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Jun 1, 2016

Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: The Pros and Cons of Justice

Several different views on justice were adopted by—or at least attributed to—the Sophists.

Many of the Sophists appear to have defended views on justice that Socrates and his followers found especially problematic.  Three positions in particular are recorded:

  1. Justice is against the agent’s self-interest, and consequently is foolish; hence a sensible person will avoid it.
  2. Justice is in the agent’s self-interest, though only for strategic reasons (mainly, as a way of winning others’ cooperation and avoiding their retaliation); hence a sensible person will embrace it.  Frequent corollary:  if it were possible to achieve one’s self-interest by a different strategy (e.g., if others could be kept unaware of one’s injustice, and/or rendered incapable of retaliating), the sensible person would no longer have reason to be just; hence the sensible person will be just only grudgingly, regarding justice as something like a necessary evil.
  3. Justice is sometimes in the agent’s self-interest and sometimes not; hence a sensible person will embrace justice on some occasions (e.g., when others are watching and are able to retaliate) and avoid it on others.

Three Views or One?

While these appear to be three different views, the Socratics tend to regard them as variations on a single underlying view.  It’s easy enough to see why.  If by justice we have in mind external behavior, then position C is a natural fallback for positions A and B; for anyone who holds A will reasonably have to admit that in some cases just behavior is in one’s self-interest (e.g., when one is being observed by those able and willing to punish wrongdoing), and likewise anyone who holds B will reasonably have to admit that in some cases the social penalties for injustice can realistically be avoided (e.g., by committing injustice secretly, or against those too weak to respond in kind).  So on this reading, positions A and B have an inherent tendency to evolve logically into C.

On the other hand, if by justice we have in mind a character trait – a principled disposition to behave justly across the board, in both actual and hypothetical cases – then since C recommends unjust behavior in some actual circumstances, and B recommends unjust behavior in some counterfactual circumstances, neither is recommending the virtue of justice.  As Plato puts it, what they recommend is not justice itself, but rather the appearance of justice;1 for if people are disposed to behave unjustly in some situations (be they actual or counterfactual), then even when they do behave in an outwardly just fashion, their doing so is not an expression of their possessing a just character.  So on this reading, A is the secret meaning of both B and C. 

Either way, then, the three positions seem to collapse into one.

Justice as Folly

No surviving Sophistic text explicitly recommends position A, the general rejection of justice; instead we find this view attributed to the Sophists only in hostile sources like Aristophanes and Plato, with what accuracy it’s hard to say.2  Moreover, in Plato even the defenders of A are so only as regards justice as a character trait; with regard to external behavior, despite A-like rhetoric, they soon prove to be proponents of C.  Consider what Plato has Thrasymachus say in the Republic

[T]he just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust. … I am speaking … of injustice on a large scale in which the advantage of the unjust is most apparent; and my meaning will be most clearly seen if we turn to that highest form of injustice in which the criminal is the happiest of men, and the sufferers or those who refuse to do injustice are the most miserable – that is to say tyranny, which by fraud and force takes away the property of others, not little by little but wholesale; comprehending in one, things sacred as well as profane, private and public; for which acts of wrong, if he were detected perpetrating any one of them singly, he would be punished and incur great disgrace – they who do such wrong in particular cases are called robbers of temples, and man-stealers and burglars and swindlers and thieves. But when a man besides taking away the money of the citizens has made slaves of them, then, instead of these names of reproach, he is termed happy and blessed, not only by the citizens but by all who hear of his having achieved the consummation of injustice. … And thus, as I have shown … injustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom and mastery than justice ….3

There is certainly a libertarian moral in Thrasymachus’s observation that conduct that would be considered criminal when done by private parties is regarded as sanctified when committed by rulers.  But the point I am making here is that despite appearing to defend unjust conduct across the board (“the just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust”), Thrasymachus actually acknowledges that private wrongdoers are frequently “punished” and “incur great disgrace”; hence it is only for those in a position to commit injustice on a grand political scale that unjust behavior is being recommended.

Consider also the rather Nietzschean-sounding eulogy of injustice that Plato gives to Callicles in his dialogue Gorgias:4

[T]he makers of laws are the majority who are weak; and they make laws and distribute praises and censures with a view to themselves and to their own interests; and … they say, that dishonesty is shameful and unjust; meaning, by the word injustice, the desire of a man to have more than his neighbours; for knowing their own inferiority, I suspect that they are too glad of equality …. whereas nature herself intimates that it is just for … the more powerful than the weaker …. For on what principle of justice did Xerxes invade Hellas, or his father the Scythians? … Nay, but these are the men who act according to nature; yes, by Heaven, and according to the law of nature: not, perhaps, according to that artificial law, which we invent and impose upon our fellows, of whom we take the best and strongest from their youth upwards, and tame them like young lions, – charming them with the sound of the voice, and saying to them, that with equality they must be content, and that the equal is the honourable and the just. But if there were a man who had sufficient force, he would shake off and break through, and escape from all this; he would trample under foot all our formulas and spells and charms, and all our laws which are against nature: the slave would rise in rebellion and be lord over us, and the light of natural justice would shine forth.5

Here too, strictly speaking, injustice is being recommended not for everyone but only for those strong enough to take advantage of it (though Callicles seems to have in mind innate strength of character, while Thrasymachus is speaking of strength of sociopolitical position).

Justice as Strategy

A version of position B, the endorsement of justice on strategic grounds, is found in a Sophistic treatise known today as the Anonymus Iamblichi (meaning “work by an unknown author reproduced in a work by Iamblichus,” and dating from the late 5th or early 4th c. BCE). 

The Anonymus initially seems to be rejecting appeals to self-interest:  “we must not rush towards a consideration of our own advantage, nor should we consider … that the power which is based on a consideration of one’s advantage is virtue.”  But it turns out that the Anonymus’s reasons for advising us not to focus on our self-interest are themselves grounded indirectly on our self-interest:  since human beings “were given such a nature that they were not able to live alone,” they accordingly “formed an association with one another under pressure of necessity”; and since they furthermore “cannot associate and live with one another without observance of law,” they find it in their interest to regulate their own behavior by law.  It is “because of these necessities” that “Law and Justice are kings among men.”6  (The idea of restraining our own self-interest for self-interested reasons is one we’ll revisit later in this series, with Protagoras.)

Accounting for the normative force of ethical principles in terms of their strategic contribution to securing for the agent a share in the benefits of cooperation is an approach that has been popular among libertarians and classical liberals, particularly those with a background in economics.7  Ludwig von Mises,8 Henry Hazlitt,9 and Leland Yeager10 have all defended similar views, and Robert Axelrod’s game-theoretic account of strategic cooperation11 is often cited favorably by libertarian scholars.12

Magic Rings and Men of Adamant

But as noted above, position B seems to come with a less than cheerful corollary – one that Plato has his own brother, Glaucon, explain in the Republic:

They say that to do injustice is, by nature, good; to suffer injustice, evil; but that the evil is greater than the good. And so when men have both done and suffered injustice and have had experience of both, not being able to avoid the one and obtain the other, they think that they had better agree among themselves to have neither; hence there arise laws and mutual covenants; and that which is ordained by law is termed by them lawful and just. This they affirm to be the origin and nature of justice; – it is a mean or compromise, between the best of all, which is to do injustice and not be punished, and the worst of all, which is to suffer injustice without the power of retaliation; and justice, being at a middle point between the two, is tolerated not as a good, but as the lesser evil, and honoured by reason of the inability of men to do injustice. For no man who is worthy to be called a man would ever submit to such an agreement if he were able to resist; he would be mad if he did. Such is the received account … of the nature and origin of justice.13

(Note that the account Glaucon describes is inter alia a version of social contract theory.)  Glaucon further asks us to imagine what reason we would have to behave justly if we possessed a magic ring of invisibility that would allow us to commit injustice secretly, thus severing the ordinary causal connection between conduct and reputation; on the account given, the answer would seem to be none – which, as noted above, implies that it is only the appearance and not the reality of justice that is being recommended.

The Anonymus Iamblichi, however, rejects the Glauconian corollary.  After noting that our dependence on others makes law-abiding conduct necessary, the Anonymus, like Glaucon, indulges in a science-fiction thought-experiment, asking us to imagine what benefits justice would bring if there were someone “invulnerable, not subject to disease, free from emotion … and hard as adamant in body and soul.”  One might expect the Anonymus to conclude that in this counterfactual scenario, adherence to justice would lose its point; but instead the Anonymus argues that such a superhuman being still could not afford to live a life “based on consideration of one’s own advantage,” since unless he “placed himself on the side of the laws and what is just,” he “could not endure,” given that “all men would be in a state of hostility” to him, and “because of their own observance of law and their numbers, they would surpass such a man in skill or force and they would get the better of him.”14

The Anonymus thus refuses to countenance even counterfactual injustice.   But Glaucon might reasonably object that the Anonymus has rigged the example by not making the hypothetical superman invulnerable enough

Next time we’ll take a look at the third view, position C.


  1. Plato, Republic II. 367b.
  2. In Aristophanes’ Clouds, defenses of wrongdoing are articulated by the personified “Unjust Argument,” as well as by Pheidippides once he has studied with Unjust Argument.   (Aristophanes also associates Socrates with the Sophistic defenders of injustice, whereas Plato makes Socrates an opponent of the sophists.)  
  3. Plato, Republic I.343c-344c; Benjamin Jowett, trans., The Dialogues of Plato, vol. 3 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1892).
  4. While Thrasymachus was a historical person, a Sophist from Chalcedon, it is not known whether Callicles was real or Plato’s invention.
  5. Plato, Gorgias 483c-484b; Benjamin Jowett, trans., The Dialogues of Plato, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1892).
  6. Anonymus Iamblichi 6, pp. 274-275; in Rosamond Kent Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001), pp. 271-278.
  7. It’s a matter of controversy how far this description applies to Ayn Rand, and in particular whether her account makes virtue a strategy for attaining our self-interest (like the Sophists) or a constitutive part of our self-interest (like the Socratics); see Roderick T. Long. Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand (Objectivist Center, 2000), 

    Neera K. Badhwar, Is Virtue Only a Means to Happiness: An Analysis of Virtue and Happiness in Ayn Rand’s Writings (Objectivist Center, 2001), 

    and Eric Mack, “Problematic Arguments in Randian Ethics,” Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 5.1 (Fall 2003), pp. 1-66. 

  8. Ludwig von Mises, “Human Society,” excerpted from Mises, Human Action, A Treatise on Economics: The Scholar’s Edition (Mises Institute, 1998).
  9. Henry Hazlitt, The Foundations of Morality (D. Van Nostrand, 1964).
  10. Leland B. Yeager, Ethics As Social Science: The Moral Philosophy of Social Cooperation (Edward Elgar, 2002).  See my review in Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 6.1 (Spring 2003), pp. 89-98.
  11. Robert M. Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation (Basic Books, 1984).
  12. See, e.g., Albert Loan, “Institutional Bases of the Spontaneous Order: Surety and Assurance,” Humane Studies Review 7.1 (Winter 1991/92).
  13. Plato, Republic II..358e-359c.
  14. Anonymus Iamblichi 6, op. cit.

This is part of a series