Anonymity Breeds Contempt
Sunday, December 05, 2010 - Filed in: General Interest
People act morally because they lack the power to behave otherwise.
From some–perhaps many–there have been a hue and cry concerning the recent revelations from WikiLeaks. In reflecting on same, they remind me of the story of the Ring of Gyges–an excerpt from book two of Plato’s The Republic.
Gyges, a shepherd for the King of Lydia, found a mythical ring that gave its owner the power of invisibility. He became a messenger from the shepherds to the court. He then seduced the Queen. He later conspired with the Queen, killed the King and became King himself.
Glaucon–Plato’s brother, frequently referenced in his works–uses this story to debate with Socrates. He insists that people act morally because they lack the power to behave otherwise. In essence, morality is a social construction, whose source is the desire to maintain one's reputation for virtue and honesty. When that sanction is removed, moral character would evaporate. Socrates response was that justice would not be defined by just this social construct. The person who abused the power of the Ring of Gyges has become morally bankrupt and suffered irreparable failings of character, while a person that chose willingly not to use it is at least at peace with himself or herself.
Even in the fourth century B.C., Plato argued morality comes from full disclosure. He suggests that without accountability for our actions, we would all behave unjustly. Modern research has proven repeatedly that anonymity increases unethical behavior.
What would one do if one possessed such a magic ring? One could argue that there is a resemblance between Gyges and some of our current public leaders. We must decide for ourselves the true meaning behind this story. In search of this answer, one must examine themselves and ask, How would I act if I held the Ring of Gyges?