Should we just do whatever we can get away with, justice be damned?

In the previous installment1 we looked at three different but related positions on justice that were historically attributed to the Sophists:

  1. Being just is against our self‐​interest, and consequently is foolish.
  2. Being just is in our self‐​interest, but only for strategic reasons (with the apparent implication that we should be unjust in some hypothetical situations).
  3. Being just is sometimes in our self‐​interest and sometimes not (with the explicit implication that we should be unjust in some actual situations).

Secret Injustice in Plato’s Republic

As we saw last time, Plato in his Republic has his brother Glaucon lay out the implications of position B. But Glaucon is not the only brother of Plato to figure in the Republic; as soon as Glaucon has presented his case, Plato’s other sibling Ademinatus steps in, ostensibly to sharpen Glaucon’s argument. But in fact Adeimantus alters the conclusion somewhat, setting out a line of reasoning whereby position B gives rise to position C:

For what men say is that, if I am really just and am not also thought just, profit there is none, but the pain and loss on the other hand are unmistakable. But if, though unjust, I acquire the reputation of justice, a heavenly life is promised to me. … [T]o appearance I must devote myself. I will describe around me a picture and shadow of virtue to be the vestibule and exterior of my house; behind I will trail the subtle and crafty fox .…

But I hear someone exclaiming that the concealment of wickedness is often difficult; to which I answer, Nothing great is easy. Nevertheless, the argument indicates this, if we would be happy, to be the path along which we should proceed. With a view to concealment we will establish secret brotherhoods and political clubs. And there are professors of rhetoric who teach the art of persuading courts and assemblies; and so, partly by persuasion and partly by force, I shall make unlawful gains and not be punished.2

Glaucon had pointed out that a purely strategic approach to justice will license injustice in counterfactual situations. If one had a magic ring of invisibility, for example, one would have no need to be just, since one could commit injustice secretly, without incurring the usual penalty of a bad reputation. Even though such a ring is not available in reality, and so affords us no grounds for departing from justice in actual situations, the fact that the strategic approach would counsel us to abandon justice if such a ring were available shows the inadequacy of the strategic approach, according to Glaucon – since a principled defense of justice should offer us reason to be just even in the hypothetical situation where we possess the ring of invisibility.

But Adeimantus is pushing the argument still farther, by noting that secret injustice is often possible not just in hypothetical thought‐​experiments but in the real world, even without the use of a magic ring. In short, the strategic approach to justice will license wrongdoing not just in counterfactual situations but in actual ones.

Secret Injustice in Antiphon’s On Truth

Adeimantus sees this implication as constituting a problem for the strategic approach (though, like Glaucon, he worries that no more satisfactory approach may be available). But at least one thinker, the Athenian sophist Antiphon,3 sees this implication as a feature, not a bug, of the strategic approach. If we are looking for an authentic exemplar of the anti‐​justice position, one whose actual words we possess, Antiphon is our clearest case. (Though since we lack any context for his remarks, we should keep in mind that we cannot be sure they were even intended sincerely.)

In his On Truth, Antiphon writes that “many of the things that are just according to law are at variance with nature,” since the law prescribes “what the hands may do and not do, and where the feet may go and where they may not go, and what the heart may desire and what it may not,” even though “none of these things is more in accord or conformity with nature than any other.” What nature prescribes, by contrast, is to choose life over death and pleasure over pain; insofar as the law requires of us the opposite, its demands are “fetters of nature.”4

Nevertheless, defying the law will not always be in our best interest. Antiphon explains:

[A] man would employ justice best for his own interests if he were to regard the laws as important when witnesses were present, but, when no witnesses are present, he were to regard the demands of nature as important. For the demands of the laws are artificial, but the demands of nature are necessary. And the demands of the laws are the result not of natural disposition but of agreement, but the demands of nature are exactly the opposite. So if a man transgresses the demands of law and his transgression is unnoticed by the parties to the agreement, he escapes without either shame or penalty. But if the transgression is noticed he does not. If, on the other hand, a man … violates one of the inherent demands of nature, if all mankind fails to notice it the harm is no less .… For the injury he suffers is not in appearance but in truth.5

The idea that imprudent actions have natural causal penalties is one we’ve seen before, in Hesiod6 – though Antiphon is less confident than was Hesiod that the actions so penalized coincide neatly with injustice toward others.

Thanks to his contrast between the artificial demands of law and the higher demands of nature, Antiphon is sometimes described as a forerunner of classical liberals like John Locke. In some ways no doubt he is. But for Locke and his fellow liberals, respect for the rights of others was part of the demands of nature; in Antiphon, by contrast, respect for others’ rights appears to be a conventional constraint we have no reason to respect if we are in a position to escape detection. The defense of a higher law in Sophocles’ Antigone7 is probably a better precursor of Lockean arguments than is Antiphon’s On Truth.

In another of his works, On Concord, Antiphon seems to defend position B (a strategic defense of justice) rather than the position C (a strategic defense of alternating between justice and injustice) that he takes in On Truth. What Antiphon tells us in On Concord is that “the man who thinks that he will do his neighbor injury and will suffer no injury himself is a fool,” since all too often wrongdoers are “cast down by expectations of this kind into irreparable misfortunes”; hence the wiser course is to train oneself to “withstand the immediate pleasures of his heart” and succeed in “overcoming and conquering himself.”8

Now of course we do not know whether Antiphon even intended the two works to be consistent; after all, Sophists (Antiphon included – see his work entitled Tetralogies)9 were famous for arguing both sides of many questions.10 But in any case the two accounts can be read as differing more in emphasis than in doctrine. On Truth suggests that injustice is fine if we can get away with it; On Concord reminds us that it’s really hard to get away with it, so we may be better off submitting to the discipline of justice.

Parallels in Hobbes and Thucydides

A similar tension to that between Antiphon’s two accounts is found in Hobbes, that great admirer of the Sophists; for on the one hand he says that where there are no laws in force, there are no normative limits on what one person may do to another: “in such a condition, every man has a right to every thing, even to one another’s body,” since “there is nothing he can make use of, that may not be a help unto him, in preserving his life against his enemies.”11 Yet on the other hand, Hobbes tells us that even when no laws are in force, if one party to a contract “has performed already” (so there is no worry about whether to trust that party’s promise), it’s rationally obligatory for the other party to follow suit, on the strategic grounds that in the absence of legal force “there is no man can hope by his own strength, or wit, to defend himself from destruction, without the help of confederates,” and anyone who “breaketh his covenant,” thereby demonstrating that “he thinks it reason to deceive those that help him,” cannot expect any cooperation from others in the future, except as a result of errors on the part of those others, “which errors a man cannot reasonably reckon upon as the means of his security.”12 Again this seems more like a difference in emphasis than a substantive contradiction.

The doctrine that Antiphon puts forward in On Truth is essentially the same as the one that Thucydides puts in the mouths of the Athenian ambassadors in the Melian dialogue: “right … is only in question between equals in power.”13 In other words, treating others justly is in our self‐​interest only when those others are in a position to “make their resentment felt” (to borrow a phrase from Hume). Antiphon focuses on what others know while Thucydides focuses on what they have the power to do, but in either case the threat of retaliation is treated as the only reason to choose justice over injustice.

Incidentally, Thucydides speaks highly of Antiphon, calling him “one of the best men of his day in Athens,” with “a head to contrive measures and a tongue to recommend them”; Antiphon was, Thucydides tells us, “the one man best able to aid in the courts, or before the assembly, the suitors who required his opinion,” but was “ill looked upon by the multitude owing to his reputation for talent.”14 (Indeed, according to some traditions Antiphon was either the teacher or the student of Thucydides,15 though it’s possible that this was merely an inference from the favorable mention in Thucydides’ book, and prompted by the ancients’ mania for constructing tidy teacher‐​student lineages.) Antiphon was also an oligarchical schemer, who was ultimately executed for conspiring against the Athenian democracy. In any case, despite his admiration for Antiphon, Thucydides does not seem to approve of the rather Antiphonian position he attributes to the Athenian ambassadors. (Though to the extent that he portrays Athens’ eventual defeat as the result of its arrogant aggression, Thucydides might be seen as invoking the Antiphon of On Concord against the Antiphon of On Truth.)

He Sees You When You’re Sleeping, He Knows When You’re Awake

Antiphon’s suggestion that we should abide by the demands of justice when witnesses are present but discard them when witnesses are absent may prompt the question: what about the gods? aren’t they always watching? and so aren’t we always in the presence of witnesses?

As we’ve seen previously,16 the Sisyphus fragment (often attributed to Critias, about whom more later) maintains that fear of being observed by the gods is the only real motive for refraining from secret injustice – though the fragment also declares that this fear is unfounded because the gods are a human invention:

[T]he laws held [mortals] back from deeds
Of open violence, but still such deeds
Were done in secret, – then, I think,
Some shrewd man first, a man in judgment wise,
Found for mortals the fear of gods,
Thereby to frighten the wicked should they
Even act or speak or scheme in secret.
Hence it was that he introduced the divine
Telling how the divinity enjoys endless life,
Hears and sees, and takes thought
And attends to things, and his nature is divine,
So that everything which mortals say is heard
And everything done is visible.
Even if you plan in silence some evil deed
It will not be hidden from the gods .…17

So one possible reply that the Antiphonian can give to the worry about divine observation is that the gods do not exist. The Athenian ambassadors in Thucydides’ Melian dialogue, as we’ve seen, offer a different response; rather than denying the existence of the gods, they point to the portrayal of the gods’ own unjust behavior in “what men believe of the gods,” and conclude that unjust humans may accordingly “fairly hope” for “the favour of the gods.”18 And Thrasymachus – not the version in Plato’s Republic but the actual historical figure – is known to have pointed to the rampant injustice in human society, which seems to proceed without any noticeable hindrance from divine interventon, as evidence that if the gods exist, they are indifferent to human affairs.19

Adeimantus in the Republic offers a mix of all these responses:

Still I hear a voice saying that the gods cannot be deceived, neither can they be compelled. But what if there are no gods? or, suppose them to have no care of human things – why in either case should we mind about concealment? And even if there are gods, and they do care about us, yet we know of them only from tradition and the genealogies of the poets; and these are the very persons who say that they may be influenced and turned by ‘sacrifices and soothing entreaties and by offerings.’20

So if divine witnesses can be bribed, and human ones can be deceived or bullied, what reason do we have to respect the rights of others? Such is the Sophistic challenge. We shall see how Socrates and his followers respond to it.

1. See part 25 of this series.

2. Plato, Republic II.365a-365d ; Benjamin Jowett, trans., The Dialogues of Plato, vol. 3 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1892).

3. There’s scholarly controversy as to whether Antiphon the sophist and Antiphon the orator are one person or two. In what follows I’ll assume they’re one and the same. One argument for taking them to be two is that Antiphon the orator is known to have had oligarchical political leanings while Antiphon the sophist’s writings are allegedly pro‐​democratic; but I confess myself unable to detect this supposed pro‐​democratic sentiment in the latter writings.

4. Antiphon, On Truth, pp. 219–220; in Rosamond Kent Sprague, ed., The Older Sophists (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001), pp. 212–224.

5. Antiphon, On Truth, pp. 218–219; in Sprague, op. cit., pp. 212–224.

6. See part 5 of this series.

7. See part 12 of this series.

8. Antiphon, On Concord, p. 229; in Sprague, op. cit., pp. 225–232.

9. In Sprague, pp. 136–163.

10. Those who think Antiphon the sophist and Antiphon the orator were two different people nevertheless attribute both On Truth and On Concord to Antiphon the sophist, so their view offers no resolution of this interpretative problem.

11. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan I.xiv.

12. Hobbes, Leviathan I.xv.

Here Hobbes, following Glaucon, anticipates Robert Axelrod’s argument for the rationality of cooperation in the absence of central enforcement. (Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation (Basic Books, 1984).) Where Hobbes crucially differs from Axelrod (and from Glaucon) is in his insistence that in the absence of enforcement it’s not rational to cooperate unless the other party cooperates first – which obviously makes it hard to get cooperation started.

13. See part 23 of this series.

14. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War , trans. Richard Crawley (London: Longmans Green, 1874), VIII.25.

15. Teacher: Sprague, op. cit., pp. 114, 115, 121; student: Sprague, pp. 120, 126.

16. See part 20 of this series.

17. Sisyphus fragment 9–23 ; R. G. Bury and J. Garrett translation.

18. Thucydides, History V.17.

19. Sprague, p. 93.

20. Plato, Republic II.365d-e; the closing phrase is from Homer, Iliad IX.497–501.