What would you do?
We have all done things we are not proud of and other things we point to with pride. Often, we are saying "look 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 act the same regardless of public opinion, the praise of friends or the threat of consequences ?
Why do we do good? Convention and habit ? A nagging sense of guilt or a fear of punishment ? The need for approval or to protect our reputation ?
Aristotle says, if we want to be good, make goodness a habit.
Sometimes we need to be reminded that certain activities bring unpleasant or even dire consequences.
Maybe the self satisfaction of praise and reward is a natural part of doing good. It uplifts us and makes it more likely that we’ll do good again. Our souls and the world both benefit.
And what’s wrong with enjoying the fruits of our good acts ?
As a teen I know, once quipped, “If I do good, I want to get the credit.”
Maybe we do good because some inner instinct us tells us it’s right thing to do ?
We all know what we would like to believe. We do good because we are good people. It seems so sensible and easy.
But what if circumstances were different ?
Would we really do good if it was completely unacknowledged, even by those closest to us?
What if the good we do was mistaken for evil, would we still do it ? What if thought we would be punished for it ?
If we could do absolutely anything we liked, how would we behave ?
Twenty four hundred years ago, Socrates and Plato wrestled with these same questions.
As Plato’s teacher, Socrates is the central character in every Platonic dialogue. We don’t know where Socrates’ ideas leave off and Plato’s begin. But the questions remain.
The Socratic method is famous for its incisive logic, rigorous questioning and strict adherence to critical thinking, but even with their extreme intellectual firepower, sometimes Socrates and Plato turn to myths and stories to illustrate their ideas. Here is one such story, Plato uses to help us frame the question.
Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the King of Lydia. One day, during a great storm, an earthquake ripped 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 a dead body on the horse, naked, except for a gold ring. He put it on his finger and climbed back out of the hole.
It was a custom of the shepherds in the area to met together once a report and send a report about the flocks to the King. Gyges joined their assembly and as he was sitting in the back, unobserved by all, 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 to the court; where he seduced the Queen, and killed the King, and seized the kingdom.
The man who tells Socrates the story makes his 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 is “what would I do with such a ring?”
A room of middle school students I once told the story to reacted 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 by contrast, be a good person and promote world peace, be kind to strangers and save the planet, the overwhelming majority of the group will follows.
If the class is pushed to think about what they would do after they satisfied every want and played every trick, eventually someone offers a suggestion; that they might do good. Then the tide shifts.
If things have gone the other way and everyone is a model world citizen and a perfect human being, someone will eventually turn on the group. "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 stills the room.
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.
I wonder and I see hopeful signs all around, but our track record has been spotty at best.
If you notice a similarity between Plato’s story and The Lord of the Rings by JR Tolkien with "the one ring to rule them all,” you are not alone. It is where Tolkien got the idea.