In this passage from Book II of the Republic, Plato attempts to defend the view that we should behave morally/justly for its own sake rather than for the potential beneficial consequences. In philoso-talk we'd say acting morally is also a good "in itself" and not just an instrumental good.
An instrumental good is something that is good because of some consequence it brings about. For instance, money is an instrumental good because it is a means to obtaining some other goods like paying for our university education or going on vacation. The "good" that money possess is to allow us to get the things that are more gooder than money. If money didn't allow us to get good things, it would cease to have any value. It'd just be colored paper.
An intrinsic good is a good that has value not because it allows us to get other things but because it just fundamentally is good. Things that are intrinsic goods might include happiness and pleasure.
Anyhow, in this passage, Glaucon and Adeimantus argue that people only behave justly because (a) they are afraid of the consequences of getting caught acting unjustly or (b) they are too weak or cowardly to do what they really want to do or (c) they pursue the instrumental value of being perceived as just. People don't act justly because they see some intrinsic value in behaving justly.
Note: Although they aren't completely equivalent, for our purposes we can use the word "moral" interchangeably with how Plato uses "just".
Setting the Scene: Justice Is Only an Instrumental Good, It Has No Intrinsic Value
Glaucon identifies 3 categories of goods: (1) purely intrinsic, (2) intrinsic but also having good consequences, (3) purely instrumental goods. In the first category we can put things like (harmless) pleasures and happiness. We don't want them because of any additional consequence they might bring us. We don't seek happiness in order to obtain some other thing. We just want happiness as an end in itself. Same goes for pleasure.
In the second category are things that are ends in themselves but also bring about further good consequences. Health is something we desire for itself but also for its consequences: being healthy "just is" good but it allows us to enjoy aspects of life we can't enjoy without it.
In the third category are things like money. If money didn't allow us to get the things we really wanted, it would have no value--we wouldn't try to get it. Since money is an instrumental good, it has no value of its own. It's value is only in the other things it allows us to get.
The Main Issue: Glaucon says justice (or behaving morally) belongs to the third category. Justice is an instrumental good. People only behave morally because of what it gets them (or what being perceived as failing to behave morally will get them): acting morally gets you a good reputation and status--the real goods we're after. Like money, behaving morally isn't desirable in itself. Doing so is a burden without the consequent benefits.
Socrates on the other hand says justice belongs in the second category. It is good in itself and it has good consequences.
In this passage, Glaucon presents his argument for why justice is a purely instrumental good rather than a good that also has intrinsic value. Part of his argument is also to show why acting morally isn't an intrinsic good.
Argument 1: What Justice Is and Where it Comes From
Justice is the result of a compromise against having to suffer injustice and the benefits of being able to act unjustly. Consider a pre-legal group of individuals living in the same area; i.e., people in the "state of nature." If there are no laws and you are stronger than others you can take and do what you want. This is good (for you). However, in such a state you're also vulnerable to people or groups of people doing the same to you...which would really suck. Justice is a way of reconciling this situation: in order to protect themselves from being at the receiving end of unjust acts, people enter into a contract of laws.
The down side is people no longer get to take and harm whomever they want whenever they want. In short, people enter into a society of laws, not because they think justice is intrinsically good, but because they don't want to be at the receiving end of injustice. What most people actually desire is be able to do whatever they want. If you suspended all laws, this is exactly how people would behave. In short, this proves that people don't act justly because they see it as some intrinsic good, rather, they do it for other reason. They do it as a means to avoid harm done by others: just behavior is an instrumental good. Boom! Goes the dynamite.
Issue: Is Glaucon correct that people only enter into social contracts to avoid harm?
Issue: Is Glaucon giving a purely descriptive account of people's behavior or is he putting forward a meta-ethical position? What might his meta-ethical position be?
Issue: Glaucon implies that the law is a perversion of our natural desires: it is the middle road between what is good (acting on our natural desires without consequence) and what is bad (suffering injustice without being able to avenge one's self). This implies that the true good life would be act on our natural desires without their being impinged upon. Is he right?
The Ring Thought Experiment
Glaucon then proposes a thought experiment that has an eerie resemblance to Lord of the Rings (plagiarism alert!). Suppose someone we considered to be just found a ring that could make herself invisible. It's inconceivable that this person wouldn't take advantage of this in someway to advance her position in a way that she wouldn't without the ring. Eg. eavesdropping on conversations, stealing expensive things, free friends and family from prison (I'd love to get my family out of prison), etc... Even if she didn't advance her own position, maybe she'd do things to help her loved ones (that she couldn't do otherwise). This again goes to show that we don't value justice in itself because given the chance to do injustice, we will do it. Given the opportunity, we will act according to what benefits us and/or our loved ones.
But what if the honest person with the ring didn't take advantage of the rings powers to benefit themselves or loved-ones? If we found out, we might publicly praise them as to preserve our public image as just individuals, however in private we'd say this person is a fool!
Issue: Is the fact that everyone else might think this person a fool an argument against the intrinsic value of acting morally?
Issue: “We would catch the just man red-handed going the same way as the unjust man out of a desire to get the better [...]." Is this true?
Uber-Just Man vs Uber-Unjust Man
If being just has value in itself, then that value should be visible to even the unjust. But consider the following: there a person who only does things for justice-sake. He doesn't care about the reputation or praise he acquires for his acts. In fact, lets suppose that he gets none of these benefits. Not only that but the just man is perceived to be the exact opposite! For every just act, he gets accused of being unjust and is punished accordingly. Yet, he continues to act this way. In other words, lets strip away from acting justly all the instrumental goods and see if there is any good left over. If there is, then Socrates might have a case. If not, then he doesn't.
On the other hand, consider the most unjust man of diabolical cleverness. He does everything for personal gain no matter what the consequences to others. No only that, but because he is so clever, he is perceived to be and praised as just! This is true injustice! He can harm his enemies, help his friends, he wins all contests. He has power, wealth, and reputation to bring about or rectify whatever he wants. If he gets caught or is accused of injustice he can uses his resources to coerce or persuade his detractors. In short, this person gets all the instrumental goods associated with being perceived to be just but doesn't get any of the yet-to-be established intrinsic goods for actually being just.
Lets consider how we might perceive the life of each. The just man lives and dies despised by all because they all perceive him as unjust. The maximally unjust man lives a life of happiness and is perceived to be honorable and just by all. He has wealth, friends, power, status, and his own realty tv show. Who would you say had the better life? If justice is an intrinsic good then we must answer it was the just man. But this is contrary to what most consider to be a good life.
Issue: What is the measure of a good life? Glaucon seems to imply it is measured by happiness. Is he right?
Issue: Is Glaucon right that a good life being able to do whatever you please while maintaining reputation for being just?
Issue: Could any good come out of the uber just man's life?
Issue: Glaucon's initial line of argument was to show that there in no intrinsic good in being just. To illustrate his point he compares the life of the uber just and uber unjust man in terms of happiness. Is this an effective line of argument?
If that doesn't convince you that justice is merely an instrumental good, then Adeimantus has a different argument...
Justice Vs Appearance of Justice
When we teach our children to be moral why do we do it? Is it simply because we want for them to be just; full stop? Or is it because we want our children to have the things that perceived just behavior attracts such as respect and a good reputation? It seems like it's the latter.
Issue: Is this why we teach our children to be moral? Is it so they can function in society or is it because we believe there is some intrinsic good that comes out of being just apart from the desirable social consequences?
Reward and Punishment
Also, consider another reason for which parents implore their children to be just. If they aren't just, they are told they will be punished in the afterlife but if they are just they will be rewarded. Again, this is not an argument for the intrinsic good of being just, but one more example of why acting morally is an instrumental good. If you act morally YOU will be rewarded, if not YOU will be punished. As one of my favorite professors (Dr. G. Brown) called it, this is "'lolly-pop' morality." If you're good, you get a lolly pop. If you're bad, you get punished. This has everything to do with personal interest and nothing to do with intrinsic good.
Justice is Difficult and Unprofitable and Injustice is Sweet, Easy, and Shameful only by Opinion and Law
Acting unjustly is sweet and easy. Also, many unjust people are happy and looked up to (often because of their gains--not from the gym, tho). On the other hand, justice is difficult and often runs counter to personal interest. To make matters worse, those that live justly and in poverty are often looked down on while those who got rich off of unjust actions are looked up to (see: contemporary American culture).
The Unjust Can Escape Divine Justice
God/gods can be bought off or can grant forgiveness (often hand in hand). The rich man with his ill-gotten gains can make a sizable donation to whatever religious organization he belongs to and be forgiven. Or after a lifetime of ill-gotten gains and immoral behavior, he can ask for forgiveness. God/gods can be persuaded. Instead of struggling through life, why not live the fun life then pay off the gods/ask for forgiveness at the end?
The very gods can be moved by prayer too.
With sacrifices and gentle vows and
The odor of burnt and drink offerings,
human beings turn them aside with
When someone has transgressed and
made a mistake
All the sources we have to know about God/gods tell us this is true. The evil can be forgiven on their death bed even.
The Seeming Overpowers the Truth
Given the difficulty and lack of any guarantee of happiness or reward for being good and all the benefits that come with being perceived as just, why would anyone choose to be just? What value is there? It seems clear: it makes way more sense to seem just than to be just. This way you get all the instrumental benefits and none of the self-sacrifice.
Sure, it's not always easy to get away with things, but this is why you need to cultivate your skills of persuasion (i.e., take phil 102) and organize into secret societies to impose force and coerce when necessary.
Issue: Is it true that "Seeming just is what leads to a happy life, there is no intrinsic value in being just" and “the seeming overpowers even the truth.”
But what about God/gods? If there are none or they don't care about human affairs, then it makes no difference. If there are God(s), the books through which we know them tell us they can be "persuaded and perverted by sacrifices, soothing vows, and votive offerings".
Sympathy for the Wicked
If someone can show these arguments to be false and has an argument for why we should be just (rather than appear to be just), he must have great sympathy for those who do injustice. The arguments in favor of seeming to be just are very compelling and so it should be understandable to someone who comprehends them, yet opposes them, why people adhere to them.
Haters Gonna Hate
Also, it seems that the only reason people are willingly just is because they lack the power, courage, or strength to act as they truly would if they could. (See: Nietzsche)
Why Be Moral?
Can you think of any reasons for being just other than the instrumental benefits? What good does the unjust man who appears just miss out on that just man who appears unjust gains? And even if we can show some good that the just man gains, does it outweigh all the instrumental goods the clever unjust man gains?
Boom! Goes the Dynamite.
Issue: Is this true? "In all history there is not one who praised justice for something other than its consequences: reputation, honors, and gifts that come from it."