Harvey Weinstein and the Ring of Gyges

Written by Roger Crisp

At the start of book II of what is perhaps the most famous work in western philosophy, Plato’s Republic, one of the characters in the dialogue, Glaucon, tells Socrates the story of a Lydian shepherd, Gyges. Gyges, having found a ring which made him invisible, used its powers to enter the royal palace, where he seduced the queen, killed the king, and himself assumed power. Glaucon suggests that anyone in Gyges’s circumstances would do the same: we all believe that immorality is more profitable than being moral, and avoid it only through fear of being caught.

The many accusations against the film producer Harvey Weinstein over the past month suggest that Weinstein had – or at least thought he had — discovered something like a ring of invisibility.

According to the allegations, he found that, because of his position and influence, he could abuse women even to the point of raping them and get away with it, as if no one could see him. Of course, he wasn’t truly invisible, but then Gyges probably took the ring off while courting the queen. And in one respect Weinstein did even better than Gyges, since some of those who turned a blind eye to Weinstein’s immorality even procured victims for him.

Is Glaucon right that this sort of behaviour is only to be expected, since all of us see morality purely as a set of constraints on our personal pursuit of pleasure and power? The sad truth, borne out by history and experimental psychology, as in the Milgram experiments in the 1960s, is that many of us will do terrible things when it seems we ourselves won’t be punished for it.

But human beings are more complicated than Glaucon thinks, and there seems no good reason to deny that at least some of us can also feel genuine compassion for others, or respect for moral principles, that motivate us independently of our own self-interest. That is one of the responses Socrates makes to Glaucon in the rest of the Republic. People are different: some are virtuous, and others are vicious. But Socrates goes further than that. He claims that what is good for any of us is being virtuous, and not just for the rewards it might bring. Gyges was making a huge mistake in thinking that pleasure and power would give him the happiest life.

That idea became central to the philosophy of the Greeks, but is now rarely defended by anyone, inside or outside professional philosophy. But it shouldn’t be dismissed. One of Weinstein’s mistakes was his thinking that he’d stay invisible. But perhaps an even greater one was his belief that the way to happiness lies in pleasure and power. Think about his life before he was caught, and all the pleasure he took in his abuse and exercise of power. Do you find it enviable? I certainly don’t. That doesn’t mean I feel sorry for him. But it does suggest that in viciously harming others you may be harming yourself as well. There are many other Harvey Weinsteins out there: maybe they should read Plato.



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2 Responses to Harvey Weinstein and the Ring of Gyges

  • Michael D Magee says:

    Evolutionary science suggests we can go further than Socrates. We have evolved as a social animal precisely because we help each other. That mutual help and co-operation is what provides the glue that keeps us together as a society rather than separated as selfish isolated or solitary animals. Our instinct for sharing, caring and mutual protection is the source of our compassion. Yet we have the basic instincts of the solitary animals we were before when we began to adopt the initial steps to sociality. These selfish instincts lurk behind the superimposed ones of compassion, sharing and so on, that constitute our social spirit.

    What though of those who do as Gyges did and try to get one over on the rest with the illusion or otherwise that they will not be found out, and why should they fear being found out? It is because society–all those who follow their social instincts–resent being taken advantage of, and demand that the offender be punished. Moreover, it is only by punishing the offenders that society evolved to be social. That was because the punishment was expulsion from the group–exile–which meant death because the solitary human was unlikely to have been able to survive outside the group. Over the years, the pruning out of the free riders in this way left the remainder with a growing predominance of the co-operative genes. Sociality therefore increased.

    Eventually when we were able to think and write, people like Socrates saw that morality–playing by the rules sociality required (our social instincts)–was essential for society. Religions then claimed to be the guardians of morality and invented many rules which suited them or the class they represented besides the essential instincts we had evolved. Now, of course, we have adopted a social system that sets one person against another in the drive for self-aggrandisement. It is called capitalism and uses so-called “social Darwinism” to justify itself. Ultimately it will destroy society. It is anti-social.

    To return, lastly to Gyges, the parable suggests that punishment for anti-social crimes is not only fully justified but is essential. When people start to think there is no such punishment, or it is applied unjustly, then revolution beckons.

  • Trinity College Cambridge academic says:

    Interestingly, while you were reminded of Plato, my first thought was of Kant. Why? Simples. I found it interesting that Weinstein’s actions were known to just about every Tom, Dick, and Harry out there, save for those elevated, cultured, and broad-minded fighters for democracy, equality, peace, etc. – the Clintons and the Obamas. Now you see why Kant: purely on phonetic grounds, of course.

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