Justice and Utopia
- Description of the story of the Ring of Gyges
- Handout on the characteristics of Rammeka (a fictional society)
- Worksheet for small-group discussion and individual reflection
Estimated Time Necessary: Approximately 1-2 class periods
Begin with an explanation of Plato’s goals in The Republic. Explain briefly how Plato attempted to define the just individual and the just society. Plato argues that happiness for the individual and harmony for the state necessitate justice. The instructor will connect these issues to a contemporary theory of justice (John Rawls) and current issues of inequality.
To motivate the issue of justice as it relates to individual action, provide students with Plato’s Ring of Gyges story either as a homework assignment or handout. After the story has been read to the class, potential questions to consider include:
- Imagine for a moment that you were in possession of such a ring. How would you use it?
- If you had a perfect guarantee that you would never be caught or punished, what would you do?
- If there were two persons in possession of the ring—one just and one unjust—what, if any, differences in behavior might occur in their uses of the ring?
- Do other works of modern fiction raise similar issues to those found in the Ring of Gyges (e.g., the “ring to rule them all” from Lord of the Rings and the “Deathly Hallows” from Harry Potter)?
To begin a broader conceptual discussion of justice, explain that students will now attempt to create principles for a just and fair society (as influenced by John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice). Students should imagine that they do not know anything regarding their identity other than that they are rational beings. In Rawls’ work A Theory of Justice, this is what he calls the “original position” or the “veil of ignorance,” which serves as a starting point to decide on the fairest principles for a new society.
Students will be divided into groups of four to five to complete a worksheet to decide on the principles for the society of Rammeka, which has a history of discrimination against minorities and has the general demographics indicated on the handout (see handout in Supplemental Materials—this can be copied for students or written on the board). Students should be reminded that they have the percentage chance indicated on the handout of being those members of society and will need to abide by the rules decided by their small group. Note: percentages are NOT cumulative and can overlap (e.g., a person could be disabled, female, and a veteran).
The worksheet should have the following questions:
- What would you do with the Gyges’s ring? Explain. What do you think most people would do with it?
- Define justice (note: the term itself or a synonym should not appear in the definition).
- How you would address the following policies from the “original position,” under a veil of ignorance? This means the only characteristic you possess is rationality; you have no idea of your gender, age, ethnicity, religious attitudes, political party affiliation, etc. The policies you must address under the veil of ignorance are:
- An expansive social welfare system (old age pensions, universal health care, accident and disability insurance, unemployment insurance, etc.)
- 75% tax on estates over $1 million (to fund the above)
- Affirmative action (based on race and gender)
- Same-sex marriage
After students have had an opportunity to make decisions and air any differences, survey group decisions and challenge groups and individuals to defend their reasoning to the rest of the class.
To conclude this portion of the lesson, explain Rawls’ three principles of justice. Rawls claimed that these three principles, listed in order of importance, would follow logically from being in the original position:
- Equal right to liberty consistent with that of others.
- Fair equality of opportunity for position and offices.
- Any social or economic inequalities must benefit the least-advantaged members of society (“the Difference Principle”).
Rawls conceives of justice as synonymous with fairness, so under a veil of ignorance, legislators will establish basic principles to follow, possibly as individuals who lacks advantage, status, or have been subjected to discrimination in the past. Invite students to react to Rawls’ conclusions and the principles themselves.
To conclude, students should consider the following questions, which can be written out on a worksheet and/or presented as a final class discussion:
- Is Rawls’ thought experiment an appropriate way of creating a just society? Why or why not?
- Is pursuing a perfectly just society a worthy goal?
- How would you define justice?
- To what extent can society realize your definition in practice? What limits the goal of creating a perfectly just society?
- How might your responses above connect back to the Ring of Gyges story?
Description of Plato’s “Ring of Gyges” (http://sites.wofford.edu/kaycd/plato/)
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice (rev. ed.). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999.
F.M. Cornford (Trans.), The Republic of Plato. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1951.
Handout: Characteristics of Rammeka
Note: Rammeka has a tradition of discrimination against various minority groups.
53 percent female
23 percent Catholic (Christian)
63 percent Protestant (Christian)
2 percent Jewish
2 percent Muslim
2 percent other faiths
22 percent poor
3 percent rich
11 percent veteran
8 percent gay/lesbian
10 percent Asian
12 percent African-American
14 percent Latino
2 percent homeless
7 percent unemployed
6 percent disabled
27 percent professional
35 percent blue collar
18 percent elderly
9 percent ill
6 percent agnostic/atheist