3.1 Why Should Anyone be Moral?


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • The differences between mores, etiquette, morality, law and ethics.
  • How the story of the Ring of Gyges attempts to argue that being moral is unjustified.
  • Strengths and Weaknesses of Glaucon’s “Ring of Gyges” argument.

Consider what the world would be like if there were no traffic rules at all.  Would people be able to travel the roadways efficiently and safely?  The answer should be obvious.  Without basic rules of the road (no matter how much some would like to avoid or break them!) there would be chaos.  The fact that some people break the rules is quite clearly not a sufficient reason to do away with the rules.  The rules are necessary.

Why are moral rules needed?  For example, why do we need rules about keeping promises, telling the truth, and private property?  The answer should also be fairly obvious.  Without such rules, we would not be able to live together well in society.  We could not make plans, could not leave our homes, could not walk the streets without fear.  We would not know whom to trust and what to expect from others.  Civilization would not be possible.  So, the question is: Why should we care about being moral?

There are several possible answers.  Sociologists would tell us that without morality social life would be impossible.  Psychologists might argue that living a good life is central to a sense of personal well-being.  Theologians might suggest that a moral life will ensure a positive afterlife.  Regardless of the reasons, we sense that we “should” be moral (and so should others) because without morality life would be very difficult if not impossible, and societies would break down and cease to flourish. Before we look at the questions that deal with the rules of morality and all the rules which govern human behavior, some terms need to be clarified.

As we proceed through this chapter it will be useful to clarify some terminology.

Mores– Mores are the cultural customs and rules of conduct observed by a people, group, or a society. Violations of mores, depending on severity, might bring rebuke or perhaps ostracization from the group.

Etiquette – Etiquette is a set of rules of conduct concerning matters of relatively minor importance, but which do contribute to the quality of life.  Etiquette deals with rules concerning dress and manners and deals with politeness.  Violations would bring denunciations for being rude, crude, or gross.

Morality—Morality is a term often used interchangeably with Ethics but speaks not to how we determine rules of right conduct but what are a community’s expectations concerning matters of greater importance etiquette.  Violations of such can bring disturbance to individual conscience and social sanctions, even social collapse.

Law—Legal rules are devised and enforced by governments.  Violations may bring a loss of or reduction in freedoms and possessions.

Ethics—Philosophical Ethics is the term we use for the philosophical exploration of morality, its motives, and its sources, and it has always been a predominant concern of Philosophy. Socrates, as we have seen, was angered by the ethical relativism of the Sophists who believed that there were no absolute moral truths, but that morality should be considered a tool for public gain.


Ponder if you will…

Is obeying the law and being moral the same thing? Many people would answer no to that question. If they are not the same thing which would be the most important? Many philosophers would point to morality as superior, and thus, laws are simply morals codified into law. For instance, it has always been immoral to murder a person and for the safety of society, the law codifies that particular moral rule as illegal and sets the punishment for its violation.

Excerpts from Plato’s Republic –“The Ring of Gyges”

In Book 2 of Plato’s dialogue Republic, Socrates is engaged in a conversation with his disciple Glaucon about whether people ought to act justly.

In what follows, consider:

  • What is Glaucon’s main argument against the idea that we are naturally moral or just?
  • How does the story of the ring support his argument?

GLAUCON: Now, that those who practice justice do so involuntarily and because they have not the power to be unjust will best appear if we imagine something of this kind: having given both to the just and the unjust power to do what they will, let us watch and see where desire will lead them; then we shall discover in the very act the just and unjust man to be proceeding along the same road, following their interest, which all natures deem to be their good, and are only diverted into the path of justice by the force of law. The liberty which we are supposing may be most completely given to them in the form of such a power as is said to have been possessed by Gyges the ancestor of Croesus the Lydian. According to tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock.

An image of a gold ring with magical writing on it.
Image of the “One Ring to Rule Them All” from JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he, stooping and looking in, saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly, he came having the ring on his finger, and, as he was sitting among them, he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company, and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result: when he turned the collet inwards, he became invisible; when outwards, he reappeared. Whereupon he contrived to be chosen as one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived, he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him and took the kingdom.

  • What is Glaucon’s point when he expands the story to discuss giving rings to two people, one a just (moral) person, the other unjust?

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market or go into houses and lie with anyone at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men. Then the actions of the just would be like the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for, wherever anyone thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine anyone obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice (Plato, Republic, Book 2, in McLaughlin, p 239).

  • Do we agree with Glaucon? Why or why not?
  • How do you think Socrates would respond to this story? Why?

Strengths and Weaknesses of Glaucon’s argument.

Here are some of the main strengths and weaknesses attributed to Glaucon’s “Ring of Gyges” argument in Plato’s Republic:


  1. Highlights the role of self-interest and incentives in human ethical behavior rather than just the knowledge of good.
  2. Poses an important challenge to theories that morality alone without consequences compels justice.
  3. The thought experiment tests the notion of intrinsic vs extrinsic value guiding human virtue.


  1. Depends heavily on psychological egoism – the theory that people only act for self-interest. This remains controversial.
  2. Underplays the force of ethical education and the inculcation of habits for restraining immoral acts.
  3. If true it would suggest there is no hope for substantial justice without coercion.

The Gyges tale raises the live issue of hiddenness versus accountability in human ethical motivations. But Glaucon may go too far in presuming self-interest dominates over any other moral motives. Modern theories incorporate a more complex interaction of incentives, consequences and intrinsic conscience.



Works Cited

TSamuel. “One Ring Blender Render.” Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, 14 Feb. 2022, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:One_Ring_Blender_Render.png. Accessed 5 Apr. 2022.


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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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