Teaching Ethics with Crimes & Misdemeanors: The Ring of Gyges

Posted by: S. Goldberg
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Estimated Time Necessary: 3 - 5hrs, can span across multiple class meetings
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Learning Objectives

  • Moral Implications - Consider the difference between getting caught and being guilty. Does not getting caught mean that doing something is ok?
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In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon, Plato’s elder brother, tell a story about a shepherd who discovers a ring that makes him invisible. Setting aside past loyalty, once he figures out how to use the ring, the shepherd Gyges doesn’t hesitate to seduce the queen, kill the king, and seize the kingdom. Glaucon suggests that if we could act with impunity, without worrying about getting caught, it would be irrational for us to follow the dictates of law or conventional morality, and we would do all kinds of things we wouldn’t do when we fear the consequences. Socrates does have a response to this dark view of human nature and morality as an external stick to keep us in line. Socrates argues that we are good so as to realize our own happiness in our nature as rational beings. For Socrates being just and good is its own reward and we live happier lives for it.

Plot Summary of Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Woody Allen’s film dramatizes the “Ring of Gyges” scenario and makes compelling viewing for high school students. In keeping with Allen’s controlling metaphor of moral vision and blindness, Judah Rosenthal, the central character in the film, is a prominent opthamologist who has his mistress murdered when she threatens to tell his wife and destroy his reputation. Consumed with anguish and guilt, he recalls his father’s admonition that the penetrating eyes of God see all and that the wicked will be punished. Judah resists a powerful urge to unburden his conscience by confessing the crime. Months later he is relieved to learn that a drifter with a long criminal record has been charged with murder. The crisis lifts and Judah returns to his cocoon of wealth and privilege. But the film, like Plato’s Republic, doesn’t give Glaucon/Judah the last word. The final scene suggests that ruthless pursuit of self-interest compromises our prospects for lasting happiness and personal fulfillment. The film sparks lively conversation because the question of why we should be good has no easy answer!

Teaching Ethics with Crimes & Misdemeanors: The Ring of Gyges

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Possible Discussion Questions
  1. What does judah see when he peers into the eyes of Delores' corpse?
  2. Which characters have moral vision? Which have moral blindness?
  3. Is Aunt May right when she says that if you can commit a crime without being bothered by the ethics, you're home free?
  4. Is Jack right when he says that he lives in the "real world" and that high-minded morality is only for those who are naïve or live in a cocoon?
  5. Why does Judah arguably return to his contented, privileged life while Cliff, a man who strives for integrity, is left profoundly unhappy?
  6. What moral point of view is represented by Louis Levy?
  7. Does Judah confirm Rand's argument for the virtues of selfishness?
  8. Do all the characters confirm the philosophical view that all human behavior is egoistic and motivated by self-interest and that benevolence is somehow unnatural?
  9. Ben is easily deceived by Judah. He also is going blind. Should we say that Ben has spiritual vision or should we conclude that his beliefs blind him to the truth about human nature and morality?
  10. Does the film support the contention that virtue is its own reward?
  11. Socrates cautions that we too often do what harms us in the search for happiness because we don't really know what is in our self-interest. Does this argument apply to Judah? Why or why not?

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