Research and Reflection Assignment 2
R e a d i n g
Book I 344a-c
Consider this type of man, then, if you wish to judge how much more profitable it is to him personally to be unjust than to be just. And the easiest way of all to understand this matter will be to look at the man who has committed the most injustice and who is the most happy, and makes those who are wronged and who would not themselves willingly do wrong, most miserable. And this man in the tyrant, who both by stealth and by force takes away what belongs to others, both sacred and profane, both private and public, not little by little but at one swoop…But when in addition to the property of the citizens men kidnap and enslave the citizens themselves, instead of these negative names, the tyrants are pronounced happy and blessed not only by their fellow-citizens but by all who hear the story of this tyrannical man who has committed complete and entire injustice.
Book II 358e-360c
Now listen to what I said would be the first topic—the nature and origin of justice. They say to commit injustice is good and to suffer injustice is a terrible evil. Moreover, the excess of evil in being wronged is greater than the excess of good in doing wrong. So that when men do wrong and are wronged by one another and experience both, those who lack the power to avoid the one and pursue the other decide that it is to their benefit to make an agreement with one another neither to commit nor to suffer injustice. This is the beginning of legislation and contracts between men, which the parties to the agreement name “law” and say that obeying the law is “just.” This is the genesis and essential nature of justice: it is a compromise between the best, which is to do wrong with impunity, and the worst, which is to be wronged and be impotent to get one’s revenge. Justice, they tell us, being mid-way between the two, is accepted and approved, not as a real good, but as a thing honored in the lack of courage to do injustice, since anyone who had the power to do it and was in reality ‘a man’ would never make a contract with anybody either to wrong nor to be wronged. He would be crazy to do so. The nature, then, of justice is this and such as this, Socrates, and such are the conditions in which it originates, according to the theory.
The second topic is contained in the claim that those who practice justice do so unwillingly and from inability to commit injustice. We can understand this best if we entertain the following thought-experiment: we should grant to each, the just and the unjust, license and power to do whatever he pleases, and then accompany them in imagination and see which way his desire will lead. We should then catch the just man in the very act of resorting to the same conduct as the unjust man because of the advantage which every creature by its nature pursues as good, while by the convention of law each human, at least, is forced to honor ‘equality.’ The license I’m talking about is something like that which would result from supposing the just and the unjust alike to have the power which men say once came to the ancestor of Gyges the Lydian. They relate that he was a shepherd in the service of the ruler at that time of Lydia, and that after a great deluge of rain and an earthquake the ground opened and a chasm appeared in the place where he was pasturing; and they say that he saw and wondered and went down into the chasm; and the story goes that he beheld other marvels there and a hollow bronze horse with little doors, and that he peeped in and saw a corpse within, as it seemed, of more than mortal stature, and that there was nothing else but a gold ring on its hand, which he took off and left. And when the shepherds held their customary assembly to make their monthly report to the king about the flocks, he also attended wearing the ring. So, as he sat there, it chanced that he turned the jewel in the ring towards himself, towards the inner part of his hand, and when he did so, they say that he became invisible to those who sat by him; and they spoke of him as if he were absent. He was amazed, and again fumbling with the ring turned the collet outwards and so became visible again. On noting this, he experimented again with the ring to see if it possessed this power, and he found the result to be that when he turned the jewel in the ring inwards he became invisible, and when outwards visible. When he was sufficiently assured of the power of the ring, he immediately arranged things so that he became one of the messengers who went up to the king, and on coming there he seduced the king’s wife and, with her assistance, set upon the king and slew him and possessed his kingdom. If now there should be two such rings, and the just man should put on one and the unjust the other, no one could be found, it would seem, of such amazingly strong temper as to be just and keep his hands from the possessions of others and not touch them, though he might without punishment take what he wished from the marketplace, and enter into houses and lie with whom he pleased, and slay and loose from bonds whomsoever he would, and in all other things conduct himself among mankind as the equal of a god. And in so acting the just man would do no differently from the unjust man, but both would pursue the same course. And yet this is a great proof, one might argue, that no one is just of his own choice but only from constraint. Justice is not his personal good, inasmuch as every man, when he supposes himself to have the power to do wrong, does wrong.
“Birds and Fishes”
Every October millions of little fish come along the shore,Coasting this granite edge of the continent
On their lawful occasions: but what a festival for the sea-fowl.
What a witches’ sabbath of wings Hides the dark water. The heavy pelicans shout “Haw!” like Job’s friend’s warhorse
And dive from the high air, the cormorants Slip their long black bodies under the water and hunt like wolves
Through the green half-light. Screaming, the gulls watch,Wild with envy and malice, cursing and snatching. What hysterical greed!
What a filling of pouches! the mob Hysteria is nearly human—these decent birds!—as if they were finding Gold in the street. It is better than gold, It can be eaten: and which one in all this fury of wild-fowl pities the fish?
No one certainly. Justice and mercy Are human dreams, they do not concern the birds nor the fish nor eternal God.
However—look again before you go.
The wings and wild hungers, the wave-worn skerries, the bright quick minnows Living in terror to die in torment—
Man’s fate and theirs—and the island rocks and immense ocean beyond, and Lobos Darkening above the bay: they are beautiful?
That is their quality: not mercy, not mind, not goodness, but the beauty of God.
The provocative title of Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness matches an equally provocative thesis about ethics. Traditional ethics has always been suspicious of self-interest, praising acts that are selfless in intent and calling amoral or immoral acts that are motivated by self-interest. A self-interested person, on the traditional view, will not consider the interests of others and so will slight or harm those interests in the pursuit of his own.
Rand’s view is that the exact opposite is true: Self-interest, properly understood, is the standard of morality and selflessness is the deepest immorality. Self-interest rightly understood, according to Rand, is to see oneself as an end in oneself. That is to say that one’s own life and happiness are one’s highest values, and that one does not exist as a servant or slave to the interests of others. Nor do others exist as servants or slaves to one’s own interests. Each person’s own life and happiness are their ultimate ends. Self-interest rightly understood also entails self-responsibility: One’s life is one’s own, and so is the responsibility for sustaining and enhancing it. It is up to each of us to determine what values our lives require, how best to achieve those values, and to act to achieve those values.
W r i t i n g