I believe it is good to be a just person, for more reason than simply avoiding the penalties of being unjust. It is all well and good to claim that people behave justly for fear of being caught and punished for wrongdoings; though I believe that one should be just regardless of the consequences of the opposite. Surely it is more beneficial to all if everyone is to be just always. If there were little injustice caused by the acts of others, it would eliminate the further unjust acts of what people consider “deserved retaliation.”
Let us assume for a moment that there is a situation in which you could do something terribly unjust without fear of being caught. For example, let us say while walking around through Chinatown, I found a pair of glasses in my exact prescription. They have allowed me to convince whomever I am speaking to that they should believe what I tell them, agree with whatever I say or act as I urge them to. While I am arguing with my best friend about Nietzsche, she yields to my beliefs for the first time in our adult lives. In an attempt to look more intellectual in her eyes, I pull the glasses off and nibble on one of the bows. I find that as soon as I remove the glasses, she returns to disagreeing with my point of view. Once I put them back on, she agrees again. Later, I drive fifteen miles over the speed limit in a reduced-speed school zone and I am able to convince the police officer that pulls me over that I do not deserve a ticket for it, so long as I am wearing the glasses. I take them off momentarily, to test the waters (Is he just daft or would he actually write me a ticket for speeding were it not for the glasses?) and he begins to write the ticket. I could get away with almost anything, could I not? Even if I had no fear of repercussion from the law that binds us to our honour to behave justly (because I could conceivably convince anyone who opposes me that what I am doing is right), I still would not use the glasses to participate in the actions that I have just described, because I see it to be the ultimate injustice.
But what is it to act justly or unjustly? Plato places justice amongst the finest goods. Justice, to Plato, is good for its own sake. Both for what it is and for the happiness of what comes of it. To Plato, justice is not the onerous good that society at the time saw it to be. Even as it could be clearly seen that one could lead an unjust life but have the reputation for being just and reap many rewards for it, despite their behaviour. The just man could be seen as unjust and be tormented for it. (This also seemed to be governed by how much money and influence your family had.) Thomas Hobbes believes being just is only beneficial to a person if everyone would choose the same. He believes in the State of Nature. A sort of “every man for himself” belief that touts that every person should do what is best for him or her, regardless of it being what our society sees as cruel or unjust. If it would benefit you to kill your neighbour for his possessions, then according to Hobbes, you should do it. Only if it is for the benefit of all to uphold a civilized society where justice is prevalent should it be so (and he does believe it to be beneficial). If there is no justice then men are at war with themselves, which benefits no one. It is by far better for all to abide by laws and other such rules of society than for such a state of war to be in place. For all of mankind to enter into a pact that assures us the rights to freedom from oppression, theft, and murder, the right to live free lives is good for all. Though we give up the right to act entirely in our own self-interest (i.e. by killing my neighbour because I think he has a wicked stereo system and I would like to have it) we gain much more by gaining the protection not to be wronged by others. Although, according to Hobbes, the only thing keeping this pact is that if one is to break it, they face consequences. Even then, Hobbes would argue that once it is no longer beneficial to a person to keep this pact and that one should act in his or her own self-interest. Every man should do everything in his own power to preserve himself and his quality of life. While I agree that this in itself is fundamentally good for each person individually, I believe in the greater good. The needs of the many far outweigh the needs of the few, or one. I find I agree somewhat more with Plato’s views of justice than Thomas Hobbes. I believe in the notion that behaving justly for its own sake is good in and of itself and that it is most certainly its own reward. Certainly I could behave unjustly and for my own benefit, but what good does that really do me? If I wrong my friends to further my own self-interest, my friends will not trust me, or they will wrong me as well. While this may look to be that if the consequences were removed, I would be inclined to act differently, I say I would not. I am a firm believer in “what goes around comes around,” Karma or perhaps what someone would call “divine retribution.” If a person behaves justly, they will benefit from it in the long run, as is my belief.
I offer the following, second example for my argument. I could really use a bike. My friend Mary has just gotten a new bike for herself and still has her old one, which she does not use anymore. It is not as though the old bike is benefiting Mary in any way and she complains that it is just taking up space in her garage. It obviously would do more good for me than her to have this bike that I could use to get around town and between classes more easily. I do not have the money to buy Mary’s bike from her, being a poor university student, and she will not simply give the bike to me in an act of benevolence. Mary paid her hard-earned money for her bike at one time and though she does not use it at the time being, and possibly may never use it again ever, it would be unfair of me to simply receive the bike and pay nothing in return for it. I could steal the bike for myself and not only would I get the use of the bike, Mary would get space in her garage! Mary, being my friend, would be disappointed, but would not press charges for it. So, in theory, I could steal this bike and not face any consequences for it. I believe Hobbes would say that it would be encouraging me to steal this bike if there is nothing in place to punish my unjust act. Plato would say that acting justly in the situation is more rewarding than the immediate benefits of stealing and using the bicycle for transportation. Those of us who act justly as Plato tells it will receive favour with the Gods. Clearly we do not have this belief in the same Gods that Plato did and even some disbelieve in a God all together, but the principle should still stand. We will find favour in others if we act justly, not just whatever divine being we choose to believe in. I tie my beliefs closely to Plato’s own, and this is why I find his view on ethics far more persuasive.
Hobbes, Thomas. “Leviathan, Part I, Chapters XIII-XV.” 1651. Reason and Responsibility. 12th ed. Eds. Joel Feinberg, Russ Shafer-Landau. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning: 2005. 541-554.
Plato. "The Immoralist’s Challenge." 357A-367E. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Reason and Responsibility. 12th ed. Eds. Joel Feinberg, Russ Shafer-Landau. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning: 2005. 496-502.