The word justice has been thrown around for decades, but the actual definition of the word differs from society to society. Some claim that justice is only achieved after equality amongst people has been achieved, such as everyone receiving the same amount of paycheck. Justice, by dictionary definition, is the concept that “individuals are to be treated in a manner that is equitable and fair”. However, if we boil down these definitions into a single phrase, it would be that justice is when people get what they deserve in a fair manner. 

This is similar to what Polemarchus initially argues: enemies deserve harm while friends deserve help. Socrates, or rather Plato, then broke down Polemarchus’ argument. Those who are able to do good to others can also cause harm to others in a similar manner, such as how a physician can equally cure or poison people with medication 🙂 Socrates also pointed out that in business or trade, one would rather have an expert in that specific field rather than a just man as being just doesn’t necessarily guarantee skill. He then states that justice is useful when an object in question is not useful anymore. To deposit money, one would prefer a just man as said just man would likely keep the money safe. However, if one is depositing money, that implies the money is currently not at use. Another issue that Socrates mentions is that the terms ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ are ambiguous; a friend might not be ‘right’ man while an enemy might not be an ‘evil’ man. Hence, a more fitting way to define justice is to help those who are ‘good’ while harming those who are ‘evil’. However, here, Socrates argues that harming a person would also worsen said person’s human virtue. This means that harming others, regardless of whether or not the person is evil, is incompatible with justice. In other words, harming others is an action committed by an unjust man. A just man cannot make a man unjust, much like how a horseman would not harm a horse. 

While Socrates had stated that justice should not harm another person, it could be argued that it is necessary for justice to contain someone’s worse traits as well. Socrates’ previous example supports this: he had previously stated that withholding weaponry from a mentally unstable person who seems to have murderous intent is just. However, by withholding weaponry, justice has contained to the person’s crucial quality which is the capability and intent to murder someone; this is arguably another form of harm to the murderous person. As justice causes harm in this scenario, it contradicts Socrates’ later argument that justice cannot harm.  Here, one could argue that withholding weaponry is not a form of harm according to Socrates’ definition of harm. Socrates had defined harm as damaging one’s virtue which is equivalent to a person’s sense of justice. On the other hand, someone’s virtue seems to hold not only one’s justice but their crucial intent and/or identity as well. In this case, there will be a situation where one’s intent is the opposite of just. Therefore, by harming one’s human virtue, their just and their unjust identity may be both harmed. For unjust people, such as the mentally unstable man with murderous intent, their unjust identity outweighs their just values. Therefore, in this case, harming the mentally unstable man would not make him more unjust, but rather the opposite. 

Adding on, in modern justice, there is another factor that has been added to the definition of the term: consequences. As I have mentioned before, the dictionary defines justice as individuals being treated in a manner that is “equitable”. Here, ‘equity’ is when people receive what they require to make their situation fairer. When being fair, one should take into account their current given situation and what each person deserves in this circumstance. This is quite similar to the concept of consequences which could be either rewarding or punishing. In court, when a man has been accused of a crime, he is deemed unjust. According to Socrates’ logic, harming said man would be unjust as well since the court would be harming his already dwindling virtue. However, following the modern definition of justice and the concept of equity, it is right that he is punished. In some cases, the punishment for serious crime such as murder could result in a life sentence or capital punishment. Capital punishment would be nullifying the person’s human virtue since the person is dead. Thus, Socrates’ argument cannot apply to circumstances when the accused deserves harm. 

In Socrates’ logic, the judge or the jury would be unjust people as they had voluntarily caused harm to another person. In Christian logic one could say that everyone is unjust (sinful). On the other hand, for Socrates, that would mean that everyone would be suffering from bouts of internal and external state of civil war. However, the notion that those who harm another is unjust can also be a fair assumption to make as people, who are known to punish each other in society, are almost continuously at a state of conflict just like unjust men described by Socrates. In social media alone, people have been known to attack each other, even in times of need, going as far as arguing over whether or not vaccines are harmful to people.

Moving on, Socrates’ another companion, Thrasymachus, angrily interrupts, claiming that justice is merely the interest of the stronger. He brings up different forms of government, such as tyranny, with rulers (or a group of rulers) that make laws that abide by their own interests. Since anyone who breaks these laws is unjust and those who make the laws are the strongest, justice is in the interest of the stronger. This argument at first glance seems easy to dispute, especially since one of Thrasymachus’ examples was democracy. Democracy is a form of government where the majority decides on rules and regulations. For example, in South Korea, representatives, elected by the citizens, vote on passing laws; as the representatives were elected by the citizens, it is generally assumed that they have the citizen’s interest in mind when they establish a law. Usually, these laws include regulations on education et cetera. However, after further evaluation, one can argue that the majority themselves could also be considered the ‘stronger’. In democracy, especially, those in the majority often hold power above the minority, as it is the majority opinion that is reflected onto society. Regardless of whether or not the majority is right, it is often their voices that hold the most influence. Hence, Thrasymachus seems right in some sense. 

One thing to note about Thrasymachus’ argument is that one could argue that justice is in fact for the interest of the weaker. Generally, a just action is protecting innocent people from harm. One famous example would be the Justice League, a group of superheroes who promise to do ‘just’ by protecting the world which is significantly weaker compared to them. Harming those who are weaker is seen as an unjust action, hence why people consider murder as the peak of injustice. Laws against murder, rape and child trafficking all sought to protect the weak and not the strong. One of the first laws to ever be in the Hammurabi’s Code is “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”. This is an old concept of justice, where a person who has caused harm to the weak will be punished with the same action he had committed. This law doesn’t seem to benefit the strong as it prohibits them from exploiting the weak. There are also laws against slavery which sought to protect the minority from being exploited for labor. All of these laws show that justice is not actually in the interest of the strong, but designed to protect the weak. 

Socrates also disagrees with Thrasymachus, stating that some rulers may pass laws that are not in their interest by accident, to which Thrasymachus replies by stating rulers that make mistakes are not strong rulers as “any other person of skill ever makes a mistake in so far as he is what his name implies”. In other words, a ruler, a skillsmen, would never make any “errs” and therefore only make laws of his own interests. Socrates then points out that skillsman, such as a physicist, work not for their own interests, but for their subjects. A physician does not hand out medicine for himself, but for his patients and their sicknesses. With this logic, Socrates then said: “arts are the superiors and rulers of their own subjects”. This means that rulers make laws in the interest of the ruled, as laws are made for citizens to follow much like how medicine is for the body of the patients. 

Thrasymachus then brings up another analogy, this time of a shepherd. A shepherd takes care of his sheeps not only for their interests, but for his own as well. Then, he seemingly goes on a tangent on how an unjust man fares better than a just man, stating that “the just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust”. A just man would pay more taxes than an unjust man who has the same income as the former. Thrasymachus argues that a criminal is the “happiest of man”. His argument that unjust men are happier also seems to contradict what he had claimed about justice earlier on. Justice is held by the leaders who are seen as ‘just’; however, it is usually the ruler of a country who lives happier, especially when it comes to monarchy or tyranny. However, there is some semblance of truth in his argument, as not all wrong-doers are punished while many righteous men die forgotten, only to be remembered decades later. It is also considered more ‘easy’ to be unjust, as people gain what they desire without thinking about the consequences of their actions. 

Socrates argues against Thrasymachus, stating that just men do not openly demand for payment nor honor as they are not ambitious. Thrasymachus had believed that the unjust are “good and wise”, while the just is neither; this argument is quickly rebutted by Socrates, with an analogy of a musician. A musician is wise, while a non musician is not. When a musician is adjusting his instrument he would claim he excels in the art of instrument adjustment in comparison to a non musician. Adding onto that, a musician, while wishing to “go beyond” non musicians, would not wish to “go beyond” his fellow musicians nor his practice of music. Earlier, it has been established that the unjust wish to “go beyond” everyone else, which is a characteristic of those who are ignorant. Thus, Socrates concludes, unjust is ignorance and vice while just is virtue and wisdom. As Thrasymachus finally agrees with him, Socrates continues, stating that without justice, men are incapable of common action; a band of robbers, without justice, would not be cooperative with one another, as injustice “creates divisions and hatreds and fighting”. He adds on by arguing that unjust men would not only inflict evil upon one another, they would be in an internal state of disorder and thus be incapable of any actions by themselves. On the contrary, being ‘unjust’ doesn’t necessarily result in a “state of disorder”. Those who are ‘unjust’ can be divided into separate categories, with one being the stereotypical criminal who wishes to do harm to another person; but as they are unable to cooperate with one another, they are unable to commit any action. However, there are those who are able to overlook their moral compass and subtly manipulate other people to do what they desire. Gangs or Mafias are able to work in a structured system with hierarchies of their own. The leader issues the orders while the other members follow his leads. This works because of a concept of a ‘common goal’ where people are able to work together to reach their goal most efficiently. In these situations, even unjust people would find themselves easily working with other people as they are able to deduce that the most efficient way to reach their goals is to work with another person. Though it could be true that unjust men would want to be better than one another, their main goal is to fulfill their own needs. Thus, the process of achieving the goal wouldn’t necessarily result in chaos or inaction as Socractes believes. Thus, what cannot be agreed with Socrates’ last argument is the fact that unjust is directly akin to a “state of disorder”

Young Ju (Theresa) Lee

Content Creator


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