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Are the Unjust Truly at an Advantage?

A Rebuttal to Thrasymachus’ Argument in Plato’s Republic

By Waleed Mahmud TariqPublished about a month ago 7 min read
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The Ethical Foundation of Justice

At the core of Thrasymachus’ argument is the belief that justice is nothing more than a social construct designed to benefit the powerful at the expense of the weak. This perspective overlooks the intrinsic value of justice as an ethical principle that transcends individual interests. Justice, in its true form, is about fairness, equity, and the protection of rights. It is a cornerstone of ethical behavior that creates social harmony and mutual respect. When justice is upheld, it creates a society where individuals can coexist peacefully and pursue their goals without fear of exploitation or oppression.

Philosophers like Immanuel Kant argue that ethical principles should be universal and categorical, meaning they apply to all individuals regardless of circumstances. Kant’s categorical imperative suggests that one should act only according to that maxim which one can will to become a universal law. Applying this to justice would mean that true justice cannot merely be an interest of the stronger; such a maxim would lead to a world where “might makes right,” a chaotic and destructive state of affairs that ultimately undermines the overall well-being of society.

Imagine a society where lying, cheating, and stealing were universally accepted. People would constantly live in fear, unsure of who to trust, leading to widespread paranoia and social fragmentation. Businesses would collapse without the trust necessary for transactions, relationships would disintegrate, and the general social order would break down. In such a world, cooperative efforts that underpin economic and social progress would be impossible, leading to the ultimate undermining of everyone’s well-being.

The Paradox of Tyranny

Thrasymachus glorifies the tyrant as the epitome of success, arguing that the ultimate form of injustice, tyranny, leads to the greatest happiness. However, this argument is self-defeating when scrutinized through the lens of both ethical theory and practical outcomes. The life of a tyrant, while seemingly powerful, is fraught with paranoia, isolation, and the constant threat of violence. Historical examples abound: from Nero to Stalin, tyrants have often met with violent ends and lived in perpetual fear of betrayal and rebellion.

Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, posits that true happiness (eudaimonia) is found in the exercise of virtue and the fulfillment of one’s rational capacities. Tyranny, which is based on the subjugation and exploitation of others, fundamentally opposes virtuous living. The tyrant, in pursuing power through injustice, sacrifices the internal goods of the soul, such as integrity, peace of mind, and genuine human connection — that are essential for true happiness. Thus, the tyrant’s life, contrary to Thrasymachus’ claims, is not enviable but pitiable.

Why Integrity, Peace of Mind, and Genuine Human Connection Are Essential for True Happiness

These internal goods are crucial because they contribute to a well-rounded and fulfilling human experience:

Integrity: Living with integrity means aligning one’s actions with one’s values and principles. It nurtures a sense of self-respect and trustworthiness. When people act in ways that are consistent with their moral beliefs, they experience less internal conflict and guilt, leading to a more stable and positive self-image.

Peace of Mind: This arises from a clear conscience and the absence of anxiety about one’s actions. Acting unjustly often requires constant vigilance and deceit, which can lead to chronic stress and mental anguish. A life devoid of peace of mind is marked by turmoil and dissatisfaction, making true happiness elusive.

Genuine Human Connection: Humans are inherently social creatures who thrive on meaningful relationships. Genuine connections provide emotional support, shared joy, and a sense of belonging. Tyranny and unjust actions typically erode trust and foster isolation, depriving individuals of these vital social bonds.

The Importance of Peace of Mind

Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia underscores the importance of peace of mind as a fundamental aspect of a just life. Peace of mind arises from living in accordance with one’s virtues and principles. When individuals act justly, they align their actions with their ethical beliefs, creating harmony between their internal values and external behaviors. This alignment creates a sense of integrity and self-respect, which are crucial for psychological well-being.

Conversely, living unjustly creates cognitive dissonance, a conflict between one’s actions and moral beliefs. This dissonance leads to anxiety, guilt, and stress, eroding peace of mind. The unjust person, constantly aware of their ethical transgressions, cannot achieve true inner peace. Their life is marked by a continuous effort to suppress guilt and justify wrongdoing, resulting in a fragmented and troubled psyche.

Consider the corporate scandals like those of Enron and Lehman Brothers. The executives involved engaged in deceitful and unjust practices for personal gain. Initially, they might have experienced success and wealth, but this came at the cost of their peace of mind and integrity. Eventually, the exposure of their wrongdoings led to public disgrace, legal repercussions, and personal turmoil.

One might argue, as Thrasymachus does, that a tyrant could adhere to a personal moral code that justifies their actions, thus avoiding anxiety, guilt, and stress. Indeed, many historical tyrants reportedly viewed themselves as a martyr, believing their actions were justified. However, this perspective fails to consider several crucial points.

First, a tyrant’s personal belief in their righteousness does not negate the broader societal consequences of their actions. Tyranny is characterized by human rights abuses, corruption, and widespread fear. Even if a tyrant believed their actions were justified, the long-term consequences for society are devastating: social trust is destroyed, sectarian violence escalates, and the nation faces prolonged instability. Such outcomes demonstrate that a tyrant’s self-justified moral code is insufficient to sustain societal well-being.

Second, inner peace and happiness are not solely determined by one’s beliefs but also by the external reality they create. Even if the tyrant dies believing that they were a martyr, their life is marked by isolation, paranoia, and the constant threat of violence. These conditions are far from conducive to true happiness. True happiness, as Aristotle posited, involves the fulfillment of one’s rational capacities and the exercise of virtue. A life spent in fear and isolation, devoid of genuine human connections and marred by constant threats, cannot be considered truly happy.

Third, the perception of inner peace and happiness under dire circumstances may be more about psychological coping mechanisms than actual contentment. Individuals in extreme situations often develop narratives to make sense of their experiences and maintain a semblance of mental stability. While a tyrant might have convinced themselves of their martyrdom, this does not equate to genuine inner peace, which is rooted in the harmonious alignment of one’s actions with universal ethical principles.

The Social Contract and Mutual Benefit

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the social contract provides a powerful counterargument to Thrasymachus’ view. Rousseau argues that individuals come together to form societies and agree upon rules and norms of justice because it benefits everyone. In a state of nature, where there are no rules, ‘life is brutish and short’, as Hobbes famously noted. The social contract is an agreement to form a society governed by justice, where the rights and interests of all individuals are protected.

Justice, therefore, is not merely the interest of the stronger but a mutual agreement that serves the common good. It is through just laws and fair governance that societies can thrive. When justice prevails, trust is built, cooperation is enhanced, and individuals can engage in meaningful pursuits without the constant fear of being wronged. This leads to a stable and prosperous society, which benefits everyone, including those in positions of power.

Look at the Scandinavian countries, which consistently rank high in measures of happiness, trust, and social cohesion. Their emphasis on justice, equality, and the social contract has created societies where individuals feel secure, valued, and motivated to contribute to the common good.

The Practical Failures of Injustice

Thrasymachus’ argument also fails when we consider the practical implications of widespread injustice. A society where injustice prevails is one where trust is eroded, social cohesion breaks down, and conflict becomes rampant. In such a society, economic and social progress is stymied because individuals are more focused on self-preservation and protecting themselves from harm than on contributing to the common good. This is evidently noticed in different forms of dictatorships.

Research in social and behavioral sciences has shown that societies with higher levels of trust and social capital tend to have better economic outcomes, higher levels of happiness, and greater overall well-being. Conversely, societies plagued by corruption, injustice, and inequality suffer from economic stagnation, social unrest, and widespread dissatisfaction. The practical failures of injustice demonstrate that it is not a sustainable path to long-term success or happiness.

Consider the state of affairs in countries with high levels of corruption and injustice. Often, these nations face economic instability, widespread poverty, and social unrest. The lack of trust in institutions leads to a breakdown in social order and hinders progress, demonstrating that injustice ultimately undermines the well-being of society as a whole.

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The Strength of Justice

Justice, when understood as a universal ethical principle, creates social cohesion, mutual respect, and long-term well-being. Tyranny and large-scale injustice, far from leading to true happiness, result in fear, isolation, and societal breakdown. The practical and moral failures of injustice highlight the strength of justice as the foundation of a thriving society.

Therefore, justice is not merely a tool for the powerful to maintain control. It is a fundamental principle that benefits all members of society by promoting trust, cooperation, and mutual respect. By upholding justice, we create a world where individuals can pursue their goals and dreams in an environment of fairness and security. Thus, the true power lies not in the hands of the unjust, but in the enduring strength of justice itself.

Historical lessons repeatedly remind us that justice is essential for the well-being of individuals and societies alike. Through justice, we can build a more equitable and harmonious world, ensuring that the pursuit of happiness is a shared journey rather than a solitary conquest.

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    WMTWritten by Waleed Mahmud Tariq

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