The Ring of Gyges

Monday, October 15, 2007

Flibbert recently got wind of something that might sound strangely familiar to readers of this blog (HT: Qwertz) :

A teen-ager was airlifted to hospital and his father had his nose broken when gatecrashers went on the rampage at a 16th birthday party after details were posted on YouTube, police and media reports said Friday.

More than 100 uninvited teenagers descended on the family house, stole whisky and champagne, smashed windows and started fighting, according to reports.
As with the episode of massive theft and vandalism I blogged back in April (which was conveniently attributed to Craig's List) , there is no rational connection between a simple listing of a home address and an event that is to occur there with what ended up happening.

Here's the essence of each event. Someone's home address was listed on the Internet with an announcement to the effect that he expected a crowd of people to show up there and when. Many youths, being nihilists, are little better than criminals anyway and would, if they thought they could get away with it, behave like barbarians. In each case, these ads offered such a shelter from accountability: a crowd of strangers and a lack of specific orders as to how to behave while in that crowd.

So when things get out of control, the barbarians who made it that way can blame it on the crowd (if it doesn't make it impossible to point fingers anyway) and the circumstance (e.g., a "party" context or the implication that property was free for the taking: "[I]t said come and take what you want.") Add to this the fact that law enforcement everywhere is lax after decades of blaming crime on "society" rather than the individual criminal.

The condition of anonymity ("moral invisibility", if you will) offered in each case reminds me of the legend of the Ring of Gyges, in which a man finds a ring that bestows invisibility and uses it to commit murder. Interestingly, this legend is brought up in a Platonic discussion of justice as an illustrative argument to the effect that morality is a social construct. Plato argues against this position, but given how common it is for people to regard morality as a mere social or religious convention, it would appear that he did not make his case strongly enough.

If any of the savages who participated in either of these events learned anything about morality, I would wager that it was to the effect that morality is arbitrary (i.e., subjective or based on divine whim), enforced by group consensus, and irrelevant to living one's life.

This is in sharp contrast to the view of morality offered by Ayn Rand, who held that objective moral principles could be discovered through the use of reason, that these principles are selfishly important to each individual, and that as such, one risks immorality at his own peril. Or, as I like to think of it, reality enforces morality.

The best one can hope for by behaving short-range, even if he gets away scott-free with some criminal act is continued life with the anxiety associated with perhaps being found out later and with having to figure out how to continue existing. It is a subhuman existence on the spiritual level at the very least. Quite often, criminals, being short-range thinkers, will blow whatever windfall they might have and needlessly face material hardship as well.

Only a rational egoist could be trusted with the Ring of Gyges, because he knows that morality, being of practical relevance to one's life, is not fundamentally about what others think of you (or what you can steal from others), but about how you deal with the problem of your own survival on many levels.

-- CAV


: Added a clarification. At the time of writing, I'd forgotten that the Craig's List looters used a fake announcement to excuse themselves from responsibility for their actions.


Anonymous said...

I found a wallet with a couple hundred dollars in it while I was a student going back to college. Keeping that 'found' money certainly would have made my life easier; I didn't have much of an income stream at the time and every little bit of cash helped. It also would have said that I was too incapable to conduct my affairs by the power my own mind and my own effort to be able to return property that clearly was not mine. I tracked down the owner of the wallet and returned it to them, for which they were immensely grateful. In a larger sense, I was to, because it was a moment where I lived up to my most important convictions.

Gus Van Horn said...

"It also would have said that I was too incapable to conduct my affairs by the power my own mind and my own effort ."

Thank you. THIS is, I think, an all-too-frequently overlooked psychological aspect of theft and fraud. There's what most altrusts think of, which is how it hurts others, and how others might catch the thief, but this is the anxiety associated with REALITY catching up with the thief.

Jim May said...

That *reality* enforces morality is one of the aspects of the Objectivist ethics that completely confounds conventional thinkers; they are thoroughly used to the notion that without God/society, there is simply no reason to be moral (as opposed to "prudent").

This precept, most concisely expressed as "If God is dead, everything is permitted", is central to the conservative worldview, and is the primary indictment against their approach to ethics.

(Of course, the Left's answer is to declare that god IS dead, so everything IS permitted.)

Gus Van Horn said...

Maybe that's why they all hate us! The right can't tell us, in the name of their God, how to be moral, and the left can't pretend that amorality has no consequences with us around.

Jim May said...

Superficially, that is true for both sides. The religionists don't like competition, and the Leftists find the notion of individual moral responsibility frightening.

But since there is no such thing as God, the real reason ends up applying to both: our ethics leave no room for their feelings.

I offer in evidence this particularly vile, revealing quote from conservative John Derbyshire:

"Does it not occur to you...that by purging all sacred images, references, and words from our public life, you are leaving us with nothing but a cold temple presided over by the Goddess of Reason -- that counterfeit deity who, as history has proved time and time and time again, inspires no affection, retains no loyalties, soothes no grief, justifies no sacrifice, gives no comfort, extends no charity, displays no pity, and offers no hope, except to the tiny cliques of fanatical ideologues who tend her cold blue flame?"

Gus Van Horn said...

And what feelings those are!