Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Dan Letovsky: Unscripted Remarks, September 2005

In a heated yet civilized debate portrayed in the early scenes of Allan Bloom’s The Republic of Plato, an attempt to define justice is made. This in depth discussion of the concept of justice consists of Socrates and a crowd of younger and arguably less wise men. During the back and forth questioning between Socrates and other participants in the debate, Thrasymachas becomes frustrated with Socrates’ method of discussing justice. As he stands up to address not only Socrates but the larger group around him, he begins by insulting Socrates and the way he is participating in the discussion. After the outburst against the present questioning that is happening between Socrates and Polemarchus, Thrasymachas presents his own definition of justice: “I say that the just is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.” (338 c) Thrasymachas’ statement brings about a new debate centered around this issue, but not only in Plato is this a debated statement: in the modern day world, the issue of whether the will of the authority, is always the just thing is constantly brought up and discussed. In today’s world, with widespread media and internet access, a discussion similar to the one between Socrates and Polemarchus would be a commonplace thing; in a themed blog, forum, or chat room, any number of discussions over justice can exist. However, throughout most of human history, the degree to which the average person could communicate with other people around the world was very limited. This lack of mass communication meant that whoever controlled access to large groups of people would have a huge advantage in spreading their message and their way of thought. The party that generally has this power to access thousands of people can be a government or a ruling economic class, a group that Thrasymachas refers to as “the stronger”. The “stronger” that Thrasymachas refers to is a group with an advantage over others, a group that is in control and sets the rules. The statement that justice can be a tool used by the stronger in order to maintain their power is true. However Thrasymachas implies that whatever the stronger group lays down as a so called form of justice is always the just thing. Here, we must make a distinction between what we will call practical or real justice, and true justice. Practical justice is a term that can be applied to a system of laws or standards that is laid down by a ruling class or government. This form of justice exists so that a government or group of people can maintain order among a larger population. It includes laws, standards, and social contracts that everyone in that society is supposed to follow. If everyone in society plays by these rules, the society will run with a certain degree of order, and there will be advances in the common good. However, these laws that exist for the common good are not always in the best interests of certain individuals, and are not always the embodiment of true justice. True justice, a term which I will not define specifically, but can be thought of as the most universally right principle, rarely exists in modern societies. Justice, the definition of which Socrates and Polemarchus are trying to describe by their discussion, would not be functional in a society of many people. To do the just thing for everyone is impossible, because of the varying needs and desires of all people. So, a compromise needs to be reached, and this compromise is generally a set of rules that people must follow in order to be part of society. Practical justice, the compromise between all elements of society, is the most functional form of organizing people, because it represents justice in terms of the common good. Thrasymachas, in stating that justice is only a tool by which a stronger group of people stays in control was mistaken, because justice is so much more. While it is true that a dominant party may exist that presides over society as a whole, making decisions that affect thousands of people, justice is not the tool they use to control people, it is the vehicle by which they attained their power. The influence of practical justice, or a compromise by all elements of society, has caused the existence of some dominant party, and they are merely exercising their will to the fullest until they no longer serve the common good.

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