Opinion justice is to obey laws

This essay sets out to examine the suggestions that Thrasymachus makes in Book I of the Republic, concerning what justice is, after suggesting that Polemarchus was not at all talking sensibly. I intend to discuss the two definitions which he offers to Socrates, and their validity; I wish to also examine to what extent Socrates' refutations can be considered as good arguments against Thrasymachus' theories about the nature of justice.

Thrasymachus first argues that justice is the advantage of the stronger1; Socrates rather mocks this suggestion, first taking Thrasymachus completely literally, asking him whether a boxer, because he is stronger, is a just person. Thrasymachus obviously does not mean this quite as logically as Socrates interprets it, and he then goes on to suggest that, by extension of this thought, justice is the advantage of someone else, meaning that it benefits someone other than the agent himself.

Just like Platonic interlocutors found in other dialogues though, Thrasymachus' stand seems far from definite, as he wavers about what he believes. This raises an interesting issue: are justice and just acts really always to the advantage of someone else, and is that person always the stronger? For example, a drug dealer is a selling a very dangerous drug that is fatal for all those who take it. One hundred people have died because of his sales of the drug and, despite several prison sentences, he continues to sell it and kills more and more people each week.

A jury decides that he must face the death penalty on account of his deeds, preventing further deaths at his hands. His death sentence then seems rather justified and the people benefiting from this application of justice will be the citizens in the town where he lives, who were all his potential victims before his arrest. However, it appears that justice is not purely the advantage of people other than the agent, since the members of the jury, who instigated such a penalty, will also benefit.

Thrasymachus next goes on to explain that in his opinion justice is to obey laws2 and he discusses leadership, offering the thought that the government sets laws in its own interest3. Of course, people obey laws on fear of punishment, and it seems that if justice is the conformity to laws, we are faced with a very basic argument for the existence of justice. Thrasymachus seems to be at a loss here, since he has first argued that justice is the advantage of someone other than the agent, yet he now goes on to suggest that the government sets laws for itself.

To some extent this is true, a government must be seen as solid to avoid uprising and rebellions, but – generally speaking, at least – it seems to be in the best interests of the citizens to avoid such potential death and destruction within their city, and so they obey the laws which – according to Thrasymachus – is a just act in itself. Once again, however, both the agent and the receivers seem to benefit. Socrates offers the idea that every object has its own virtue4: for example, the eyes have the virtue of sight. Without its virtue an object may be considered almost useless or "deficient".

These virtues or skills, then, are performed in the interest of the object which they affect. Socrates extends this to suggest that if ruling is a skill, then it is in the interest of what it affects, i. e. : the citizens. Thus Socrates seems to have managed to refute Thrasymachus' idea that ruling should benefit the rulers or government. Socrates later argues that no skill includes the benefit of the agent, and this benefit may be viewed as separate: an artist has the skill of painting, and he may – as an aside – benefit by earning money from his skill, yet first and foremost he is an artist, and not a money earner.

The discussion moves on to talk of different types of leadership, and their differences; these differences in power rather suggest that there must be differences in what is seen as just in each type of society, thus offering a lot of room for interpretation as to the nature of justice itself, which must be something which links together all possible suggestions of what justice is.

The conformity to laws as justice idea may be contrasted with the idea that we should see there as being justice and injustice, but should refuse to think justice a virtue, since it benefits the weaker. Justice, as Thrasymachus sees it, then, is a vice which benefits weaker people than the agent; it seems questionable as to why something which benefits weaker people cannot be just: surely a utilitarian-style completion of a deed to help others could be seen as a just act and not a vice?

It is not a bad thing to do something for the benefit of others in many people's eyes, that is why we are so keen to give to charity or help a friend: these acts both seem to be 'good' acts and they do to some extent benefit the doer of them too, in that the person who does then feels rather pleased to have been a help; it is unlikely that she thinks I helped my friend, and thus benefited someone weaker than myself, even if – to some extent, at least – that statement is true.

Socrates assumes that, when Thrasymachus talks of justice being the advantage of the stronger and that it is the obeying of laws, Thrasymachus regards the two ideas mean the same thing. He then persuades Thrasymachus to agree that all rulers may make mistakes and they are not infallible or invincible, and that sometimes such mistakes may cause them to issue a law which is not to their advantage. However, in order to be just, according to Thrasymachus, the citizens must follow this law even if they can see that it will not benefit their leader.

Apparently then a ruler can sometimes be the weaker part of the equation. When pressed to say which is more important to his definition of justice, 'the ruler' or 'the stronger', Thrasymachus is confused, but Cleitophon steps in and explains that the issue could be solved if one were to say that the stronger man may issue laws which he thinks are in his interest, and these laws must be followed. This is a form of the conventionalist conformation to rules idea mentioned above.