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Justice Is the Advantage of the Stronger

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Topic: A defense of Thrasymachus’ claim; “Justice is the advantage of the stronger”

Most people believe that they understand the essence of things like justice and virtue. Though, if they were asked to define these things, few would be able to do so without posing some contradiction. Thrasymachus puts his understanding of justice in these words; “justice is nothing, but the advantage of the stronger” (Plato’s Republic, Book 1, pdf p. 14).

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A conventional description of justice may be that it is conforming to some moral and social code when passing judgment; to make the decision that favors what is perceived to be right.

Thrasymachus seems to be challenging the very basic idea of justice when he claims that it serves only the stronger. But we shall see that his statement holds deeper insight that is immediately apparent. As the argument between Socrates and Thrasymachus proceeds two things become clear. The statement is aimed at describing justice only in relation to the rulers of a state and their subjects.

The word ‘stronger’ is used to describe the rulers of the state as they are the ones in the position of power. Secondly, the statement is describing what justice actually is in reality rather than what it ought to be. Thrasymachus is implying that the ideas of justice as they exist in the mind of the common man (from now on referred to as ideal justice) are not what justice is in actuality. Thus the statement is not aimed at giving a universal definition of justice, but rather it is limited to describing the reality of the justice that is handed out by the government to its subjects.

As far as the state is concerned the laws that the ruler decrees are deemed justice in that state. Any action that breaks these laws is unjust. Thrasymachus is trying to say that the laws that each government makes are aimed at serving its own purposes, and as these laws are justice, justice is the advantage of the rulers. In these terms, he reveals his distrust of justice that is formulated by the people in power and the intentions behind the laws that the rulers make. Justice really is nothing more than the self-serving laws of governments.

Further on in the same dialogue Socrates says “potential rulers must be paid in one of three sorts of coinage: money, or honor, or punishment for refusing” (pdf p. 23). To the ruler in power, any of these three things is attainable through the manipulation of laws. By introducing corrupt laws that they claim to be just they can gain wealth, by making laws that fulfill the wishes of the public they can gain honor and respect, and by means of laws that give them more power they can eliminate the fear of punishment. Socrates claims that the best men are mostly unwilling to serve as the rulers (pdf p.3). Thus Socrates must agree that most rulers are not the best men and this furthers Thrasymachus’ suspicion and strengthens his assertion that generally, rulers govern with personal motives in minds rather than selfless ones that benefit their subjects. We must also consider the case of a perfect selfless ruler as it is brought up in Socrates’ counter-argument. But first, let us consider the case in which the subjects rebel against the tyrant and form a new government. Now the people of the state become the government and they are ‘stronger’ as per Thrasymachus’ statement.

The justice that they establish may be ideal justice because that is what the people think to be most advantageous to them. Thus the justice established is meant to serve the most powerful of the state. The case of the perfect ruler is much the same. The rulers’ purpose is the advantage of his people and his laws are aimed at serving them. The more likely cause would be that the ruler is not establishing ideal justice out of the goodness of his heart but because of the power of the people over his rule and his accountability to them (as in unblemished democracy).

In this case, as in the previous one, it is the people who are ‘stronger’, and therefore justice serves their advantage. It seems that Thrasymachus does not believe that a ruler can be truly selfless. He believes in the corruption of power and the imperfection of human nature and therefore his statement was not made with the thought of addressing this case. However, if a ruler does have absolute power but still establishes ideal justice it does not mean that he gains nothing through his laws. His gain may be respect, a clear conscience or more power, or many of such things.

Socrates says that this advantage is separate from the act of justice but in fact, it is brought around by the laws the ruler makes. In general, the ruler is always served by his laws. Even in a democratic system where the people are ‘stronger’ the ruler’s purposes are still furthered as he is always foremost among the ‘strong’ and in a position to bend the laws to serve his will. Unless a ruler has no power, such as in the case of a puppet head, the ruler gains in some way from the laws that he makes.

An apparent flaw in the argument posed by Thrasymachus was revealed by Socrates (pdf p. 14 – 16). The tyrant can fall and the ruler is harmed; through his mistakes or through the disadvantages that his laws may render him concurrent with the advantages that they provide him. Thus it seems that Thrasymachus’ statement is not complete and justice can cause both the advantage and the disadvantage of the ruler. At this point in the argument, Cleitophon suggests that the statement actually means “what the stronger thought to be his advantage” (pdf p. 6). Thrasymachus disagrees with this suggestion, maybe only because he does not want to grant to Socrates that his statement is lacking in any sense. However, Cleotophon’s suggestions seem harmonious to Thrasymachus’ stance. It suggests that though the strong may be bringing forth harm to themselves through the justice they impose or the disadvantage to them through their laws may be more than their advantage, justice still is what the stronger think will serve their motives best.

The intentions behind the formulation of justice are the profit-seeking motives of the stronger. As has been said before Thrasymachus’ description depicts justice as it actually is, not as what we want it to be. The general rule for the laws that rulers make is that they are aimed at serving their selfish purpose. A law that harms the ruler is more of an exception than the general rule, much like the exception when a man physically harms himself.

Even though in the case Socrates points out justice is not exclusively the advantage of the stronger, generally, that is exactly what justice actually is. If the justice that a ruler adopts keeps doing him harm then it is very unlikely that the ruler will remain in power for long; either through the loss of motive to rule or through the eventual loss of power to those who become stronger as he errs. Rulers make laws to serve their agendas. When they make laws to serve some other entity’s purposes that the entity is stronger (through the power that it holds).

Thrasymachus probably does not believe in a perfect ruler who makes laws that establish ideal justice. He seems to believe that ideal justice is just an idea and his description of justice is the reality of justice. He believes that every man does something for some kind of gain. His views seem realistic and correspond to human psychology. There may be some negligible exceptions to his rule and his statement may not be a complete definition of justice, nevertheless, his words hold significant worth.

Cite this Justice Is the Advantage of the Stronger

Justice Is the Advantage of the Stronger. (2018, Jan 30). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/a-defense-of-thrasymachus-claim-justice-is-the-advantage-of-the-stronger/

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