Published by the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas (founded in 1990 by Mortimer J. Adler and Max Weismann)
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Friday, February 15, 2008

The Ring of Gaiges

This post has been copied from the Great Ideas Forum

In Book V of the Republic a definition of justice was proposed based on the legend of the Ring of Gaiges. Gaiges found a ring that would make him invisible so that he could obtain information and goods by stealth without fear of punishment or reprisal. Justice is proposed as the compromise between our desire to BE Gaiges and obtain all goods for free and our desire to NOT be his victim. This definition is debated a little in the Republic and then discarded without being formally refuted.

Frankly, that definition of Justice strikes me as perverse and hideous. It was hard to put my finger on what made it so awful to me. Then it hit me: Not all goods could be obtained by Gaiges using his magic ring.

There is a class of goods which cannot be obtained by stealth, theft or coercion: things like bodily strength, wisdom, friendship, love, self-discipline, honesty. Most of these kinds of goods are unlimited in the sense that my intelligence does not detract from yours. My honesty does not subtract from the available honesty to be had. For lack of a better word, I will call these goods virtues.

Just for clarification, note that one can steal money to get into a university, or perhaps to obtain a diploma, but knowledge must be obtained the old fashion way - by ones own effort. Knowlege is the virtue. A diploma or school attendance are not necessarily virtuous. Thus, there is a class of goods which, by their very nature, can only be obtained through what we would call "just" means. Note that we dont' need to agree on a definition of "good", "right", "happiness" or "fairness" to recognize there is something unique about the class of goods I am calling "virtue".

Next post, I will propose a definition of justice based upon the unique properties of this class of goods.

How do you find the definition of justice based on the Ring of Gaiges ?

What would you include in a list of goods that cannot be obtained by stealth, deception or coercion?

Looking at your list, do you sense that there is indeed something unique about these goods. Can you put your finger on what it is?

Is there any correlation between your list of virtues and what makes your life rich and meaningful?


  1. Max Weisman made these statements on the Great Ideas Forum in response to this post:

    The Ring of Gaiges, has but one purpose--evil!


    >Everyone has their own universal definition of all of these subjective ideas.

    Only one definition can be right.

  2. I disagree that evil can ever be a purpose. It may be the result, but never the intent. When Gaiges found the ring, he thought, "Cool!, I'll be rich and happy." He didn't understand that he couldn't be happy that way and his effort was doomed to failure. Evil was the end but not the purpose.

    In any event, the use of this story as metaphor is simply the conflict between Law as the will of the sovereign and Law as a created entity based on the will of people.

  3. I also disagree with a world-view that claims there can be only one right answer to subjective ideas.

    Can a person be coerced into happiness?

    If not, then, if person A comes up with a definition of happiness and person B disagrees with it, person A must either allow person B to disagree (admit the possibility of other answers) or person A must coerce person B either overtly (physical punishment, prosecution, incarceration, ostracism) or covertly(labeling his position, "wrong", "stupid", "ignorant".

    The concept of happiness precludes coercion and therefore the doctrinaire position that there is only one right answer.