Marveling at the continuing relevance of Plato’s Republic is hardly anything original; doing so probably constitutes a significant percentage of all intro-to-philosophy papers written by American undergraduates.
Nevertheless, in reading the Republic again, this particular passage from Book II struck me as particularly relevant to the ethical debates of this nascent century:
“They say that to do injustice is naturally good and to suffer injustice bad, but that the badness of suffering it so far exceeds the goodness of doing it that those who have done and suffered injustice and tasted both, but who lack the power to do it and avoid suffering it, decide that it is profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to do injustice nor to suffer it.”
The idea that justice only has value for its effects—an idea that Plato opposes—is similar to the dominant moral philosophy of Generation Y. Generation Y holds to a loose consequentialist theory of ethics: that what makes actions good or bad are their effects; whether they harm other people. Such reasoning underlies much of the pro-gay marriage argument, and such reasoning is the moral philosophy that justifies this generation’s acceptance of commitment-free sexual lifestyles and pornography.
The wisdom of Plato counters this with a moral reflection that has been proven time and again in post-modernity: disorder and vice in the soul mirrors (and is the cause of) disorder and vice in the polis.
The Modern Ethical Perspective
The contemporary gay marriage debate has revealed the moral perspective of Generation Y towards ethics. Why oppose gay marriage, the average twenty-something thinks, when gay marriage doesn’t affect other people adversely in any way? A gay marriage isn’t going to harm me or my marriage, so why deny the social advantages of marriage to same-sex couples?
While I don’t want to concede the position that same-sex marriage doesn’t have adverse social effects (I wholeheartedly agree with Ryan Anderson’s excellent arguments to that effect), any arguments pointing towards human nature as the basis of normative activity have completely disappeared from this generation’s moral conversation. The most important argument against gay marriage is this: one should not give positive governmental recognition and support to actions that are fundamentally opposed to the good of human nature. It’s also the least palatable argument for most young people.
In a philosophical milieu that enthrones the individual as the arbiter of moral reality, most young people would be profoundly opposed to the very idea of a “good”—an object of our will, pursued in and through action and perfective of the nature (potentialities) of the actor— or of any normative understanding of "human nature" itself.
Ethical norms are derived chiefly from human desire, from one’s own activity of self-actualization; thus, they are hardly “norms” in any sense of the term.
Most young people think of ethics in a purely consequentialist sense. Imagine, if you will, a person spinning in a circle, with his balled-up fists swinging wildly all around him. Within the radius of this individual’s swinging arms, most young people believe, one is allowed to do whatever one wants, as long as he does not involve any other non-consenting individual in his activity.
With this moral foundation, most of the vices of our era can be justified. Any form of sexual interaction can be justified, no matter how non-committal, no matter the sexual identity of the partners, so long as everything is consensual. Euthanasia for suffering individuals who are near death is viewed as an obvious answer, rather than an arrogant interference in the sanctity of human life. The recent legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado is yet another example of this mindset. It is no wonder that Amsterdam is now viewed as the go-to destination for Gen-X-ers and Gen-Y-ers who want to party abroad.
In some ways, this ethical worldview is most horrifically lived out in pornography, a medium wherein individuals fantasize about all manner of horrible and immoral activities that they admit to be morally repulsive if enacted in real life—rape and underage sexual activity, to name a few. The idea that pornography is something destructive and degrading for its willing participants (not to mention for its unwilling participants) is almost completely lost in a society where the moral opposition to pornography is continuously shrinking.
Yet, we see that this moral worldview is really nothing new. Plato spends the entirety of the Republic combating it, striving to demonstrate how virtue is good both in its own right, as well as for the benefits that accrue to individuals and the polis as a result of it. The well-ordered soul mirrors the well-ordered city as much as the disordered soul mirrors the disordered city.
It would be an exhaustive enterprise to demonstrate how this principle holds true today, but I will return to the subject of pornography. There is heightened scrutiny in our age on the subject of sexual assaults on college campuses, within the context of the military, and in other contexts. How can we think that pornography, which frequently depicts violent or non-consensual sex acts, has had no effect in promoting the “rape culture” so rightly decried in our day? The manner in which pornography warps the individual perspective towards women and sexuality has certainly contributed to disorder within the political community: broken families, twisted sexual interactions, high divorce rates, and a delusional over-exaltation of personal satisfaction rather than mutual sacrifice and love in the context of sexual relationships.
The fact is, there is a deadening personal effect in immoral action. It produces disorder within the soul, and this disorder results in societal disorder and injustice. Our society can only be reoriented if it recovers and lives by this truth.