Tuesday, February 10, 2015

How It Will Go, Episode 3: Teaching Plato's "The Story of Gyges' Ring"

This is the third installment of my series How It Will Go, documenting the regularity of students' responses to certain figures/texts and, in the occasional rare instance that it happens, noting whatever variations I witness.

Today's episode: Plato, "The Story of Gyges' Ring," (from The Republic)

Context in which I teach this figure/text:   I begin all of my survey courses with selections from Plato's Republic, which I find to be the very best way to introduce students to the practice of Philosophy.  (I mean "the practice of Philosophy" here in the very Platonic "formal" or "ideal" sense, which is decidedly not descriptive of the contemporary "profession of Philosophy," a horse of an entirely different color.) In my experience, the story of Gyges' ring, recounted by Glaucon in the course of an argument with Socrates et al regarding the alleged profitability of being just, generates as much genuinely interesting and morally reflective conversation among students as any other prompt offered up in the history of Philosophy, save the obvious exception of the Trolley Problem.  For those unfamiliar with Plato's story, the basic premise is that Gyges' ring allows its wearer the opportunity to become invisible.  As a consequence, even a "just" person, given access to Gyges' Ring, would not act justly, Glaucon argues, since the only reason we act justly is because we fear the consequences/punishment of acting unjustly.  Plato sets this argument up as a way of forcing Socrates to defend the claim that justice (and, correspondingly, "being just") is good for its own sake, and not in the service of some other end (i.e., gaining reward or avoiding punishment).  As I'm sure it must have seemed to Socrates, it is entirely unsurprising to me that students' responses to the story of Gyges' Ring, i.e., the possibility of acting without consequence, are entirely predictable.

In sum, this is HIWG:

First: Every single student, on first hearing the terms, WILL agree with Glaucon. They will concede -- immediately, unapologetically and unreflectively-- that they would likely indulge every one of their most transgressive desires given the opportunity to do so without any fear of retribution or punitive consequence.

Second:  Some of them-- nay, in fact, most of them-- almost immediately after expressing the transgressive desires they would indulge, will immediately backtrack and realize that, even given the promise of invisibility and/or immunity, they would nevertheless be bothered by their own conscience.

Third:  A debate will ensue between those who think that the dictates of our conscience are socially constructed (fwiw, they won't, for the most part, use the "socially constructed" term, but that is what they will mean) and those who think that socially-constructed norms are legitimately dispensable when the enforcing-mechanisms of those same social constructions are removed.

Fourth: Most will anticipate Socrates' response to Glaucon intuitively, even if they remain unable to make thetic to themselves the reason motivating their rejection of Glaucon's thought-experiment. That is, most will intuit that being unjust (and/or acting unjustly) is per se undesirable, as it results in an internal conflict,  though they will lack the constitutive terms necessary for describing this conflict.  They will be, in effect, fully primed and ready to receive Plato's analogy of State and Soul.

And so it goes.

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