I’ve been thinking about human behavior lately. In Plato’s Republic he tells a story of the Ring of Gyges. In the tale a man named Gyges is given a ring that makes him invisible by adjusting it. Gyges then arranges to be a messenger for the King. Arriving at the palace he uses his powers of invisibility to seduce the queen and help her murder the King, making himself King.
The point of the story is summarized by Glaucon in the Republic:
“And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.
For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.”
Socrates disagrees with Glaucon saying (summarized via wikipedia)” the man who abused the power of the Ring of Gyges has in fact enslaved himself to his appetites, while the man who chose not to use it remains rationally in control of himself and is therefore happy”
So Glaucon thinks without social constructs people would be unjust. Socrates thinks he will chose just behavior out of mental health and happiness.
Here’s what made me think of this…road rage. Is not road rage an example of the Ring of Gyges? You would never exhibit such behavior in a face-to-face conversation with another human being but being in a sense invisible (or at least having invisible behavior) excuses the unjust response.
I think a lot of our modern world has become a Ring of Gyges experience. Almost anything online can be done invisibly, allowing people to be far more mean and hateful than they might ever be in a social situation. The other day I had a comment on my goodreads review that was brutal. Here a human being I don’t know said I was ‘too ignorant to understand intelligent literature’ and followed it by more slander. I have pretty thick skin but it bothered even me. Part of the reason why I made this blog so open and honest is to avoid a Gyges experience. If I was going to embrace social media it would be the true me, not some invisible, made up version of me.
And yet, the invisibility can bring out the positive. I have had so much positive reinforcement from people I don’t know, have not met, nor likely to ever meet online and on this blog. I think Glaucon is wrong that ‘all men believe injustice is more profitable’. I think a healthy group do but I do believe there are enough people who would use the ring for good that the world has hope- whether it is for Socrates somewhat selfish motives or true altruism, it doesn’t matter a great deal, good behavior would still result.
I’m reminded of an incident in college. I worked for a teriyaki/sub place here in Utah called Hogi Yogi. This was a summer job but I tried my best to work hard and produce a decent product. At this place you had to make a big pot of chicken at the beginning of the day and hope it lasted throughout the day. Occasionally in closing shift you’d run out and so people could order steak, noodles, sandwiches etc.
At such a late hour a woman came into the shop, ordered a chicken meal and I responded. ‘Sorry we are out of chicken’. I will never forget her whole body squirmed up and she put her finger out to me. ‘I’m so tired of this place not having chicken. What kind of an establishment do you run etc…’. I said ‘you could order beef or a sandwich.’ ‘Forget it. I’ll get my chicken on University instead’ and she stormed out. (I’m cleaning it up a bit!).
I’ve always been amazed someone could get so unglued over chicken. In this instance Glaucon is right. She would never have behaved this way in a social environment with friends/family overlooking her actions. Because she did not know me, she could be invisible and behave poorly.
We need to snap out of it and remember that whether they be a name on a website, a driver in a car or a server in a restaurant, ALL people have humanity. We need to try harder to treat others the way we wish to be treated (or at least the way we would want our son or daughter treated).
I know this is pretty philosophical but what do you think? Do you agree with Glaucon, Socrates or have another point of view? What do you think of the Ring of Gyges story? Do you see this modern invisibility and the poor behavior that goes with it as a growing trend?
Anyone experienced anything like my chicken incident or the mean review? Why do you think people behave in such ways?