Tuesday, September 13, 2005

It's Not a Little Voice in the Back of our Heads...

In Book II, as Socrates continues his discussion of the concept of justice with another young man named Glaucon, an anecdote of absolute power is told. The story of the Ring of Gyges follows a young shepherd who finds a ring that gives him powers making him equivalent to a god among men. With the power to make himself invisible, the young shepherd does as he pleases, and eventually takes over the kingdom in which he lives by seducing the Queen and murdering the king. This story serves as an example of the manner in which an average person would act if all restrictions on their behavior were removed: the young shepherd acts without worry of the consequences, because no one can see him committing any of the crimes he is involved in. However, in a real life situation, the average person does not commit crimes to the extent of this young shepherd, because of the structure of the societies we live in. More specifically, most people do not kill people that anger or insult them, because of laws that exist in countries and worldwide organizations.

It is with the consideration of institutions of law that people do not murder their enemies at any point, but another part of the reality of law is that when the threat of being caught is reduced, many more people are willing to commit crimes, and sometimes those crimes can even be sanctioned by law. The story of the young shepherd illustrates a situation where someone is free to act as they please without fear of consequences, and they act in ways that are harmful to others. The opposite situation is true for a majority of the world’s population: they live in societies where laws or social agreements exist so that people do not act in ways that are harmful to others, and if they violate these societal rules, then society labels them as criminals and they are given an according punishment.

As a member of an organized society of law, I am unable to do harm to my enemies most of the time. If someone has done some injustice to me, I am not allowed to take justice into my own hands and do what I think is right as a punishment; ideally the system of laws that we call our government will take care of that for me, and it is illegal for me to act without the consent of the government. There are some notable exceptions to this statement, and these include self-defense laws, enlisting in the military, or other forms of civilian empowerment. All of these exceptions, however, are not examples of a situation where I could do as I please to my enemies, they are merely situations where the government has deemed it appropriate for me to act in a way that is harmful to other humans, and essentially given me a license to kill or harm. Outside of these notable examples, the law in our society does not tolerate people harming others because they feel threatened by their enemies.

The presence of laws and social accords does not always prevent people from harming other people that they see as enemies. Because a law itself cannot be effective at eliminating or requiring a certain type of behavior, many people will violate a law if they think there will be no consequences. This is where enforcement is necessary. However, enforcement, whether through trained officials such as police officers, or just citizens reporting on each other to the government, cannot always stop all types of illegal activity. While many crimes are committed in the heat of the moment, such as domestic murders inspired by marital issues, the majority of crimes committed involve perpetrators who have weighed the consequences of their behavior, and feel that they have a good chance of not being punished for their actions. Without enforcement, no laws will be followed by a majority of a population, because the human desire to do what is right for oneself is too powerful. We see this in the anecdote of the shepherd; a young man commits adultery and murders a king because even though his actions are considered “wrong” by society as a whole, he knows that he cannot be caught, so he commits the crimes.
Drawing upon the debate between Socrates and Glaucon, as well as a working knowledge of the society we live in, I can conclude that the reasons I do not go out and harm my enemies are not choices that I have made based on my own free will, but they are influenced by the existence of a legal system. Also, other considerations may include what other people think of me, because even if I am not penalized by the law for harming people, peoples attitudes towards me will be very different if I am seen to be destructive and hurtful, so for these reasons my enemies are mostly safe from my retaliatory actions, unless I ever join the army of police force.


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