Ring of Gyges: Moral Hypocrisy

The Ring of Gyges is a mythical story and Platonic symbol mentioned in 2.359a to 2.360d of book two of Republicone of the books that Plato authored. 

According to legend, there was once a man named Gyges of Lydia, a shepherd of King Caundales of Lydia, feeding his flock on the mountains. Suddenly, a thunderstorm struck and an earthquake supervened, which created a chasm the size of a cave at the area where Gyges was feeding his flock. Gyges noticed the cave and began to enter it due to his curiosity. Upon scavenging, he saw a tomb with a bronze horse containing a naked corpse who wore a golden ring. The ring caught his interest, so he grabbed it and pocketed it. When he got out of the cave, he wore the ring and suddenly realized that it, when adjusted, had the power to make him invisible. Gyges then prompted to be chosen as one of the messengers who reported to the king. Gyges, knowing the magical power of the ring, used his power of invisibility to seduce the queen. Without people knowing, Gyges, as well as the queen, murdered the king, which prompted the replacement of King Caundales to Gyges as the new king of Lydia to take over the kingdom.

Gyges might have been known to possess moral qualities. Such moral qualities can be justified as concerning the principles of right and wrong behavior to the goodness and badness of human character. Prior to incidents of the earthquake and the murder of the king, Gyges might have had similar events wherein his morality was tested. But what is the sole purpose of determining his morality quality—pertaining to levels—when one does not have the consciousness of his real actions? Nevertheless, the conscious state of knowing that people were unaware of Gyge’s invisibility power made Gyges acted the way he did, and perhaps identical with pre-conceived similar events prior to the incident. Such morality factor can be derived by the conscious state itself. One’s act can be justified due to decisive factors—factors that also determine one’s moral conduct.

To say that one is a moral hypocrite is to say that one commits to actions just to seem moral, but not necessarily being moral—the end justifies the means. In simpler words, there is no one but, assumably, yourself to tell you that such act, albeit unjustified, is moral or immoral. Citing the situation of Gyges, such immoral decision had been made due to the fact that people did not know the condition or state behind it—Gyges having had a special power of invisibility. Nonetheless, it does not change the fact that such action, regardless of its nature, is, indeed, immoral.

Perhaps, what is the nature of moral hypocrisy? The following subtopics will comprehensively analyze the deeper understandings, in relation to psychological and behavioral economics experiments and philosophical perspectives, associated with the nature.

In Contrast: Morals and Ethics

According to a well-read source, “You can be an ethical person without necessarily being a moral one, since ethical implies conformity with a code of fair and honest behavior, particularly in business or in a profession.” Similarly, morality is attested as the product of one’s toleration level to occurrences that test a person’s manner of conduct, even with the absence of ethics. Ethics only affirms to a certain group—not universal. Ethics is legally concerned with a certain proposed audience, wherein the dynamicity of preference takes into place. Morality, contrary to popular beliefs, can also be viewed as not being universal in the sense of the dynamicity of human thinking. One person can say manner A is moral, while the other would disagree—this is, however, erroneous due to the universality of morality. Take for example the foundation of punishment—it is based on certain conducts viewed as immoral to a society; therefore, with such outlook, there should also be a set of universal conducts that deems immoral to everyone, because people have genuinely identical modes of emotions, and morality to immorality premise is directly proportional.

Intrinsically Valuable vs. Instrumentally Valuable

If you have read Plato’s book, Apology, you would realize that its core foundation is similar to the teachings of the gospel of Jesus—focusing on philosophical inquiries of justice and morality. There are two categories—intrinsically valuable and instrumentally valuable—that can be drawn from the book which determines how we value things. Intrinsically valuable (intrinsic value) is having valuables as ends in themselves. These are valuables that are valued solely for what they are. In addition, we value them because of their ends, and not what they provide. Such examples include satisfaction, joy, and intrinsic feelings of contentment. Whereas instrumentally valuable (instrumental value) or extrinsically valuable (extrinsic value), is having valuables as means in themselves. These are valuables that are valued because of what they offer or provide for us. Take for example the value of money: one does not value money because of its end, rather its linkage to other things, especially through its ability to buy material wants, foods, and other necessities. Albeit there are two general categories, there is a third category that determines the value of justice: both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable. This means that a certain behavior possesses both characteristics of intrinsic and instrumental. It enables us to do more things in its end as well as brings pleasure in its means. Such include the process of acquiring knowledge and learning through education and health.

Is justice, then, just like taking a certain dosage of drug? That we value justice because of its end—the benefit it produces—and not the means of taking it? What contributes to behaving morally? Do we act morally simply because of the reputation it offers? According to Glaucon, brother of Plato, we act morally because the way we see justice are of intrinsic and instrumental values. Justice, for us, brings significance for both means and ends.

The Baston Experiment

Daniel Baston, an American social psychologist, tried to conclude whether people’s proclivity is to be moral or just seem or appear to be moral. He conducted an experiment concerning the behavior of people when given a pair of options—sort of a dilemma. The experiment served as a basis for determining whether their actions are justified as moral or immoral. The context of the experiment was to let the people decide among which of the two given tasks will they take to be assigned for them—also determines, by default, the assigned job for a second person that would not be present at the laboratory. Basically, there was a proportionality of concern for one’s self and the other, from the decision. At one question, they were asked to choose whether they would take the task that is enjoyable and generally fun, in which each correct answer one gives provides one with a lottery ticket for a lottery in which one is entitled for the possibility to win a certain amount of money. And the other task is described as kind of dull, in which each correct answer one gives will not result in one’s being entered in the lottery. After that, a statistic of moral to immoral percentages (coined as a dependent variable in psychology) was collected from asking the people whether they think their choices were positive or negative (choices asked individually).

After the experiment, Daniel Baston concluded that people, indeed, were inclined to seeming moral to themselves, and not, as a matter of fact, to act justly or fairly. However, he had also come up with a way to induce in people the prosocial moral behavior—behavior that is provoked when observed in conformity with society. The treatment was simple: placing a mirror in front of each person in order to make them behave morally. The story behind the treatment was the fact that people do behave morally when they are being observed, even by themselves. The rather conscious state of being observed is what drives people to behave in a prosocial way. Likewise, Gyges’ action can be justified by such conclusion.

It is, in fact, difficult for people to act morally in conformity when unobserved. What lies protruding in this society is how it can be structured in such a way that actions are kept moral, both intrinsic and extrinsic, allowing the kind of solidity that allows human beings to thrive.


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