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Plato’s Theory of Justice | ETHICS

Introduction | Plato’s Theory of Justice | ETHICS 

  • Plato was a disciple of Socrates and propagated his ideas further.
  • He was the first western thinker who wrote his works & whose works remained intact.
  • Socrates only discussed about moral problems whereas Plato discussed Moral as well as worldly philosophical problems with equal importance. These also included Mathematics, nature etc.
  • But Plato always agreed with Socrates that the real harm possible to a person is the harm to the soul and therefore it is preferable to suffer wrong than commit it.
  • Just like Socrates, Plato taught people to “to think of oneself (and any question) independently & to be ready to question everybody & everything.”
  • To quote Plato – “Philosophy begins in wonder”
  • He also rejected the idea that ‘virtue is solely a matter of knowing what is right’. Thus, he gave practice of truth more important than preaching/knowing.

Plato’s Theory of Justice

  • The Greek word for justice is dikaiosyni has a wider implication than the English word justice and come closer to the English word ‘righteousness’ and ‘morality’. It represents a disposition to do the right thing. Plato saw in justice as the only remedy against the political and social ills of the city state.

Use of Large letters  | Plato’s Theory of Justice | ETHICS 

  • Plato uses the analogy of large letters to begin. If a person is asked to read small letters from a distance, he may not make them out easily. But if the same person is now shown the same letters in large and bold font, he will understand them better. And when he again tries to read the small letters now, it becomes more clear to him. Plato says that letters that are large and bold are understood clearly and they will help in understanding small letters easily. In a similar manner, the idea of justice can be better understood first from the point of a state and then applied to the individual. This is because Plato believed that ‘State is the individual writ large’.
  • He says that a first political community came into existence, when a farmer, a craftsman, a blacksmith came together. They realize that each of them cannot fulfill their own needs, but can mutually benefit each other from their own skills. That meant a farmer produced crops for himself along with other non farmers, a blacksmith made tools for others and so on. This lead to specialization of their work and later exchange of goods and services each of them specialized.
  • As such communities grew further, and needs also grew accordingly, there arose conflict between communities. Protection of this city states against external attack and maintaining of law and order internally became necessary. Thus emerged a new class of people called guardians. Again, among the guardians the people with higher intellect were to be the rulers of the city state.

Organic nature of the state

  • Plato gives the organic nature of a state. State is a social organism. It consists of three classes. These are the ruling class, auxiliary class and the producer class. Like the various organs of a human being must work in coordination for the human being to exist, the three classes of the state must work in perfect harmony to achieve justice in the state.
  • The ruling class consisted of the philosopher kings who possess the character of reason and Plato calls them the men of gold.
  • The auxiliary class or the warrior class consisted of the soldiers who possess the character of spirit and Plato calls them the men of silver.
  • The producer class consisted of the peasants and the artisans who possess the character of appetite and Plato calls them the men of iron. (In some books, the metal associated with this class is given as bronze, brass, copper also.)
  • Plato gave important to reason and therefore, the people who possessed reason were supposed to rule. Their rule was to the advantage of all the three classes in the state.

Four cardinal virtues | Plato’s Theory of Justice | ETHICS 

  • The Greeks held the following as the most important virtues.
    • Reason
    • Temperance
    • Courage
    • Justice
  • Justice is achieved when there is harmony among the other three cardinal virtues.

Important features of Plato’s theory of Justice

  • Functional specialization: The society is divided into three groups based on functions, which are based on the dominant character of their soul.
  • Mutual non-interference: These three classes should not interfere with the functions of other classes.
  • Communal harmony: The above two conditions create an atmosphere of harmony in the society. This very harmony is the implication of Plato’s theory of justice.

Now, Plato moves towards justice as a virtue of an individual.

Tripartite Soul

  • Every human soul possesses three elements or characters. These are appetite, spirit and reason.
  • Reason was a guide to action, and bond of union. It made people comprehend.
  • Spirit stood for courage, chivalry and honour and was an auxiliary of reason.
  • Appetite represented the instinct of pleasure, satisfaction and acquisition.
  • However, one of these characters is prominent and that helps the person to decide, what role he must play in the society. Identifying the prominent trait in the individual and subordinating the other two traits will make the life of the person virtuous and thus just.
  • Justice to Plato resides in the ideally constituted community and is identified with the complete virtue. Justice for Plato was not just a system of laws but a harmonious way of life.
  • Justice was the bond which holds a society together, a harmonious union of individuals each of whom has found his lifework in accordance with his natural fitness and his training. It is both a public and private virtue because the highest good both of the state and of its members is thereby conserved.
  • Therefore, according to Plato:
    • Justice is “giving to every man his due. For what is due to him is he should be treated as what he is, in the light of his capacity and his training, while what is due from him is, the honest performance of those tasks which the place accorded him requires.”
  • In simple words, it means that every individual possesses a specific set of talents and he must be assigned to perform his duties honesty according to those talents.
  • For example, if you are a good artist, you have to perform arts not force yourself either by you or others to work as a factory worker or a doctor. This is what is happening in India today. Many students who are in studying engineering and medicine are really not interested and are forced to study, in spite of the fact that they are good at some other vocations like music or fine arts etc.
  • Overall, Plato’s theory of justice is that perfect society in which every individual works honestly on the basis of his own inner talents and contributes to the society. Each person does not interfere with others and there is perfect harmony in the society. There is no scope for injustice and therefore justice is achieved.
  • Plato gives the theory of Education to find, what character is dominant in a person. Education helps to identify the class to which a person belongs to. It helps in arriving at the three classes in the society.
  • He also prescribes communism of property and family for the top two classes (also called as the guardian class together) so that they do not become corrupt. It means they cannot have their own family or private property. Plato thought that both family and private property can make an individual corrupt. Thus Plato through his political philosophy establishes an ideal state, in which justice prevails.