aeon | Imagine that one morning you discover a ring that grants you magic powers. With this ring on your finger, you can seize the presidency, rob Fort Knox and instantly become the most famous person on the planet. So, would you do it?
Readers of Plato’s Republic will find this thought experiment familiar. For Plato, one of the central problems of ethics is explaining why we should prioritise moral virtue over power or money. If the price of exploiting the mythical ‘Ring of Gyges’ – acting wrongly – isn’t worth the material rewards, then morality is vindicated.
Notice that Plato assumes that we stray from the moral path through being tempted by personal gain – that’s why he tries to show that virtue is more valuable than the gold we can get through vice. He isn’t alone in making this assumption. In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes worries about justifying morality to the ‘fool’ who says that ‘there is no such thing as justice’ and breaks his word when it works to his advantage. And when thinking about our reasons to prefer virtue to vice, in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) David Hume confronts the ‘sensible knave’, a person tempted to do wrong when he imagines ‘that an act of iniquity or infidelity will make a considerable addition to his fortune’.
Some of history’s greatest philosophers, then, agree that wrongdoing tends to be motivated by self-interest. Alas, I’m not one of history’s greatest philosophers. Although most assume that an immoral person is one who’s ready to defy law and convention to get what they want, I think the inverse is often true. Immorality is frequently motivated by a readiness to conform to law and convention in opposition to our own values. In these cases, it’s not that we care too little about others; it’s that we care too much. More specifically, we care too much about how we stack up in the eyes of others.