Who Will Guard the Guardians?

Does fear of punishment make us act justly?

Posted Sep 13, 2017

The Roman satirist Juvenal (early 2nd century AD) asked, “Who will watch the watchmen?” in the context of enforcing marital fidelity. Who will guard the guardians whom the husbands have hired to watch their wives while they’re away at war? There’s debate among classists about what follows this question based upon which manuscript is considered. In one version, the next line reads, “The wife plans ahead and begins with them.” In a version of a manuscript discovered in 1899, the lines read, “They [the guardians] keep quiet about the girl’s secrets and get her as their payment; everyone keeps quiet.” In both versions, the assumption is that people will naturally use whatever power they have to create an advantage.

This question about who will watch the watchmen may also be extrapolated to broader political (in the sense of governing) matters. Though, of course, marriage and sexuality are political. The question typically focuses on who will watch the people responsible for creating or enforcing laws when they themselves may be corrupt. This question gets a good airing in Plato’s dialogue, The Republic (380 BCE). The overarching question of The Republic is, “Is it better to be just or be unjust?”

Glaucon, one of the characters in The Republic, argues that justice is not intrinsically good; it is something that is forced upon us. Justice is a compromise between doing injustices and getting away with them (the best and most advantageous situation) and suffering injustices without any power of retaliation (the worst situation). Justice is a mean or balance that is tolerated not because it is good but rather is a lesser evil. We practice justice with great reluctance.

To make his argument, Glaucon appeals to the myth of the Ring of Gyges. Gyges was a shepherd in service to the king of Lydia. One day while tending his flock, a huge crevasse opened before him. When he went down to explore, he beheld many marvelous artifacts including a hollow brazen horse with doors. Upon opening the doors, he found a dead body with a gold ring. Gyges slipped the ring on his finger and went on his way. Back with the other shepherds, Gyges spun the ring on his finger like many people do with rings. Turned one way, he became invisible. Turned the other, visible again. Seeing the ring’s potential, Gyges positioned himself to travel to the king’s court where he quickly seduced the queen, enlisted her in helping to kill the king, and took over the kingdom.

Glaucon’s claim is that without the fear of getting caught, people will act in ways that serve their own interests regardless of the costs to others.

To press his point further, Glaucon asks us to imagine there are two rings of invisibility. Put one ring on an unjust man and the other on a just man. According to Glaucon, no man would have enough iron in his constitution to resist stealing from others, killing whomever he wanted, having sex with someone else’s wife, or releasing whatever prisoners he wanted. Who could resist being a god among men, Glaucon asks. It is fear of punishment that previously caused the men to walk different paths. Take away that fear, and they will meet in the same place.

Being just does not make a man happy, Glaucon claims. A man who is unjust but is able to pass as just will be happier than the man who is actually just but who stands in disrepute. The conclusion in Glaucon’s argument is that it is better and certainly more advantageous to be unjust.

The first time Gyges twisted the ring, it was unintentional. Once he started to twist it so that he could further his own interests, he was acting intentionally. His intentionality is in large part what makes him morally culpable and unjust and hence in need of watching. He’s exactly the person who shouldn’t be a watchman.

People who make themselves exceptions by flouting or rewriting rules while obscuring and denying they are doing so, most certainly are in need of watching. These behaviors strike many people as hypocritical, which evokes a visceral reaction. A difficulty is that we can see the hypocrisy in others far more easily than each of us can see in our own self. This is why the story of Gyges' ring is relevant.

It is always a worthwhile endeavor to imagine the conditions in which someone could justify twisting the ring. Many say they would not want to twist the ring just because they could; they would not use it just to advance their own selfish individual goals as Gyges did. They would not want to be hypocrites. They would twist if necessity demanded it, and especially when it would help other people.

Even if a person has the best reasons for and intentions in twisting, there is an inherent danger. It may become easier and easier to justify the twists because the bars for what counts as “necessity” and “helping others” continue to lower. Furthermore, the line between “helping others” and “helping myself” gets scuffed up. It is best for each of us to be watchful of our own justifications. We need to watch ourselves.

For the record, I think Glaucon is wrong about human nature. We see far too many examples—especially in the context of Harvey and Irma—of people acting selflessly when there is no advantage for them.