A Philosopher's Blog

Ring of Gyges: A Case for Injustice

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 30, 2009

It is my position that the life of injustice is preferable to the life of justice. In support of this claim I will show that the material goods are what truly matter in life and that injustice provides the best means of reaching said goods.

In his work Utilitarianism[i] J.S. Mill presents the well-known argument that the way to prove that something is desirable is to show that people desire it. If Mill is correct, then it should follow that a way to prove that something is preferable is to show that people prefer it.  It is my contention that people prefer material goods and that they are thus preferable.

In support of my claim I offer the following support. First, if you ask people what they want, the most common answers, at least in my experience, involve material things-money, jobs, power, cars and so on. Of course, this is based on my experience, which might be unusual. Hence, there is a need for a broader base of evidence. This brings me to a second category of evidence-the media.

A quick glance at the leading magazines of today clearly shows what people prefer. Business magazines, such as Business Week, extort the value of wealth and success in business. Celebrity magazines, such as People glory in the fame and wealth of the stars. Turning to television, channels such as VH1 and MTV show the houses, cars, fame and wealth of celebrities and, of course, these things are all held up as being of great value. Many of the music videos, a defining art form of the 21st century, present the glory of wealth, fame and power. Given that art tends to reflect the values of a culture, it seems evident that wealth, fame and power are valued and preferred in this culture. If additional evidence is needed, a survey of the rest of the media will reveal that the general glorification of wealth, success and material goods is common. Thus it may be safely concluded that the media provides ample evidence that material success is preferable.

Third, there is the fact that many people pursue material goods at the expense of non-material goods. For example, people are willing to engage in degrading activities for material gain or fame. Reality television shows such as Fear Factor, Flavor of Love, the various versions of Survivor and similar shows make this quite evident. Magazines such as Maxim, Playboy, Playgirl, Penthouse and Hustler also make it clear that people are willing to engage in degrading behavior for the sake of money and fame. As another example, people are willing to sacrifice their physical and mental health in order to acquire money. In Japan, for example, people have been known to work themselves to death. In the United States, people are willing to work long hours and focus on their careers at the expense of their personal relationships in order to achieve material success. As a final example, people are quite willing to engage in immoral behavior for material success. People lie, cheat, steal and murder in order to gain material goods. Dictators throughout history ranging from Caesar through Hussein have been willing to employ the most terrible methods to secure their material power. These facts indicate that people greatly value material goods and, given the above argument, it would follow that these goods are preferable.

Fourth, people are willing to risk punishment in order to acquire material goods. Prisons are full of people, ranging from former corporate officers to petty thieves, who committed crimes in the attempt to make material gains or in search of material pleasures. Given that people will risk terrible punishments in order to gain material goods, it seems reasonable to believe that these goods are preferable.

Overall, given the arguments presented above, it seems eminently reasonable to accept that material goods are what people prefer and hence are preferable. What remains is showing how being unjust enables one to better acquire such goods.

Consider, if you will, two people who are each starting their own software companies. One, Bad Bill is unjust. The other, Sweet Polly is just. Now, imagine a situation in which both Bill and Polly stumble across a lost CD at a technology expo. This CD, of course, contains key trade secrets of another competing company. Polly will, of course, return the CD to the rightful owners and will not look at any of the details- the information does not belong to her. Bill will, of course, examine the secrets and thus gain an edge on the competition. This will increase his immediate chance of success over the competition.

Now imagine what will happen if Sweet Polly continues along the path of justice.  She will never take unfair advantage of her competition, she will never exploit unjust loopholes in the tax laws, and she will never put people out of work just to gain a boost to the value of her company’s stock. She will always offer the best products she can provide at a fair price.

In direct contrast, if Bad Bill follows his path of injustice, he will use every advantage he can gain to defeat his competition and maximize his profits. He will gladly exploit any tax loophole in order to minimize his expenses. He will put people out of work in order to boost the value of the company stock. His main concern will be getting as much as possible for his products and he will make them only good enough that they can be sold.

Given these approaches and the history of business in America, it is most likely that Sweet Polly’s company will fail. The best she can hope for is being a very, very small fish in a vast corporate ocean. In stark contrast, Bad Bill’s company will swell with profits and grow to be a dominant corporation.

In the real world, Bad Bill’s unjust approach could lead him to a bad end.  However, even in reality the chance is rather slight and, given Glaucon’s conditions, it must be assumed that Bill is never caught and never punished. In the real world, Polly’s chances of success would be rather low, this showing that her choice is a poor one-even in reality. Adding in Glaucon’s conditions, she would have nothing but her justice and her poor, pathetic life. Given these conditions, it should be clear that Bill’s choice for injustice is preferable to Polly’s choice.

Naturally, more than a story is needed to make the general point that injustice is superior to justice. Fortunately a more formal argument can be provided.

The advantages of injustice are numerous but can be bundled into one general package: flexibility. Being unjust, the unjust person is not limited by the constraints of morality. If she needs to lie to gain an advantage, she can lie freely. If a bribe would serve her purpose, she can bribe. If a bribe would not suffice and someone needs to have a tragic “accident”, then she can see to it that the “accident” occurs. To use an analogy, the unjust person is like a craftsperson that has just the right tool for every occasion. Just as the well equipped craftsperson has a considerable advantage over a less well equipped crafts person, the unjust person has a considerable advantage over those who accept moral limits on their behavior.

It might be objected that the unjust person does face one major limit-she cannot act justly. While she cannot be truly just, she can, when the need arises, act justly-or at least appear to be acting justly. For example, if building an orphanage in Malaysia would serve her purpose better than exploiting those orphans in her sweat shop, then she would be free to build the orphanage. This broader range of options gives her clear edge-she can do everything the just person can do and much more. Best of all, none of her misdeeds can ever lead her into trouble. As per Glaucon’s conditions, she can never be caught or exposed. With her advantage she can easily get the material goods she craves-after all, she can do whatever it takes to get what she wants.

Turning to the real world, an examination of successful business people and other professionals (such as politicians) shows that being unjust is all but essential to being a success. For example, it is no coincidence that Microsoft is not only the top software company but also rightly regarded as being one of the most unjust. Now I turn to the just person.

If a person, such as Polly, is just then she must accept the limits of justice. To be specific, insofar as she is acting justly she must not engage in unjust acts. Taking an intuitive view of injustice, unjust acts would involve making use of unfair tactics such as lying, deception, bribes, threats and other such methods. Naturally, being just involves more than just not being unjust. After all, being just is like being healthy. Just as health is more than the absence of illness, being just is more than simply not being unjust. The just person would engage in positive behavior in accord with her justice-telling the truth, doing just deeds and so forth. So, the just person faces two major impediments. First, she cannot avail herself of the tools of injustice. This cuts down on her options and thus would limit her chances of material success. Second, she will be expending effort and resources in being just. These efforts and resources could be used instead to acquire material goods. To use an analogy, if success is like a race, then the just person is like someone who will stop or slow down during the race and help others. Obviously a runner who did this would be at a competitive disadvantage and so it follows that the just person would be at a disadvantage in the race of life.

The situation becomes extremely dire when Glaucon’s conditions are taken into account. In Glaucon’s scenario, the just person has no chance of material success and cannot even enjoy the reputation of being just. In light of these conditions, the just life would be a foolish choice indeed.

In light of the above arguments it is evident that the life of injustice is the preferable life.


[i] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (London, 1863)

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  1. magus71 said, on December 30, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    I like JS Mills very much.

    But let me say this: I remember having a conversation. I stated that I thought that people always did what they wanted to do. For instance, a prostitute is doing what she wants. Even if her pimp puts a gun to her head, she is doing what she wants since the option of doing something else is less desireable (because she’d be shot) than being a prostitute. In a vacuum (a perfect world) she would have wanted or wished for something else. Also, she may be doing it because she finds it easier than going to college, studying hard and going to a tough job.

    You assumption that people want material goods above all else is true–if the person could have the goods teleported into a convenient storage area that they had access to. Thus, your belief is only true in a vacuum.

    I am a Christian. And, I am a utilitarian. The Bible is clear that it is best to be good, because, well, it gives you the best results. There is no shame in this. Unless you’re a liberal who is forever is in search of the trancendant, undefineable GOOD. For instance, I have learned that it is proper to treat others with respect until they deserve otherwise. If every time I handed a friend a pie that I bought for him because i knew he liked pie, he punched me in the face, I would not buy him pie anymore and people would become irritated at hearing me complain about being punched over and over. Stop buying him pie!

    The Israelites were promised that if they followed Moses without grumbling, they’d be led into he Land of Milk and Honey: Material Goods. We are material beings.

    My point is that it is not wrong to do good deeds just because they give us good results, even if it’s just a good feeling. I would not steal from a friend because I value friendship far beyond material of money. I think that people who live a life of crime are unwise people. They end up harming themsleves. That’s why they commit crimes: Because they fail to accurately weigh the value of things.

    But, to seemingly reverse what I’ve just said, the greatest achievements seem to be conducted by people who went past mere materialism. Look at many of the Founding Fathers. Many of them could have lived comfortable lives without fighting against tyranny. Valley Forge proved Washington a man of ideals, not greed.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 30, 2009 at 7:30 pm

      My own view is best summarized by a letter quoted in Letters from Iwo Jima: “and always do what’s right because it’s right.”

      • kernunos said, on December 31, 2009 at 4:55 pm

        Yes, or the guys throwing explosives down in cave systems knowing there could be women and children in them. I was watching on the History channel this very subject. The man’s gut was wrenching and sobbing while telling the tale he still knew it was right but it didn’t feel like it. Maybe it was just one infinitely small little tick towards right over wrong.

  2. magus71 said, on December 31, 2009 at 3:09 am

    You mean the same Iwo Jima where we killed 20,000 Japanese in one month?

    I wonder if the guy who wrote that was asking a break from his cave-clearing flame thrower duties.

  3. kernunos said, on December 31, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    “Microsoft is not only the top software company but also rightly regarded as being one of the most unjust. Now I turn to the just person.”

    You make it sound like there success is due more to being unjust than a product that is good. Without people wanting to buy the product it would not matter how unjust Microsoft was. Unless of course they hd a gun to the head of every customer to buy the poroduct. I know it is hard for a Mac user to understand. I will not be brainwashed by a bunch of Liberals telling me that Capitalism only works with greed and greed is what makes it work. All the ‘unjust’ and greed in the world cannot make a company successful that sells broken glass lined jock-straps.

    • magus71 said, on January 1, 2010 at 6:15 am

      Yes, this is typical libral thought on success–unless you succeed through Hollywood or music then you’re sheik and cool.

      Seems to me the “right” thing to do Mike is to boycott the use of Microsoft’s material.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 1, 2010 at 6:40 pm

        Give up my xBox 360? Impossible. :)

      • kernunos said, on January 1, 2010 at 8:09 pm

        If Appple’s product was superior then they would have won out. This again does not make sense to the Left as they do think Apple was superior through the best product and the kindest business practices but that simply is not true. If the product was superior the company would have been more successful than Microsoft. I remember, I used both but I chose Microsoft over Apple because to me the product was superior.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 2, 2010 at 6:10 pm

          It all depends on how “superior” is defined. Windows PCs provide more flexibility and more bang for the buck. Apple PCs provide better reliability, more stability and have better OS and hardware integration. I haven’t bought a new Apple since 2004 (and only bought that because I got a $500 trade-in and was able to negotiate a discount) because they are too expensive for me.

          I mainly recommend Macs for people who 1) have money and 2) want to have a smooth computer experience. I recommend PC for people who 1) want to spend less or 2) want to play games.

          • kernunos said, on January 2, 2010 at 6:26 pm

            I thought you wewre against the ‘rich’. I cannot afford a MAC for what I like to do so how can you? If you have more than me than under the Obama mandates I think you need to share don’t you?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 5, 2010 at 7:04 pm

              I’m not against the rich, no more than Confucius is. I’m against becoming rich through evil deeds.

              I could buy a Mac, but I can’t justify the expense. After all, I could get a powerful desktop PC for the price of a low-end Mac.

              Obama mandates sharing? Well, sharing with corporations. Individuals like us? Not so much.

            • kernunos said, on January 5, 2010 at 10:41 pm

              Don’t be so sure. Besides, who do you think has to pay for it if the corporations have to “share” more?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 6, 2010 at 4:49 pm

              I think I have to pay more if we share more with corporations. After all, that stimulus money cannot all come from China.

      • kernunos said, on January 1, 2010 at 8:10 pm

        I would never buy an xBox as I knew the product was inferior. Frank is on his 3rd or 4th. Junk.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 2, 2010 at 6:11 pm

          I waited until they finally got them working before buying one. Everyone I know who bought an early 360 had it die, which is a large number of folks. I do find it worth having one, mainly because of Halo.

          • kernunos said, on January 2, 2010 at 6:23 pm

            They all die….

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 1, 2010 at 6:38 pm

      Obviously if they had only complete crap to sell, their pracitices would not help them. However, they did gain considerable advantage by using what might be regarded as unfair methods. Naturally enough, Apple helped out by dropping the ball in many ways (Apple was once a major player in the home computer business).

  4. kernunos said, on December 31, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Here is a perfect example of a ‘just’ businessman that is very ‘good’. John Hunstman Sr. says he will die without money because he will give it all to charity.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon_Huntsman,_Sr.

    I think that the evil and greed you look for is in Washington and not in the private sector.

    • PhilK said, on December 31, 2009 at 11:37 pm

      I think ascribing evil and greed only to Washington is an attempt to deny our own.

      • kernunos said, on January 2, 2010 at 6:22 pm

        What?????

      • kernunos said, on January 2, 2010 at 6:24 pm

        I’m not sure I ascribed it ONLY to Washington but sure. I know about the human condition ad its capacity for greed but to only ascribe it to success is also failure.

      • PhilK said, on January 3, 2010 at 11:26 am

        Sorry I misunderstood. I was thinking the government is in Washington. We’re a government of the people, etc. So, I was just saying that the private sector (in many cases that includes me and you as owners, managers, laborers. . .) elect these bozos year after year because these state and national bozos bring home the pork and chicken and beef. Then we bitch because too much money is being spent on someone else’s pork and chicken and beef.

      • kernunos said, on January 5, 2010 at 12:50 pm

        Totally agree.

  5. A.K.A.Alias said, on February 4, 2010 at 9:27 am

    Link acceptance test.

    http://jed.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/4/1/77


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