In Plato’s Republic Book 1, Thrasymachus argues that morality is the advantage of the stronger. To support his view, Thrasymachus first claims that the governments, which are the stronger parties, always pass laws based on their own interest, and then argues that subjects must always obey these laws, therefore morality is the advantage of the stronger. Socrates gives two sets of counter arguments. First, by differentiating apparent advantage and actual advantage to the stronger, Socrates argues that the obedience to the laws by the subjects can be occasionally not in the actual interest of the rulers. Second, by claiming that all craftsmen only consider the welfare of the recipients of expertise instead of their own interest, Socrates asserts that a ruler, having an expertise of ruling, also only cares about the interest of the ruled, and thus morality is the advantage of the weaker. In this paper, I will show that Thrasymachus only gives an argument about descriptive morality, and Socrates, by using a completely different definition of a ruler, fails to challenge the empirical facts behind the Thrasymachus’ argument. Finally, I will propose a new way that Socrates could have better refuted Thrasymachus.
In order to clearly understand Thrasymachus’ initial argument, the basic logical structure of the argument is listed below.
(1) The ruling party is the stronger party.
(2) Each ruling party passes laws with a view to its own interest.
(3) It is just for the subjects to obey these laws, and unjust to break these laws. Conclusion: Therefore, justice/morality is the advantage of the stronger party.
Thrasymachus begins his argument with an elucidation of the stronger, that is the ruling party in each form of government, whether a tyranny, a democracy, or an aristocracy. He then gives an empirical claim that in all forms of government the ruling party passes laws to its own advantage. Next, he brings in another premise that each form of government proclaims that justice is obeying these laws and injustice is breaking these laws. From these three premises, Thrasymachus concludes that justice is everywhere the same, the advantage of the stronger.
Thrasymachus’ definition of justice represents the doctrine of “Might makes right” in an extreme form. By this, he means that justice is nothing but a tool for the stronger parties to promote personal interest and take advantage of the weaker. Here, Thrasymachus treats the ruler as someone who imposes his “rights” by sheer force, and believes that the ruler-subject relation is a zero-sum game. As he states later in Republic Book 1, “ ‘just’ means serving the interest of the stronger who rules, at the cost of the subject who obeys” (Plato, 1941, 25). A perfect example of such a ruler is the tyrant, who has the will and the power to do good to himself and his friends and to harm his enemies. This is not a theory of social contract: it is not suggested that the subjects have...