Thursday, February 19, 2015

Patterns in Teaching the Ring of Gyges

Leigh Johnson has a humorous post on what she can expect from students when teaching Plato's story of the Ring of Gyges. I teach the Ring of Gyges in both my Intro and my Ethics courses, in different ways; in my Ethics course, it is mixed in with a number of excerpts from the Republic at the beginning, to get students thinking about ethical matters at a more general level, and in my Intro course I bring it up in the context of looking at Plato's Gorgias. So, despite differences in the the context of teaching, I found much of what she said to be funy in a funny-because-very-true kind of way. I think I get a slightly greater variety of responses -- I always have at least one or two students who vehemently reject from the beginning the idea that Glaucon is right, for instance -- but pretty much everything she notes is something I've found in my own classes.

An interesting common pattern I've found is that students will often hold both that 'might makes right' is the way the world works -- they have difficulty quite expressing how -- but that this is not right; it's also common for students both to take the 'student relativist' path -- avoiding any discussion of truth as such, and holding that everybody's moral opinions are 'true for them' -- and yet still insist on a real direction of moral progress. (I suspect that this has something to do with the 'social construction' point noted in Johnson's post, but I hadn't thought of it in quite those terms before. It's certainly true that a number of my Ethics students later tend to like the Millian idea that morality is both made by us and yet also is governed by stable rational standards.)


  1. MrsDarwin7:51 AM

    Thought experiment: LOTR as a response to Glaucon.

  2. branemrys8:13 AM

    It's been suggested that it might in fact be, at least in part, although there's no much evidence for it beyond the rough similarity of ring and themes. But either way it does make for some interesting thought to consider the ways in which hobbit-ishness and pity might make for resistance, although not immunity, to the temptation.

  3. Enbrethiliel8:41 AM


    Although I'd like to think I'd be one of those who'd instinctively reject Glaucon's argument, I must confess that I had a "Ring of Gyges" fantasy of my own just last night. A friend was telling me how devastating it was when her family found out that her father had a long-time mistress--and how impotently furious they became when the mistress had the cheek to telephone their house if she wanted to talk to their father.

    "All I could do when I answered the phone," my friend said, "was cuss her out until she hung up. One time, my father heard me, but he pretended he didn't, because confronting me would have made a bigger mess for him."

    "I would have egged her house," I said. "And thrown flour on the eggs. And toilet papered it. And spray painted [awful word redacted] on her car--on the passenger side, so there'd be a good chance she wouldn't see it immediately and drive around town with it there. Oh, the things I could do if my father pretended he couldn't see or hear me misbehaving . . ."

  4. branemrys9:40 AM

    That's always how the temptation starts, of course! One of the more plausible parts of Glaucon's suggested argument, I've always thought, is the variation on the story in which both a just person and an unjust person are given the ring; wouldn't it be very likely that the two would converge, and, what is more, the just person would converge on the unjust person rather than vice versa? Because the underlying temptation is really to fix problems and redress harms -- to that end, even a completely just person will end up doing things they wouldn't normally do, which makes it easier to do little wrongs to fix big wrongs, which makes it easier to do bigger wrong to fix bigger wrongs, which makes it easier to do little wrongs just for convenience, etc., etc.

  5. Enbrethiliel4:07 PM


    It was when I finally wrapped up my review of The Purge: Anarchy that it hit me that I missed a prime opportunity to blog about the Ring of Gyges! Are you familiar with the Purge franchise, Brandon? It's set in a world where, one night a year, all crimes are legal. And yet the "purgers" usually wear masks, just like regular criminals. The practical reason for doing so is that you don't want anyone you've wronged to go after you during the next Annual Purge; but there's a deeper sense in which you do have to be "invisible" in order to pull a crime off. Even on a night when it's perfectly legal.

  6. branemrys8:42 PM

    I've seen trailers, and of course I read your post on the first one. The idea that we in some sense need to be invisible to do wrong is an interesting one, and of course does fit the Ring of Gyges perfectly.


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