Ask an Ethicist: Can Plato help us pick the next president?

February 19, 2016

In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Question: What can the power of invisibility teach us about the role of ethical leadership in contemporary democracy?

An ethicist responds: Caucus season is here. In picking the next president, how do we choose the best candidate? Common criteria include candidates’ takes on specific issues, their ability to serve as commander in chief, and how we imagine they would navigate delicate international imbroglios. It is telling that we are less likely to consult a crucial set of concerns regarding whether candidates would lead in a manner that is just, virtuous and compassionate.

Enter one of the oldest philosophical thought experiments, Plato's Ring of Gyges, a tale about a shepherd who finds a magic ring that grants him the power of invisibility when he turns the bezel toward his palm. Imagine the possibilities. If you found a ring of invisibility, how would you use it? For good? For evil? To promote justice? For personal gain? To play amusing pranks on unsuspecting colleagues?

Much more than a story about a shepherd and a magic trinket, the Ring of Gyges encourages deep personal reflection on our moral nature, on what happens when we have power over others, and perhaps most saliently, on whether we would act justly and do the right thing when no one is watching.

While the Ring of Gyges is first and foremost a commentary on human nature and justice, we can also read it as a meditation on the possibilities and limitations of ethical leadership, an idea that should be front and center during any presidential election. Illuminated in this way, the passage gives rise to the following question: What can the power of invisibility teach us about the role of ethical leadership in contemporary democracy?

Ethical leaders are those we can trust to keep their word, make sound decisions, and act with integrity and courage. Through Gyges, Plato offers us an ingenious way to assess the moral character of those in charge — our bosses, senators and CEOs. Even more crucially, he gives us the means to gauge the ability of any presidential candidate — regardless of political affiliation — to be just and to lead ethically.

Here ethics offers a litmus test for politics to determine who is worthy of our political support — The Gyges Test, if you will. Consider what each presidential primary candidate would do if they possessed the Ring of Gyges. Would their conduct bespeak ethical leadership or its opposite? With the immense power and utter lack of accountability that come with invisibility, how would they behave? We must wonder if they would “stand fast in justice,” as Plato writes, in the face of what the ring ultimately represents — a kind of radical impunity. Or perhaps injustice is something that can only be reigned in by force of law, as Glaucon claims.

What would Donald Trump do with the Ring of Gyges? Would Hillary Clinton exhibit virtue in her chosen invisible moments? Would justice prevail with Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz?

Any future president would surely be tempted to use the ring to give the Secret Service the slip and gain some much needed privacy. Or maybe to tie Putin’s shoelaces together at the next G20.

The ring would make it easy to manipulate or eliminate opposition, clearing the way for a candidate’s political agenda. Would they be able to resist the corrupting potential of such power — to refrain from using it for personal gain? Under the cloak of invisibility would they advance American interests unethically? At the expense of other nations? At all costs? Would the ends justify the means?

The Gyges passage is often interpreted as purporting to reveal our essentially egoist tendencies through the expectation that many would advance their personal interests with the ring’s power. In the realm of contemporary politics, such egoism morphs into a slightly different, though perhaps even more odious form: the promotion of private interests — for example, the commercial interests of powerful corporate actors — over the public good. Cast in this light, the similarities between modern day super PACs and an ancient shepherd’s ring come into strong relief.

As for Gyges, how he used the ring serves as a cautionary tale of what not to do. Plato explains that he “contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.” Setting aside a longstanding confusion regarding exactly how invisibility would improve one’s power of seduction, what we see is that Gyges employs the unbridled possibilities of the ring as the means for an immoral rise to power, that is, as a tool of distinctly unethical leadership. Surely, the temptation to do so would be immense.

We would hope those vying to be the next leader of the free world would do better. We would hope they would instead evidence the immense courage and strength of character it takes to be an ethical leader.

Ethical leadership is grounded in the aforementioned ability to do the right thing when no one is watching. Those who lead ethically act with integrity when it would be far easier and more comfortable to lie, cheat and steal. But they must do more than this. Ethical leaders are morally courageous: they stand up for what is just no matter the cost. They go for the good in scenarios in which others avail themselves of the metaphorical benefits of a magical ring and its power of invisibility and then call them fools for not doing the same. In the face of derision and doubt, ethical leaders hold fast to their moral compasses.

And through their actions and words ethical leaders inspire others to do right when doing wrong would be far easier and to act in ways that consistently move beyond self-interest and toward justice. They encourage us to ask the difficult questions of whether all are being treated fairly and as beings with equal moral worth. In short, ethical leaders not only use the power of the ring for good, they teach and inspire many others to do the same.

Which of the current candidates fits this bill? Who is best suited to wear the Ring of Gyges?

Finally, a coda in the form of a somewhat jarring observation: Raising the question of ethical leadership in the context of the current presidential election can seem at best superfluous and at worst, utterly naïve. An ideal like ethical leadership may register as a pipe dream or luxury of character that one can’t afford in the land of realpolitik. In this cynicism we hear echoes of Glaucon, who at the end of the Gyges passage sneeringly notes that “[i]f you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.”

Several forms of cynicism collide in this passage: judging those who are genuinely just to be embarrassing fools; wanting to be known to have an ethical character only because of the advantages such reputation bestows; and embodying a Janus-faced approach of praising the ethical in public while mocking such absurdity in the privacy of your own mind.

In the face of recent massive political scandals — the Flint water crisis and the cover-up of the abuse and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib are just two of the many that readily come to mind — we have become hardened to the very idea of ethical leadership. How could we at this historical moment feel anything other than the deep sense of pessimism that Glaucon’s words convey? How could we think otherwise?

And yet imagining otherwise is exactly what the Gyges Test invites us to do. Against the backdrop of this understandable cynicism, the Gyges Test emerges not only as a handy mechanism by which we can determine who is ethically worthy of our political support. Advocating its use is a bold call for the increased significance of ethical leadership in our contemporary democracy. It is a way of endorsing and bolstering the productive trouble that ethics can create for politics, by calling for a democracy in which those who are genuinely ethical leaders are not seen as foolish, wretched idiots but instead as agents and agitators of radical change. Socrates himself would expect nothing less.

Do you have a follow-up question? Join the discussion at the Rock Ethics Institute Facebook page.

Sarah Clark Miller is associate professor of philosophy, bioethics, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Penn State and a faculty affiliate of the Rock Ethics Institute. She is currently completing a book on sexual violence and global justice.

Have a question? Submit it here.

Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.


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    Sarah Clark Miller

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Last Updated May 19, 2016