A couple years ago I was walking down the driveway with my 5 year old daughter to get the mail. As we walked she looked down and noticed 4 or 5 brightly colored Skittles in one of the concrete joints. She stopped and stared down for a minute and then looked up at me. I knew exactly what she was thinking–could she get away with eating these driveway Skittles without being judged by her dad?
I raised an eyebrow and we kept walking towards the mailbox. She didn’t pick them up. The Skittles stayed on the driveway rather than going into her mouth but it was pretty clear that if nobody was watching, she would have gobbled them up. In fact, soon after this her older sister claimed to catch her eating loose M&Ms that had rolled under a kitchen buffet table.
When Nobody Is Watching
There is an often repeated phrase that goes something like, “character is what you do when nobody is watching.” My daughter, who has an impeccable character, was at one time a major 5-second-rule violator when she thought nobody was watching. I’m sure her rationale was that eating candy off the ground was worth the risk of germs BUT not worth the social risk of a parent seeing. From the innocuous but potentially embarrassing to the heavier moral choices, our behavior can be different when we know eyes are on us.
In the late 1970s, a field study was conducted on more than 340 trick-or-treaters. Psychologists setup bowls of Halloween candy at various homes with instructions that each child could take 1 and only 1 piece of candy. It was up to the children if they followed or disregarded the instructions. The children were left alone when they made their choices. For half of the children, the candy bowl was left setup by a mirror. The researchers hypothesized that kids might be more inclined to follow the 1 candy rule if they could see their own reflection in the mirror.
The results were as the researchers expected. When the kids knew that eyes were on them, even their own eyes and even behind masks, they were more likely to follow the 1 candy rule.
The Ring of Gyges
I don’t think it comes as a shock to anyone that behavior changes when we know people are watching but how would our morality change if we knew that nobody could see our choices. What if we could get away with anything we wanted? At any time? How would we behave if we had the ability to become invisible? This is exactly what Plato explored with the example of the Ring of Gyges in The Republic.
According to Plato’s description of the myth, Gyges was a shepherd to the king of Lydia. One day as he was shepherding his flock, there was an earthquake which crumbled part of a mountain and revealed a cave. Gyges entered the cave and found a tomb with a bronze horse inside. The body inside the tomb was wearing a golden ring which Gyges removed and took for himself.
Gyges soon discovered that the ring held powers that he could use. When the ring was adjusted, it made him invisible to others. Soon after, Gyges asked to become a messenger who reported directly to the king. Gyges took advantage of his job and his new power of invisibility to murder the king. With the king dead and then marrying his wife, Gyges became the new king of Lydia.
Gloucon Says We’re All The Worst
The tale of Gyges and his ring gets at the root of human nature. How quickly would the average person drop their morals if nobody saw or nobody would find out? Plato relies on the voices of Gloucon and Socrates to discuss this question. Here is what Gloucon says:
Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, … or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.
Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.
— Plato, Republic, Book II (trans. Jowett)
Gloucon presents a grim view of human nature. He believes that pretty much everyone would abandon their morals if they didn’t have social pressure. Essentially he’s saying that if given such a magic ring, in no time we’d be in our neighbor’s house eating their cereal on their couch and freaking them out by continually changing the tv to the Hallmark channel.
What If You Had a Magic Ring?
Now let your kids at it. Ask them what they would do.
- Tell them the story of Gyges and his ring.
- Let them draw two scenarios: 1) someone wearing the ring who decides to do something bad, and 2) someone wearing the ring who decides to do good.
- Ask them what they would do if they had possession of such a ring. Pretend that the ring would not only make you invisible but would allow people to think that you never left and thus never realize you were gone when something happened. What kinds of things would you do?
- More than likely kids are not going to say that they would go out and begin to steal. All of us would like to think that we are better than that. But try to get at why they might act differently.
- Now ask them to consider what the average person might do. What might encourage them to act less moral? (they know they won’t get caught, etc.)
- Read with your kids Gloucon’s words quoted above. Help them understand what he’s saying. Ask them what they think about his sentence: “Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point.” Do they believe that eventually everyone would become unjust if they could get away with it?
What Makes Us Want To Be Good?
So what does “goodness” mean and what does it mean to be a good person? Gloucon thinks our reputation is the only thing that causes us to be good, to be just and to act morally. Here are a few more questions for you and your kids to explore:
- Is the fear of a bad reputation or the fear of being punished a cause for you being good? Is it the only factor? Is it a bad thing if this is part of our motivation? What if it is our only motivation?
- Is being good a means to an end? Or is it an end itself? In other words, should you be a good person because of the benefits you receive (e.g. recognition, praise, likability, causes you happiness)? Or should you be good because that is the right thing regardless of the benefits or consequences?
- Do you think the idea of being a good person is a little more complicated that it might appear? Is it possible that we need to train ourselves to want to be good because it is the right thing to do? And in order to train ourselves, we need to see the good outcomes and use them as incentives? Or is this theory flawed?
Plato, speaking through Socrates, eventually gives a response to Glaucon in Book X of The Republic. Socrates says:
…justice in her own nature has been shown to be best for the soul in her own nature. Let a man do what is just, whether he have the ring of Gyges or not, and even if in addition to the ring of Gyges he put on the helmet of Hades.
— Plato, Republic, Book X (trans. Jowett)
Plato says that being good is best for a person and for their soul regardless of whether or not someone is watching. And whoever changes their behavior because of a magic ring or otherwise, makes themselves a slave to their bad impulses.
Who do you think is closer to the truth? Glaucon or Socrates?
Note: there are a number of books that include the underlying dilemma of the Ring of Gyges. H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man explores the morality faced by the power of being invisible. The Lord of The Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien uses the One Ring in a similar context which gives the power of invisibility but also a corrupting influence on the person who wears it. Cicero also mentions Gyges in his work De Officiis