Perhaps one of the most remarkable endeavors of Plato’s thought is the endeavor to ground ethics in immanence.  To be sure, Plato posits a “good that is both otherwise than and beyond being”, which is indeed a sort of transcendent supplement.  However, this is a very different sort of supplement than a theistic God that watches and judges our action.  What Plato seeks– perhaps –is a justification for justice, for the ethical, that finds a value in these things themselves.  This, in its turn, becomes a task of philosophical thought to present.  Can we only defend justice in terms of a transcendent supplement like a personalistic or theistic God, or can we evoke a justification for justice that finds value in justice itself?  To put it crassly, do we need a God(s) to provide us with a motive to be good, or is there a value in the good itself?

Here I hasten to add that I am approaching terms like the “good”, the “just”, the “ethical” and so on as “master-signifiers” or S1’s; that is to say, I am approaching them as empty terms.  We know our inquiry is seeking these things, that we might even have intuitions or hunches as to what they might be, and that we would like to know what these terms mean, but as of yet we don’t know.  As old Plato might say, we only have doxa or opinions about these matters:  and perhaps that is all we will ever have.  A knowledge of these things would be the outcome of inquiry, not something we begin with.  And as Plato’s student Aristotle would say, these “origins” or arche something we are working towards and aiming at, not something we begin with.  Here, then, we might find a major difference between religious thought– if any valid generalizations can be made about the signifier “religion”; and I have my doubts –and philosophical thought.  Religion, at least in its monotheistic variants, begins with the premise that it knows the ethical good and proceeds from a law handed down through revelation, whereas philosophy would like to know the good and works towards such a knowledge.

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Setting these contentious matters aside– contentious matters that I’m sure will draw outraged responses among some irritating readers of this blog if I have any –we can say the question of the possibility of an immanent ethics goes straight to the heart of Nietzsche’s lamentation of the death of God in The Gay Science.  This death, I wager with a bit of hyperbole, is not something recent, but is already there at the beginning of philosophy.  It is the question of whether we are cast adrift without a compass, without an up or down, without any meaning or significance to life, in the absence of the existence of God or the gods, or whether meaning and the good can be found this side of transcendence?  The question is all already there in Plato.

In the Republic, having dispatched Thrasymachus and his thesis that justice is the interest of the stronger, the youth find that they are nonetheless disturbed by his second proposition:  that injustice is more “profitable” than justice.  Thrasymachus argues that it is superior to be unjust and perceived to be just, than to be just.  Socrates mightily tries to refute him, pointing out that even societies of thieves must practice some minimal form of justice because injustice inevitably sows discord and strife, thereby undermining their ability to develop a thriving community of thieves.  Glaucon, who would like to be persuaded, nonetheless will have nothing of this argument.  He is troubled by the possibility that injustice is superior and in his account of the origins of society– an early version of social contract theory –he suggests that the only reason people live just lives is that they either fear injustice being done to them and thereby agree to sacrifice some of their power so others will sacrifice their power (Spinoza’s later concept of “natural right” in the Theologico-Politico Treatise) or because they fear punishment should they violate law (another empty signifier, as Kafka taught us).  Plato’s recalcitrant Glaucon would like to know the motive of justice; and he won’t just accept any old motive…  He wants a motive that motivate justice in itself.

In a move that is pure brilliance– it’s terrifying to know that minds like Plato’s ever existed –Plato distinguishes between three types of goods (and note that each is based on a form of immanence):  There are those things, he says, that are good in themselves.  We value these things for their own sake and not for the effects or consequences they might bring.  Examples of such goods might be things like pleasure or beauty.  The beautiful sunset is not something we value for its useful consequences, but something we value for its own sake.  Hence the effort we put into creating beauty in the world, or in preserving things like the redwood forests or Goblin National Park.  There are then things that we call good because of their consequences or their effects.  We don’t value medicine in itself, but for the sake of the health it brings.  Likewise, money is not valuable in itself– though some sick, neurotic, and confused souls value it for these reasons –but rather for the security, freedom, and goods that it can buy.  We see this second class of goods, for example, in the fact that those who win the lottery most often quickly retire from selling their labor as a commodity the minute they don’t require the sale of labor to buy the goods they need to live.  Finally, there are what Glaucon calls the “highest and best goods”:  those things that are both valuable in themselves and valuable in their effects.  They are both fine things in themselves like beauty, and produce good effects or consequences.  Glaucon demands that Socrates– in the name of refuting Thrasymachus –demonstrate that justice is not merely good in its consequences or effects, but that justice is both good in itself and in its consequences.

Now I am of the view that any concept, theory, or distinction is only worth its salt if it makes a difference not only to thought, but also how we live or what we do.  It is my view that every concept, every genuine concept, is an incipient practice.  While there are many things that can lead us to “doings” or forms of action– emotions, instincts, drives, the unconscious –concepts are among those things that might lead us to do differently.  With this in mind, the question is what difference it makes to conclude that justice is done for the sake of its consequences (avoiding injustice done to ourselves or getting punished for our own injustices), as opposed to claiming that justice is valuable both in itself and its consequences?  What difference does it make?

It is this questions that Plato’s Glaucon brings into relief with his Ring of Gyges.  The Ring of Gyges confers the power of invisibility.  If I had the power of invisibility where I could get away with whatever I wanted without fear of being punished for my injustices, would I still be just.  If I conclude that justice is only valuable in the sense of money or medicine, in its consequences, then I will also conclude that it is “wise” to be unjust when I can get away with it.  In fact, when we look at the world about us, we might conclude that many people– and especially the powerful and wealthy –believe they have some form of the Ring of Gyges.  The incentive for justice– this empty signifier whose meaning we do not yet know –is lost for those who conclude that justice is only valuable for its effects or consequences.  Now one might object that their conscience would prevent them from being unjust, or that they would worry, as old Cephalus does, that they will be punished in the afterlife.  However, let’s not forget that the wily old Plato was familiar with Nietzsche, Freud, and Foucault– those great hermeneuts of suspicion –and sought an ethics based in immanence precisely because the pangs of conscience could merely be internalizations of culture as his contemporaries Nietzsche, Freud, and Foucault had it, or that our worries about God could just be infantile internalizations of the voice of punishing (and praising parents) that lead us to act and behave as if we are seen when we strive to behave in invisibility.  These arguments, the proponent of immanence points out, will give us no purchase on the motive to be just.

And this is why it would be of value not merely to see justice, the good, and the ethical not merely as valuable in their consequences or effects, but valuable in and of themselves.  The entire question, the entire issue, revolves around why we might still have an incentive to be just even when, like the lottery winner, we don’t have to worry about the effects or consequences of justice.  What value might justice itself have in the absence of the necessity of being just to avoid injustice either being done to ourselves or being punished for our own injustices?  That, I think, is the core question of an ethics founded in immanence rather than a transcendent supplement like the gaze of God or the gods, or some sort of karmic retribution for how we have lived our lives.   I don’t here propose an answer, but I do feel that for myself it’s progress simply to pose the question.