What Are the Three Views About Justice as Written by Plato?

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What is justice? In his masterpiece The Republic, Plato attempts to answer the question through a fictional debate led by Socrates. Throughout the book, several characters offer different definitions of justice, all of which are ultimately proved lacking by Socrates. Three views about justice that Socrates discusses faults with include:

  • Giving what is owed; doing good to friends and harm to enemies
  • Survival of the fittest
  • A social contract of necessity

Plato responded to each of these views of justice, ultimately redefining the concept himself.

What Is Justice?

As The Republic demonstrates, the concept of justice isn’t always as straightforward as many of us initially assume. Some might say that justice simply means obeying the law. But what about the many instances in which laws have been wrong?

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Several hundred years ago, laws in the United States forbade helping escaped slaves reach the North where they could pursue relative freedom from enslavement in the South. Yet helping them, rather than turning them over to the authorities, was clearly the right thing to do — something we understand now in hindsight.

The same could be said regarding numerous other instances in which the government was clearly on the wrong side of morality when it came to oppressing people or denying basic human rights. The fact that the government has the power to make laws — and the fact that we’re supposed to abide by them — doesn’t ensure that those laws are just.

This also draws attention to the golden rule, which advises treating others how you want to be treated. While it may be an appropriate starting point, even this idea has a few holes. What if you found yourself in a situation in which the use of violence could save the lives of many innocent people? Would it be just to choose to stand idly by instead because you wouldn’t want someone to be violent towards you?

These are the kinds of questions that Socrates asks his followers and the kind which Plato uses to arrive at his ultimate conclusion in The Republic. By asking people to question their own beliefs, Socrates became famous for helping them arrive at deeper, more thoroughly thought-out answers to life’s questions.

Plato’s Definition of Justice

What is justice according to Plato? In the true fashion of his mentor, Socrates, Plato doesn’t jump to conclusions. Instead, he spends the first part of The Republic questioning common conceptions of justice.

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The first definition of justice is offered by a character named Cephalus, who represented the average views of the Athenian trader class during Plato’s time. Cephalus presents a definition of justice which consists of speaking the truth and paying one’s debts. His friend Polemarchus seems to have a similar opinion, remarking that “justice seems to consist in giving what is proper to him.” Along those lines, he suggests that justice involves doing good to friends and harm to enemies.

Socrates ultimately breaks down such theories, however, by pointing out that giving someone what they’re owed isn’t always moral or even a good idea. Socrates also points out that there can be a fine line between friends and enemies. Simply disliking someone doesn’t mean that they deserve harm.

Next, a character named Thrasymachus offers his opinion, which was characteristic of a group called the Sophists. He claims that justice is nothing more than a matter of survival of the fittest; it’s every man for himself and to the victors go the spoils. Socrates points out that such views aren’t really a definition of justice, but more of an argument for injustice as a virtue.

Last but not least, a character named Glaucon explains what’s more or less become known as the social contract theory. It sees justice as a necessity in order to prevent the stronger from preying on the weaker. Socrates then points out that this idea of justice defines it as an external force that’s imposed on us. That’s when Plato begins setting up his own ideas.

What Is the True Meaning of Justice?

After effectively pointing out the flaws in the three definitions of justice offered by the other characters, Plato goes on to define his own philosophy. Platonic justice, he argues, is not something external but instead is a quality of the soul, an inner virtue that compels us to put aside our base desires in favor of the greater good for all.

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To illustrate his point, he compares the way justice works in an individual to the way it functions in his ideal society. On an individual level, Plato says human nature is composed of three elements:

  • Reason
  • Spirit
  • Appetite

Justice can be achieved when reason rules the soul with wisdom and forethought. Spirit is subordinate to reason and can be brought into harmony with it through mental and physical training. Together these two elements work together to keep appetite, or base desires, from taking over. Each element has its own function it performs, ideally creating a balance in which none interfere with the other.

To illustrate how this idea could play out on a social level, Plato describes what he feels justice would look like in a perfect society. This society, he explains, would include three different classes of people who would all work together in harmony:

  • The ruling philosopher class, which represents reason
  • The auxiliary warrior class, which represents spirit
  • The lower class of farmers and artisans, which represent appetite

For his ideal republic to function, Plato asserts “that one man should practice one thing only…the thing to which his nature was best adopted.” In other words, everyone should be assigned one particular job in the ideal society according to their natural abilities, and they should do that job to the best of their ability without interfering in the jobs of others.

Throughout the course of The Republic, Plato presents several ideas that may appear more than questionable to modern readers. Some of these ideas include the promotion of mass government censorship and the idea that both wives and children should be shared assets among the warrior class. Some scholars, however, argue that Plato never intended such radical ideas to be taken literally, but included them on a purely symbolic level.

Overall, however, one of the most important characteristics of justice in Plato’s view was balance. In the individual, this means that reason is allowed to control the other aspects of human nature in order to ensure that they all operate in harmony. On a societal level, his view mostly boils down to everyone fulfilling their appointed purpose without interfering in the business of others.

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