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Stuart Hopkins

Justice and Morality in Plato's Republic

Plato 427-347 BCE

Rubric: Plato's Republic. What reasons are given by Plato, in the Republic, to support the contention that justice is superior to, or more beneficial than, injustice? And what is the relationship between justice and morality?


This essay discusses and clarifies a concept that is central to Plato's argument in the Republic — an argument in favour of the transcendent value of justice as a human good; that justice informs and guides moral conduct. Plato's argument implies that justice and morality are intimately interconnected, because the excellence and goodness of human life — the best way for a person to live — is intimately dependent upon and closely interwoven with those 'things that we find desirable in themselves and for their consequences [1]. Hence, we acknowledge that Plato Is moral thesis cannot be interpreted either as a deontological or as a consequentialist argument — or as an act centred or agent centred moral concept. Plato's thesis is informative, in philosophical terms, precisely because it enables us to find new and more fruitful ways of looking at those basic questions concerning justice and morality, and the manner in which they are interrelated [2].

In the Republic Plato endeavours to answer complex questions about justice by introducing a unique account of what justice actually is, and how morally sensitive people are educated and informed about the real nature of justice and morality [3]. Our understanding of justice is more profound if we insist that what really matters is not merely the observance of external demands — normative and conventional moral rules — but the character of the truly just person [4]. Justice and goodness, based upon judgement as the virtue of a decent life, are seen as congruent in the context of a well ordered society.

— o O o —

Plato's fundamental claim, in the Republic, is that justice is so great a good that anyone who completely embraces it is thereby better off, even in the face of the distress and pain of severe misfortune. The basic moral equation, clearly asserted by Plato, seeks to establish that: 'Justice discounted by pain and dishonour is more advantageous than injustice supplemented by the rewards of justice' [5].

However, Plato fails, throughout the dialogue, to explicitly justify this unusual and complex formula. But he clearly believes that people do act against their own immediate interests for the sake of justice, and for the sake of the good of the civic community as a whole. He does not think that the only motive for acting justly is to increase one's own happiness. Plato recognizes that a tension between duty and self-interest is certainly conceivable; that duty and self-interest are two independent concepts neither of which can be reduced to the other. To resolve this tension we must know what is best, without qualifications The Theory of the Forms occupies a crucial and central place in the justification of what may seem to be an extraordinary claim [7]. The Forms are those eternal, changeless, imperceptible and bodiless objects of the understanding, which are central to the education of the philosopher of the Republic, and which engender in him a passionate reverence for such abstract ideas as Beauty, Goodness, Justice, Wisdom etc. [8].

The Platonic philosopher, as a lover of knowledge and wisdom, always strives for a clear and distinct understanding of these abstract ideas — the Forms — and in doing so his life becomes superior to any other. Because, through a study of the Forms, the philosopher of the Republic comes into proximity with the highest order of reality — seen as a great intrinsic good — and he therefore frees himself from those systematic errors which impoverish and disfigure the unreflective life [9].

Plato I s argument for the Theory of Forms enables the philosopher to participate in, or understand, the Form of Justice and, unless he achieves this level of understanding, then any judgement made with respect to acts, persons, or institutions will be defective or in error. It is therefore a theory or concept which leads Plato implicitly, if not explicitly, into basic considerations concerning the nature of the moral life, which must coincide with the good life, because the good life is essentially a just life.

If we make errors of judgement with respect to justice and the collective good, then we will also be in error when we make decisions about how we ought to act in relation to other people, and it is this which comprises the foundation of the moral life. Our moral judgements will be defective, precisely because those judgements are not grounded in what is truly just. We may therefore act in accordance with only the appearance of justice unless we have a clear and distinct understanding of the reality and actuality of justice — that is the Form of justice [10].

Plato's Theory of Forms comprise a conduit leading, in our search for the good life, to the greatest good there is. The search for the good life — the moral life — leads us to break away from the endless and unsatisfying pursuit of those physical pleasures, gratifications, honours and material benefits that ordinarily assume a position of such importance in life of the ordinary person. A catharsis, through education and contemplation, can lead to a transformation of our lives and to the recognition of a radically different kind of indispensable and pre-eminent good — the Form of the Good. This metamorphosis leads to a clear and distinct understanding, reverence for, and imitation of the Forms, which are of transcendent superiority, and thus illuminate and elevate the life of the philosopher, and place his moral existence in a category above and beyond that of the ordinary person [11].

Plato recognizes that knowledge and understanding of the Forms is of momentous value, because they are pre-eminent and transcendent goods. Possession of the Forms, in a sense that does not imply ownership, is the product of reason — visualised as the most worthwhile attribute of the human soul — and it is this possession which leads to human happiness. A happiness shared by all of those who arrive at a true realisation of the Forms, through the supremacy and superiority of human reason [12]. For Plato, an action is approved of not simply because it is preferred by reason, but because reason will prefer it when reason has succeeded in apprehending the Good, and applying that apprehension to the task of choosing actions [13].

Possession of the Forms implies and involves an emotional bond, combined with those activities characteristic of love and friendship. We are connected with such worthwhile and valuable possessions, as the Forms, through emotional engagement and intellectual understanding. It is this that informs and enhances the value of the agent's life, and the moral life in particular [14].

One aspect of the goodness of the Forms resides in the concept of harmony, balance or proportion. The superiority and transcendent quality of the Forms, in comparison with other desirable objects, derives from and is constituted by their incorporeality and their possession of the highest degree of harmony, or orderly arrangement. Although it is not possible to clearly and distinctly define the concept of harmony, in this context, we are entitled to say that it is characterised by the various kinds of harmony or cosmos exhibited by living bodies, souls, stars and the Forms. Hence, we may conclude, from Plato, that the goodness of a thing — the civic community, the soul or the health of the body — consists in a kind of order or proportion which is appropriate to the thing it is. Therefore, if a thing possesses the highest degree of harmony or order, then it will of necessity possess the highest degree of good — and, in consequence, it will participate in the Form of the Good.

It therefore follows that the truly just man — the enlightened and rational moral agent — will also enjoy, through education and contemplation, the highest degree of order in his soul, and he will, therefore, have a clear and distinct understanding of and a desire to participate in the Forms of Justice and the Good. This is why, Plato argues, the philosopher is best qualified to become actively engaged in the government of the state, because through the application of a balanced system of justice and sound moral principles — grounded in the supremacy of human reason — his education and training will have equipped him to do so [15].

The education and training of the Platonic philosophers of the Republic will ensure that they have effective control of their own emotions and appetites. Their discipline and their reverence for the harmony of the Forms will also effectively guarantee that they no longer possess the desires impelling them to act unjustly or antisocially, or to seek worldly advantages over other human beings. The philosopher who understands and participates in the harmony of the Forms and who, through the acquisition of intellectual and affective skills, has the strongest claim to be accepted as the paradigm of the just and moral person — even though he may not have shed completely all imperfections of character [16].

It should be emphasised that Plato is not in pursuit of an unrealistic claim to perfection, which would only serve to diminish and negate the importance of his thesis. His project is essentially a practical one and he recognizes that on occasion the desires of the philosopher ruler may not always be completely controlled by his reason, but that in itself does not invalidate the central thrust of Plato's argument [17].

But Plato has promised to demonstrate the superiority of the life of the just person, over that of the unjust, despite the adverse consequences which that might have, from time to time, for the moral agent — that is, he who always attempts to act in accordance with justice. The answer to this question lies partially in an exploration of the psychological predicament of the completely unjust person or tyrant. If such a person exercises extreme forms of injustice or immorality, then this will have devastating and highly adverse psychological consequences for him. If erotic desires are given full rein, then they become, through satiation, impossible to satisfy and a life, which might otherwise be peaceful and fulfilling, becomes instead one of continuous frustration [18]. The exercise of tyrannical power negates trust and creates a continual fear of reprisals by those who have been harmed by the tyrant. A failure to subordinate the appetites to reason, leads inevitably to frequent and chaotic internal demands leading to anguish fear and frustration. Clearly that is not the formula for a happy, prosperous and moral life [19].

The Platonic philosopher's ascendant passion is the love of the Forms, and this love does not engender fear, frustration and chaos in his life. On the contrary, those who study and contemplate the Forms will have modest appetites that can be easily satisfied, and the philosopher's consciousness of harmony in the soul will be conducive to an intellectually rewarding and tranquil life, free from the destructive effects of the competitive desires. Plato argues that even if the just person is intentionally but erroneously harmed and dishonoured he will, nevertheless, be at peace with himself, and will not suffer the chaotic frustrations that make the life of the tyrant so intolerable and repellent. Although the just person might be afflicted by physical pain, this must compare favourably with the psychological pain which plagues the life of the tyrant.

Plato believes that there is a clear balance of advantage which favours the life of the just and moral person who may be suffering, temporarily or permanently, undeserved harms. The intellect, understanding and emotions of the philosopher, as the paradigm of the just person, gives him access to a world of completely harmonious objects — the Forms — which only he possesses, and which are the most invaluable and unsurpassable of goods. Once it is recognized that knowledge and contemplation of the Forms — the Forms of Justice and the Good in particular — confers such overwhelming advantages on the just person, then it will also be recognized that physical pain cannot diminish the immense value of the non-sensible realm to the rational agent [20].

Summary & Conclusion

Plato's position in the Republic is that 'the good life is defined in terms of the moral life.' There is, according to Plato, more to the good life than morality, but it is essential to assign absolute priority to the latter. Although two moral lives may not be equally good, a moral life is always superior to an immoral life, however beneficial the latter may seem to be in other respects. Plato's position implies that conflict between the good life and the moral life is logically impossible, because of their internal relationship [21].

There is a difference between duty and justice, in the way in which Plato thinks about these concepts. Duty is a word that applies principally to action, while justice, in Plato's thought, applies principally to people. But despite these differences, Plato's contrast between justice and interest are much the same as those between duty and interest, and hence we can consider justice and duty as virtually interchangeable terms.

Plato believes that there are impelling reasons to act against our own immediate interest for the sake of justice, and the good of the civic community as a whole. Little is said about people, as producers, in the Republic, because Plato is principally concerned with the attributes and motives of the philosophers, as rulers, and their activities in the polis. He does not believe that the only possible, or even reasonable, motive for acting justly is to increase one's own happiness and pleasure.

Within a modern philosophical perspective a choice has to be made, in cases of conflict, between duty and interest — that is, a choice between two concepts, seen as independent, neither of which is in any sense reducible to the other. The most striking and crucial difference between Plato's ethical notions, expressed in the Republic, and modern philosophical ideas about the tension between duty and interest, is the unique and transcendent position given to the notion of goodness — the Form of the Good — taken as a single notion encapsulating all kinds of goodness. What does the pre-eminence of this single concept of goodness actually mean? The choices, ordinarily made by reason, are regarded by Plato as decisions about what is good or best — that is what exemplifies the good to the greatest extent. Plato's view is that we must know what is actually best in order to make a choice between duty and one's own good.

The problem for Plato, in this context, is to develop a concept of goodness that is sufficiently clear and distinct to enable us to make a choice between duty and interest; a choice that is

ideal in its goodness, or the best of the two alternatives. Contra to modern notions of goodness — benefit, excellence, perfection, etc. — Plato allows only one notion of goodness ?the Form of the Good — that is not reducible to other notions of goodness. He constructs a theory which transcends other ideas or notions of goodness. This is to avoid the possibility of conflict, in practical reasoning, due to irreducibly different ideas of goodness.

Plato endeavours to treat the notion of goodness, as a single idea, providing the ultimate criterion for use in the exercise of practical reason. He attempts to show that we can resolve apparent tensions between different types of goodness, by comprehending what the good ultimately is, and seeing how it can be exemplified in the physical world. He does not dismiss reason or rationality from his scheme, because it is reason's task to apprehend the Good and to plan a strategy for action [22] The proper function of reason is to correctly and accurately apprehend the Good, and to use that apprehension — rather than the concept of rationality — when we come to understand exactly how we ought to live and act. Hence, it is apprehension of the Form of the Good which serves to inform and guide our lives and moral actions; not rationality which we use primarily and directly to achieve our apprehension of the Good.

Plato believes that the notion of the Good has those features necessary to inform and guide our actions, and also serves to form and instruct our moral character. Justice and personal benefit are two kinds of good which we may examine in order to discover which takes precedence over the other. The idea of justice is treated as a virtue or an excellence, that is as a kind of goodness, and the notion of benefit or advantage is thought of as what is good for some person or, say, the civic community [23]. Which of these goods is overriding in those circumstances which concern Plato? The philosophers, as rulers, would choose the good of society in preference to what is good for themselves, because the Form of the Good is good without qualification — other goods are good only with some degree of qualification.

The government of the City [24] engages the benefit of the civic community as a whole, and the good of the community is seen as a good without qualification and, therefore, transcends one's own immediate interests. The good of the city, as a good without qualification, takes precedence over one's own good, because the good of the city is entailed by the development of justice in the civic community. It also overrides the self-interest of the philosopher, as ruler, who is motivated to act justly, and therefore morally, because of his prior knowledge of the Form of the Good. Hence, Plato's ethical thesis gives a unique place to a single objective concept of goodness; all other evaluative concepts are subordinate to this notion of the good — a notion without qualification [25].


[1] Rep. II 357b-358a & White, 1979, pp. 74-76

[2] Annas, 1981, pp. 59-63

[3] ibid., pp. 161-162

[4] ibid., p.167

[5] Kraut, 1992, p.311

[6] White, 1979, pp. 44-45)

[7] Annas, 1981, p.316

[8] Rep. V 474c-476c & White, 1979, pp. 154-157)

[9] Kraut, 1992, p.317, Rep. VIII 514a-519d & White, pp. 183-189

[10] Kraut, pp. 318-319

[11] Kraut, 1992, p.319 & Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, 1215 b1

[12] Kraut, 1992, p.319

[13] White, 1979, pp. 54-55)

[14] Kraut, 1992, p.321)

[15] ibid., pp. 322-323

[16] ibid., pp. 323-324, Rep. VI 499e-500e & 5OOd-501a & White, 1979, pp. 171-173)

[17] Kraut, 1992, pp. 324)

[18] Rep. IX 579d-e & White 1979, pp. 224-225

[19] Rep. VI 573d & ibid., p.221-222)

[20] ibid., p.327

[21] Nagel, 1986, pp. 195-196

[22] Rep VII, 540a-b

[23] Rep. V, 46le-462e

[24] Rep. IV, 419a-421c & Rep. VIII, 519d-521b

[25] Annas, 1981, pp. 321-334 & White, 1979, pp.43-54


Annas, Julia An Introduction to Plato's Republic Oxford 1981; Chapter 3, pp. 59-71; Chapter 6 pp. 53-169; Chapter 13, pp. 331-334

Irwin, Terence Plato's Ethics Oxford 1995; Chapter 12, pp. 181-202

Kraut, Richard (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Plato Cambridge 1992; Chapter 10, pp. 311-337

Nagel, Thomas The View from Nowhere Oxford 1986; Chapter X, pp. 189-207

Waterfield, Robin (Tr.) Plato's Republic Oxford 1993

White, Nicholas A Companion to Plato's Republic Indianapolis 1979