What is Good?

Socrates on What People Misunderstand about Goodness

What do people misunderstand about goodness? Something very important, it turns out.

In Plato’s Republic, Plato portrays Socrates discussing goodness with some of his friends and acquaintances.

Now it is important to know that the word for goodness in the Republic is dikaisoune (δικαισύνη).

And English doesn’t have an exact translation for the word dikaisoune

In fact, the word is a little tricky to translate because in classical Greek it means something like righteousness, correctness, integrity, and complete excellence.

So, translators often translate this word as justice.

That is important to know because in the Republic, Socrates and his interlocutors (discussion partners) try to determine what justice is.

But when they discuss justice, they mean complete excellence and goodness both in a person and in a city.

One guy named Thrasymachus argues that justice is simply a line some folks sell other people to get them to do what the rulers want.

For instance, Thrasymachus argues that a typical pattern in cities or government goes like this:

Someone takes control of a city. Then he establishes rules he calls “justice”.

But those rules, Thrasymachus suggests, are just actions that benefit the ruler personally.

Thrasymachus argues,

Some cities are ruled by a tyrant and others by a democracy, and others by an aristocracy.

And further, each regime has its laws framed to suit its own interests:

a democracy making democratic laws, a tyrant tyrannical laws, and so on.

Now by this procedure, the regimes have pronounced that what is for the interest of themselves is just for their subjects;

and whoever deviates from this, is chastised by them as guilty of illegality and injustices.[1]

So, Thrasymachus argues, justice is simply the interest of the stronger.

And those who act justly, he further suggests, are fools, manipulated by rulers.

But Socrates has another view of justice.

I recommend the Hackett edition of Plato’s Republic, which you can find on Amazon or at your local bookstore.

You can also usually find it at your local library, which is a wonderful place to visit.

Socrates suggests that justice is a harmonious internal state which people cultivate when their reason, will, and passions all do their job properly.

Accordingly, reason, will, and passions accomplish the task they are suited for.

Furthermore, they do not try to take on the task for which they are not suited.[2]

For example, Socrates argues that in each individual, the job of reason is to rule a person to help them make good decisions.

So, reason should function like a good and wise king.

And the job of the will, Socrates argues, is to align itself with the good and wise king to carry out his wishes.

Our will is like the guardians of a city.

Furthermore, the job of the passions is to help get things done.

So, the passions, accordingly to Socrates, are like the workers of a city.

To review, Socrates argues that justice is an inner state of harmony in which everything plays the role best suited to it.

Both a person and a city can possess justice. Justice in both a person and a city brings harmony, peace, orderliness, and effectiveness.

Now, on the face of it, Socrates’ description of justice sounds somewhat quaint and possibly even a little elitest.

But then Socrates presents a compelling thought experiment involving a band of robbers, which drives home the wisdom of his argument. 

Socrates notes that, ironically, to be successful in their criminal enterprise, even a band of robbers must possess justice.

That is because to carry out their crime, even a band of robbers must follow their reason.

They must let reason rule their appetites and allow their will to align with reason.

On the other hand, if their appetites overpower their reason, for example, the band of robbers will undermine themselves.

And they will be unable to carry out their plans.

 Socrates summarizes his points by arguing,

Injustice breeds divisions and animosities and broils between man and man, while justice creates unanimity and friendship;

does it not?[3]

Socrates’ discussion of goodness reveals something interesting. The good soul is a just soul.

It is a soul with a wise, harmonious ruler (reason).

And motivated and cooperative workers (appetites).

As well as a properly aligned will (guardians).

So, a just soul is a happy soul, much like a just city is a happy city.[4]

Accordingly, Goodness helps us develop a happy well-ordered soul.

Now, I teach ethics every semester. And so I think quite a bit about this question:

Why should people be good?

I think many people along the way develop a view of goodness much like Thrasymachus’ view.

Perhaps we imagine that goodness is a line that people sell us to manipulate us into doing what they want us to do.

But I think this is what people misunderstand about goodness.

Socrates presents a different view and the right one, in my opinion.

Becoming good and just is the most precious gift you can give to yourself.

Goodness helps you develop inner harmony, order, and happiness.

With those gifts, you can accomplish just about anything.

You might also like reading this post about developing your own moral and ethical code, which is one of the ways you can cultivate goodness in your life:

Develop Your Own Moral and Ethical Code


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[1] Plato. Republic. G.M.A. Grube, trans. Hackett Publishing. 1992. 338e.

[2] Ibid, 370b.

[3] 351d

[4] 353d

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