweetly as you walk past it?–what you do is, you conduct a controlled experiment, and you look and see: If you have the seed with water but no soil, does it grow? If you have a seed with air but no singing, does it grow?

In this way, Glaucon engages in a number of imaginative exercises to ask what people would do if just behavior were divorced from its typical consequences. So he asks us to imagine somebody who acts either in a just or an unjust way. And to think about what their motivations would be if the consequences were one of a certain kind.

So in ordinary cases, if you act morally, you are perceived as acting morally, and if you act immorally, you are perceived as acting immorally. The question that he asks us to consider in the story of the ring of Gyges, which I related last lecture, is how people would act if they were perceived identically, regardless of how it is that they genuinely behave. If your act of immorality were invisible to the world, if you could behave immorally and nobody would see you, so that your reputation remained unscathed, how is it that you would behave?

Glaucon’s suggestion with the story of the ring of Gyges is that under those circumstances, you would behave as the unjust one does. But in case you aren’t convinced by that story, he tells a second story after the ring of Gyges. It’s the story of the inversion, and he says this. Suppose the person who acts justly is perceived by everyone as acting unjustly, and the person who acts unjustly is perceived as acting justly. Would you continue to behave in accord with the standards of morality if the opposite reputation attached to you?

Now, we can contrast this question about morality with two cases where it seems clear in the first that we value something merely instrumentally, and where it seems clear in the second that we value something both intrinsically and instrumentally. So if the act that you are engaged in is one of taking a repulsive medicine, and if under normal circumstances when you take the medicine, you get better, and when you don’t take the medicine, you stay ill, then you will presumably, if you want to get better, take the medicine.

In a Gyges scenario, where regardless of whether you take the medicine, you get better, you won’t be inclined to take the medicine. And certainly in an inverted scenario, where if you take the medicine, you’d stay ill, and if you don’t take it, you get better, you won’t be inclined to take the medicine.

When things are of merely instrumental value, we can read the motivation off the consequences. The question is this: is justice just like taking a medicine, something that we value because of an end that it produces, but not because of the medicine itself, or is it more like sight?

Suppose that, as is the case in normal circumstances, when you see, you have visual experience of the world, and when you engage in motor activity, you don’t bump into things. Because I can see this podium, I’m able to regulate my body in such a way that I don’t bump into it. In a ring of Gyges scenario, I wouldn’t need to see to be able to avoid bumping into the podium. It seems to me clear that in that case, I would nonetheless prefer to have vision, even if I could get the consequences of seeing without having vision. And the question of what I would do in the inverted case, where I could have either sight and the ability to avoid objects, or the ability to avoid objects and not sight, is one where I don’t know how to answer.

So the challenge that Glaucon poses to you is the following. Is morality, for you, something merely like taking medicine? Do you behave morally so that you have the reputation of behaving morally, or do you behave morally because morality, like being able to see, is something that’s valuable in itself to you, and valuable to you because of the consequences that it produces?

That’s the challenge of Plato’s Republic. And in next week’s class, and the week after that, we’ll hear some of answers that are offered to Glaucon’s challenge.

Batson on Moral Hypocrisy

Dr. Daniel Batson, Professor Emeritus of Social Psychology, University of Kansas

What I want to move to now is the second text that we read for today, a text by the contemporary psychologist Daniel Batson, which addresses the question of moral integrity and moral hypocrisy from an empirical psychological perspective. Batson’s question is this: is it the aim of people to be moral, or is it the aim of people merely to appear to be so?

Baston looks somewhat unlike Plato and Socrates. He’s a living man. Teaches at the University of Kansas. He even has a computer printer. And in the work that we read for today, we get a description of empirical studies that Batson did on the question of how people behave when they think they are not being observed. How do they construe their actions to themselves, and what factors, if any, lead them to behave in more honest ways?

So Batson presents subjects with a very simple experimental scenario. People who participate in his experiments come into his laboratory, and they’re told that their job is to decide which of two tasks they are assigned to, and which of two tasks a second person, whom they won’t be meeting, will be assigned to. One of the tasks is fun and interesting, and each correct answer that you give provides you with a lottery ticket for a lottery in which you’ll win a certain amount of money. And the other task is described as kind of dull, and each correct answer that you give will not result in your being entered in the lottery.

So people are told, you can decide to assign yourself to the fun, interesting lottery-chance task and the other person to the boring, no lottery task, or you can decide to assign the other person to the fun, interesting task, and yourself to the boring, no lottery task.

Now, what psychologists call the DV, or dependent variable, the thing with respect to which Batson is looking for differences, is the percentage of times people assign themselves to the positive task, and the other person to the neutral task. So if we were just doing it by chance, if you were literally just flipping a coin, what percent of the time would the self-positive task be assigned? What percent of the time would the person assign themselves to the positive task? Hold up the number of fingers times ten, such that it would be that percent of the time. You’ve got them on one hand: 50%. So if you were just merely flipping a coin, 50% of the time you would end up with the positive task, 50% of the time, the other person would end up with the positive task.

So that’s one of the things that Batson is measuring in his studies. And the other thing that Batson is measuring is in his studies is the point value that people assign to themselves with respect to how moral their action was. If they think their action was perfectly moral in making the assignment, then they give themselves a nine. If they think the action was perfectly immoral in making the assignments, they give themselves a one.

So those are the things that Batson is measuring. So that’s psychology term number one: dependent variable. That at which you’re looking to see differences among in your studies.

Now, those of you who have taken psychology courses, who have had roommates who have taken psychology courses, know that when psychology studies are conducted, subjects are presented with what are called conditions. That is, when they come in, one thing happens to them or another thing happens to them. The bean that I described in the science study might be in the condition where it has soil plus water and no air, or it might be in the condition where it has soil plus singing and no water.

Likewise, subjects in Batson’s experiment might be in a case where they just have come in, and they’re told there are these two possibilities. You can assign yourself positive or this other person negative, or they’re told that they’re in some sort of scenario where they can use chance to make the decision.

What I want to do in the next few minutes of lecture, is to explain to you what the extraordinarily interesting results that he came up mean.

So in the first condition, when subjects just come in, and are told they can make the assignment however they want, 80% of subjects, 8 out of 10, assign themselves to the positive condition and assign the other character to the negative condition. Right? So 80% of people do the selfish thing, but they don’t consider themselves to have done something particularly generous. They rate themselves at four on a scale of one to nine, with respect to morality. And those who assign the other person to the positive condition rate themselves extraordinarily highly. They think they have done the right thing.

Now, if you bring subjects into a room, and you tell them, they can flip a coin, but they don’t have to, roughly half of them don’t flip the coin. And among those half, 90% of them still assign themselves to the positive condition. No surprise there.

The next number is the one that gives us the surprising results. What happens when subjects come into the room, are told that they can flip a coin, flip a coin, and on the basis of that coin flip, assign themselves to one condition, and the other person to the other?

What happens is that upon flipping the coin, 90% of them assign themselves to the positive condition! Now, we all just held up five fingers of one hand. So what’s going on here? Well, why don’t you think about what would happen if you flipped the coin, and it he came up heads? What does heads mean? “Ah, heads! Heads must mean I assign myself to the positive condition, and I assign my opponent to the negative condition.” Comes up tails. “Tails. Hah. Tails! That means I assign myself to the positive condition, I assign my opponent to the negative condition.”

But here’s what’s striking; 90% of the people flipped the coin, assigned themselves to the positive condition, and rate themselves as having acted in an extraordinarily moral way: seven on a scale of nine, with respect to how morally they behave. And the one guy who actually did follow the coin flip, gives himself a nine.

All right. So Batson’s worried about this, and so he says, OK. Let me see whether I can control for that by actually not making the coins say heads or tails. I’ll make the coins say, on one side, self to positive, and I’ll make it say on the other side, opponent to negative.

What happens in that case? What happens in that case is that 86% of the people who flip up the coin when it says, opponent to negative, do what? What would you do? You flip it again, until it comes up… “That’s not the one that counts! The one that counts is–oh, oh, it must be the fourteenth flip that actually determines.” And those people, again, rate themselves as having acted in an incredibly morally appropriate way.

Even when Batson labels it with colors, so that he can see through the window who is doing what, he gets the same extraordinary, astounding pattern of results. In eight out of ten, nine out of ten cases, people, given the chance to represent to themselves that they have behaved morally, will do that even if what they’ve really done is taken advantage of an ambiguous situation.

It appears, says Batson on the basis of this, that what people care about is seeming moral to themselves, and not, in fact, about acting in a way that’s fair. But what can one do to induce in people prosocial moral behavior?

Here’s the extraordinary next study that Batson did. He put the subjects, who are engaged in the same experimental design, in a room with a mirror. Now, if the mirror is facing away from the subject so that there’s no reflection of them in it, you get exactly the same results as last time. Roughly 85% of people assign themselves to the positive condition. But if the mirror is facing towards them, so that the subject is facing the mirror [and flips the coin], only 62% of them assign themselves to the positive condition.

And, sorry, if the mirror’s facing them, even when they don’t flip the coin, 62% of them assign themselves to the positive condition, that is, that they’re behaving almost completely fairly. And if they are facing the mirror and flipping the coin, they behave 50%: exactly as chance would predict.

What’s going on here? It looks like the simple act of feeling as if one is observed, even when one is observed by oneself, is sufficient to provoke prosocial behavior. And an extraordinary study, carried out about five years ago in England, bears that out.

So in this study, there was an honor system about putting money into a cup if you drank coffee in the department. And some weeks, taped above the cup of the coffee machine were pictures of flowers. [Image: flowers] There’s the flowers, there’s the flowers, there’s the flowers. And those weeks, almost nobody put money into the pot. The other half of the week taped above the pot were pairs of eyes. [Image: eyes] And those weeks, subjects donated large amounts of money into the pot.

There is something about us as social beings that encourages us to behave in moral ways when activated within us, consciously or unconsciously, is the sense of being observed. If you want to complete your assignment without procrastinating, put a pair of eyes on your computer and a mirror behind your desk. I kid you not.

The profound and shocking insight of Glaucon’s story of Gyges in Plato’s Republic is, in light of this contemporary research, almost chilling. That he would tell the story of how it is that we can expect somebody to behave if he conceives of himself as unobserved–the story of our shepherd, who finds the ring of invisibility, and when he gets it, takes over the kingdom–is the story that Batson’s research tells us about an inclination on the part of human beings.

There is a worrisome tendency on the part of at least those about whom these stories are told. That is, ancient Greek civilization seemed to feel that this rings true. Contemporary American college students in Kansas seem to bear that out. When we think of ourselves as unobserved, it is difficult to act in conformity with moral codes.

A question that will recur is the question of how society can be structured in such a way that there are the equivalent of eyes above our computers and mirrors in our room so that we can act in keeping with rules that allow societies to provide the kind of stability that allows human beings to flourish.

Conclusion

When I talked about the consequences of morality, I’ve restricted discussion to consequences for you, things like your reputation. What about other sorts of consequences? What about when acting in immoral ways brings harm to others?

Human beings have a capacity for empathy and sympathy, and the ways in which those features might be leveraged to help do some of the prosocial work that mirrors and eyes do.

When Glaucon is talking about it, is he only talking about issues of reputation?

So there’s a very interesting thing going on in Book II of The Republic. Glaucon and Adeimantus are taking on a conversation that Socrates has been having with Thrasymachus in Book I about reputation. So that’s part of why that’s being invoked as a reason. But there are also, you’ll hear, when Socrates gives his answer, it’s about the integrity of the person who acts in moral or immoral ways. And what Socrates is basically going to go on to say is:  “It may seem to you like all you care about is what you appear to be to others. But as a matter of fact, when you let your soul get out of order, when you behave in ways that are impulsive, that are insensitive to the needs of others, you, yourself will be unable to flourish.” And that’s the answer we’re going to be exploring. Glaucon hasn’t raised that as a question yet. Socrates is going to introduce it into the conversation.

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