Plato's Republic – The Search for Justice and Goodness
Plato's Republic is often read as a political work, as a statement of some sort on government, society, and law. This is certainly not a rash reading of the dialogue; it is called the Republic, and over half of it is devoted to the construction of a city through speech, a city complete with a government structure, a military, an economic system, and laws. However, I believe that to read the Republic as a political statement is inaccurate. Although Socrates and his companions construct a city out of speech as they attempt to define justice, the dialogue repeatedly frames justice as something that cannot be established through a fixed system of morality, let alone through a rigid system of law or government. The Republic is not primarily a political work, but instead a kind of invitation, bidding individuals to search for justice and goodness through their own efforts, rather than through any recipe or blueprint.
In the Republic, one encounters much that might justify reading the work as a blueprint for justice or a recipe for moral goodness. Socrates speaks of the Good--a supreme, constant source from which everything meaningful descends. One might easily imagine, then, that because Socrates discusses an absolute, unchanging Good, he might also propose an absolute, unchanging code for adhering to it. However, the "city" that Socrates and his companions establish through dialectic is exceedingly problematic as a blueprint for a moral system; it does not allow for the possibility of choice, that element which makes a moral system both necessary and applicable. Nevertheless, Plato's Republic is not simply an insufficient exposition of a moral system. Rather, it is not a proposal for a moral system at all. While Socrates may speak of an absolute Good, and although he may give some clues about how best to approach it, this Good is too precious and potent to be realized through a mere recipe. To find the Good, one must instead engage in an arduous journey through darkness, riddled throughout with pitfalls. On this "steep, upward way" (7.516A) one must navigate without a map.
I assert that for a moral system to be necessary and applicable, there must exist a moral agent who possesses both the desire and the ability to choose. By denoting certain actions or ways of being as better, a moral system implies that there are also other potential actions and ways of being that are worse. The individual must choose between them. Without this element of choice, an action has no moral qualification. For example, a computer acts, but it does not choose its action. Consequently, while a computer can be judged better or worse in its ability to carry out an action, it cannot be judged responsible for the action. Rather, the person who uses or creates the computer is in fact responsible, for it is that person who chooses for it to act in a particular way. In a moral system, choice, responsibility,...