The Ring of Gyges

Imagine that there’s a ring that turns one invisible, that one could do anything, moral or immoral, without being seen.

(No, not even by the hellish bad guys in Lord of the Rings.)

Now imagine that one had the resources to hire sorcerors, wizards who could by magic arts convince even the gods that one’s life were perfectly moral.

(I know, I know–they wouldn’t be very impressive gods if sorcerors could thus fool them. Work with me here.)

Would anyone still be moral?

Thus ended one of the best discussions that we’ve had in freshman comp thus far. I started the final segment of class with a little game. In a blind-voting exercise, I had them raise their hands if they thought they’d remain moral if they could remove all heavenly and earthly consequences of their immorality. Neither class had more than two out of twenty raise their hands. Then I had them raise their hands if they thought that they knew three people who, under the same circumstances, would remain moral. In both classes, more than half the class knew such people.

Such self-doubt is encouraging, really–in a Chesterton sense, these folks believe that good life is possible but doubt that their own capacities can reach it. That’s not bad for a bunch of folks whom some commentators have called a relativistic and self-absorbed generation. (Those of us who spend our lives around college students know it’s a hair more complicated than that.)

We also delved into the categories of good-in-itself and good-for-the-consequences, and both classes were quite willing to categorize, reconsider, and debate whether such things as love, family, and puppies belong properly in either of those categories. For a thirteen-page reading assignment, we dug into some pretty heavy material yesterday.

A colleague of mine, who has the classroom after the period I teach, asked when I’d start introducing some Derridean deconstructions of Plato’s project. I think Plato’s project is more than enough for one semester; I’ve been coming back to it for a dozen years and don’t have a strong grasp yet. In fact, Derrida famously said at a talk at Villanova that “Plato is always before me.”

I’ll leave deconstruction to the deconstructionists.

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Filed under Plato, teaching

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