What Would You Do
All of us have done things we are not proud of and other things that we point to with satisfaction and pride. Often, when we point, we are saying “look, I did this, what a good person I am,” hoping the world will acknowledge some of our acts and overlook others.
But what if no one is looking? Would we still do the same things regardless of public opinion, the praise of friends or the threat of consequences ?
Why do we do good?
Convention and habit ?
Aristotle says, if we want to be good, make goodness a habit. Nothing wrong with that.
A nagging sense of guilt or a fear of punishment ?
Sometimes we need to be reminded that certain activities bring dire or at least unpleasant consequences.
The need for approval or to protect our reputation ?
Maybe the satisfaction of praise and reward is a natural part of doing good, and uplifts us and makes it more likely that we’ll do good in the future, creating a loop where our souls and the world both benefit.
And what’s wrong with enjoying the fruits of our good acts ?
As a teenager I know, once quipped, “If I do good, I want to get the credit.”
Maybe we do good because something inside us tells us it’s right thing to do ?
We all know what we would like to believe. It seems so easy and sensible, in a way.
But what if things were just a little different ?
Would we really do good if it was completely unacknowledged, even by the closest people in our lives?
What if the good we do was mistaken for evil, would we still do it? Even if we thought we would be punished for it ?
If all bets were off and we could do absolutely anything we liked, how would we behave ?
Twenty four hundred years ago, Socrates and Plato struggled with these same questions.
Socrates was Plato’s teacher and is the central character in every Platonic dialogue. We don’t know where Socrates’ ideas stop, and Plato’s begin. But the questions remain.
The Socratic method is famous for its incisive logic, constant questioning and strict adherence to critical thinking, but sometimes Socrates and Plato turn to myths and stories to illustrate their ideas. Here is one such story, well known in Ancient Greece.
Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the King of Lydia. One day there was a great storm, and an earthquake carved an opening in the ground where Gyges was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he climbed down into the opening, where he found a hollow bronze horse, with doors on its side. He looked in one of the doors and saw a dead body on the horse, having nothing on but a gold ring. He took the ring, put it on his finger and climbed back out of the hole.
Soon after, the shepherds in the area met together, as was their custom, to send their monthly report about the flocks to the King. Gyges joined their assembly and as he was sitting among them, he chanced to turn the ring on his finger, when instantly he became invisible, and people began to speak of him as if he were no longer present.
He was astonished and again he turned the ring and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result -- when he turned the ring one way, he became invisible, when he turned it the other, he reappeared.
Now he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived, he seduced the Queen, and with her help, conspired against the King, and slew him and seized the kingdom.
The man who tells Socrates the story makes a simple point. If no one knew what we did and there were no consequences, we would act in our own selfish interest.
Socrates says, “you are wrong.”
The question for us becomes “what would I do with such a ring?”
A room of middle school students react in some telling ways. Whatever the first person in the room says– I'd be a trickster, or get all they can of something, whether its pizza, or piles of money, or chocolate ice cream, or by contrast, be a good person and promote world peace, being kind to strangers and saving the planet, the overwhelming majority of the group follows suit.
If the class has gone rogue and is grilled on what they would do after they satisfied every want and played every trick, eventually someone tentatively offers a suggestion that they might do good. Then the tide shifts.
If things have gone the other way and everyone is a model citizen and a perfect human being, someone will eventually turn on the group and ask “would we really do all those things or are we just saying it to look good. Wouldn’t most of us secretly want to get things for ourselves ?” The statement usually freezes the house.
For adults, I’m not sure it would be much different.
Socrates says the just are at peace with themselves and eventually goodness would win out.
If you notice a similarity between Plato’s story and The Lord of the Rings by JR Tolkien and “the one ring to rule them all,” you are not alone. It is where got Tolkien got the idea.