The Ring of Gyges is a Greek myth examined by Plato in The Republic. The ring had the power to render its user invisible, giving the ring bearer a considerable advantage over everyone else. The question the story suggests is: What would you do if you found this ring?
Back in ancient Greece, of course, the power of invisibility in the hands of someone intelligent would enable the person to have pretty much whatever she or he wanted, including political power, wealth, and romance. In the myth, the shepherd who found the ring seduced the queen, murdered the king, and became the new king. Today, invisibility would not be as great of an advantage as back then, but it would give people a formidable edge in accomplishing their goals.
If you had the power of invisibility or today’s equivalent, what would you do? How would you behave if your actions would not be observed and you were unlikely to be held accountable? Plato indicates in The Republic, that there are three basic answers to the question. The first is that you could act in your own self-interest without regard for what happens to anyone else. So, for example, for political power, you could assassinate rivals; for wealth, you could rob people; and, for romance, you could eavesdrop or worse. This answer focuses on using the ring’s power to one’s advantage without concern for fairness or even giving the appearance of being just.
The second answer Plato suggests is that a person merely act like they are just, but use the ring to her or his advantage without regard for others. This answer differs from the first in that the owner covers up the selfish use of the ring.
The third answer Plato provides is not to use the ring for individual gain, but to use it for the sake of justice. It’s not clear exactly what that would entail, but presumably it would involve making society a better place to live. Now, the ring isn’t a magic wand allowing someone to fix every problem, but with some effort, it would provide an advantage that would make someone powerful and influential.
Would one of these three choices suit you? The Ring of Gyges is an interesting thought experiment. We can think about it more effectively, perhaps, if we think about the use of power in those three realms. How would you use the power of the ring in politics, business, and personal relationships? First, we can see that there are obviously some politicians who act purely out of self-interest and pursue power for its own sake, with little concern for what happens to others, as long as they get what they want. Second, we also suspect that there are politicians who talk like they are for the people, they act like they want to help others, but they are really only talking that way to get elected and acquire additional power. And, third, there are some who are sincere in their desire to acquire power and use it to make things better.
We also know of businesses that argue their only responsibility is to make as much money for their shareholders as possible. These businesses may break the law by engaging in illegal business practices as long as they don’t expect to get caught or have to pay too high a price. Other businesses act like they are socially responsible, but really aren’t. They hide their illegal or immoral practices by bolstering their image. Finally, some businesses or nonprofits aim at making things better for everyone.
In our personal relationships, some people figure everyone is out for themselves. So, they use people for their own gratification. Other people act like they are nice, loving people, interested in the other person’s welfare, but really, that is a ploy for getting what they want. The last group wants long-term relationships and believes that addressing the other person’s needs is as important as satisfying one’s own.
The Ring of Gyges asks us to consider how we would act if we had a significant advantage over others and were unlikely to get caught. Would that change how we act? What if we had the absolute power of a dictator? Would we be ruthless? Or, would we act like we loved the country, but pursue our own interests surreptitiously? Finally, would we instead be benevolent dictators, making decisions for the good of the country?
The questions and answers may seem abstract but they are useful for checking our motives. If we think that we would choose the third set of answers, even if we had the ring, consider these questions to test out the theory. Would we stand up for someone being treated badly, even no one found out we did that good deed? Would we make sacrifices for others, even if it cost us? Would we work hard to make things better even if we did not benefit directly?
Plato answers the question in the third way saying we should act justly. Plato suggests that people pursuing selfish objectives won’t be happy because they are ruled by their passions, not by reason. Is he right? I’m sure you know some people who are happy. Have they chosen the third path? You probably know people who promote political causes and do so because they believe they are doing what’s right. Some people you know are involved in honest businesses that care about the shareholders, employees, customers, and society. Other people you know, are in stable, loving relationships. Are they all happy because they contribute to the welfare of others?
I’ll bet that Plato is right about happiness, although his argument is inconclusive. People who are happy in the long run do not take short cuts, they don’t pursue power for its own sake, and they don’t try to deceive people to get ahead. While happy people will slip at times, they believe they should do the right thing and treat others fairly and respectfully.
How about those who are unhappy? We don’t want politicians to use their positions for personal gains. We don’t want to be involved with businesses that are deceptive or make harmful products. We don’t want to be in relationships where we are being used.
The glue that holds society, businesses, and relationships together is trust. It involves the belief that the power we grant others is being used wisely and that people aren’t being taken advantage of.
But, would we be able to resist the temptation if we owned the Ring of Gyges? It’s the temptation that power brings, I suspect, that ruins many politicians, businesses, and relationships. Once people give in to temptation, they have to hide what they are really doing. I doubt people in politics who pursue power for its own sake are really happy. I don’t believe that businesspeople who simply pursue money for its own sake are very happy either. Nor are people who cheat on others in their relationships. They often do not even know they are unhappy because they are so wrapped up in their pursuit of obtaining a more powerful office, earning more money, or making another romantic conquest. What is sad is that through these pursuits, they spread their unhappiness to others. They melt some of the glue, the trust, that binds us together.