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!