Of Plato and Foreign Policy

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk to a meeting at the Great Hall of People in Beijing, China, April 25, 2019. (Kenzaburo Fukuhara/Pool via Reuters)
The problem with claims that ‘might makes right’

Last week, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte denied the United States greater military-base access in the Philippines, cutting short what would have been a counterbalance to China’s increased presence in the South China Sea. There are many plausible reasons why a world leader might elect to make such a decision: animosity toward the United States, a principled stand against foreign military presence on one’s soil, etc. Duterte, however, had another explanation: “China has the arms” and is “in possession of the property. . . . So it is simple as that.”

In other words, as The Trumpet’s Jeremiah Jacques points out, Duterte’s best justification to deny a further U.S. military presence is the maxim that “might makes right.” Hearing this sentiment invoked in the context of modern geopolitics is jarring; I recalled the concept of natural justice in Plato’s Gorgias, so profoundly influential two millennia after Plato’s death. I wish to expound on the concept of natural justice as considered in this dialogue — it is virtually identical to “might makes right” — if the reader will not find such a discussion too tedious.

Though Plato often presented Socrates’ interlocutors in his dialogues as being mentally feeble, with assertions ready-made for refutation, he portrayed Callicles in a particularly impressive light in the Gorgias throughout the character’s discussion with the famous gadfly. First relating Callicles’ criticisms of the impracticality of lifelong devotion to philosophy — and Socrates’ defense of this lifestyle — Plato subsequently had Callicles confront the very foundation on which ancient Greek civilization was based, the cardinal virtue according to which Plato thought that members of society should strive to the maximum benefit of a harmonious whole: justice. Yet despite several compelling arguments that Callicles makes against Socrates’ ethical justice in favor of his own “natural” justice, Plato made this conception of the virtue eventually fall, on many accounts.

In the Gorgias, Callicles first conceives of justice as a conspiracy of the weak against the strong: unable to defend themselves and their possessions from the might of those with greater capacities, the weak make up various laws and conventions according to which the strong are deterred from acting in accordance in nature. Indeed, says Callicles, though those strongest by nature are held in check by a stringent ethical code that would condemn them for infringing upon the distribution of goods prevalent in society, Callicles imagines that they might one day rise up in glory and simply seize the objects of their desire from the weak. Though Callicles concedes that many might consider such an occurrence ethically unjust, he maintains that it would be fundamentally just according to the laws of nature, in saying so lending greater credence to what can be observed to happen in the wild (namely, the stronger taking from the weaker) than to the customs that he says weak humans have gathered to enact against the strong.

The first objection brought against Callicles in the Gorgias is the validity of the current state of society and its moral conventions. While Callicles initially focuses on the individual strong–weak division, Socrates points out that many weak people acting in unison are in fact stronger than a few individually strong people, and thus that organizing society according to the notion of respect for personal property (as in conventional justice) is an extension of natural justice, since this measure is favored by the collectively powerful majority. Therefore, according to this first and crudest attempt to define natural justice, a society with conventional justice is acceptable and in fact preferable to a society in which one simply takes what he is able to take, since the mighty majority wills the existence of the former.

After Callicles concedes that it is not simply through brute strength that goods should be distributed, he next postulates that the wisest and bravest should enjoy the finest fruits of society’s labor. Now, this idea, at first glance, appears similar to the distribution yielded by conventional justice, which, far from being egalitarian, does in fact allow variance in possession of resources on the basis of merits such as courage and wisdom. Yet, as Socrates points out, it is doubtful that a truly wise man would even wish to consume an excess of goods, thus practicing intemperance and upsetting the natural constitution of his soul. Callicles, unable to procure a more worthy candidate to have more goods than one who is wise, resorts to rejecting the metaphysical claim that one’s soul must be properly ordered and one’s passions curbed. However, his resistance can go only so far: Socrates demonstrates the obvious empirical fact that it is physically possible to consume too much of almost any material good, thus exposing that Callicles would grant the lion’s share to those who, according to their foresight and prudence, would not wish to have it.

But Callicles continues adamantly to insist that the wise and courageous would genuinely be benefited by receiving an outsized share of possessions. He asserts that one who would live authentically should satisfy all his pleasures, tending all the more zealously to those that have most greatly swollen. Yet, as Socrates asks, would such a man in his constant experience of great pleasures and their contrasting pains actually be happier than one who, having tempered his passions, wants little and avoids extreme sensations? Herein lies an antithesis between Callicles’ natural justice, which, looking to nature as inspiration, would say that as soon as one feels a desire, one should do what is in one’s power to satisfy it, and Socrates’ conventional justice. For the latter — whether on the individual level urging a balanced deference of one’s appetitive and spirited dispositions to one’s rational faculties, or on a larger level prescribing all to respect personal rights to the advantage of a congruous society — rejects the appetite-driven vision of Callicles. Now, Callicles asserts that the whole idea of temperance and a just arrangement of parts is merely an excuse that the weak make for failing to seize the day and satisfy their pleasures. But this is unverifiable, conspiratorial talk, akin to Karl Marx’s claim that any dominant opinion of a generation is in truth a reflection of the will of the ruling class. Ultimately, despite the tantalizing appeal of his rhetoric, Callicles is unable to sustain a valid attack on conventional justice — a tentative victory for the great Socrates.

We can also extend the lessons of the Gorgias to the international level. Though a national power may be physically able to extend its domain, this does not constitute an acceptable reason for it to do so. It must also be considered whether a nation is justified in encroaching on foreign territory — in the present case, whether China justly denies the United States and other powers navigational freedom, whether it justly militarizes and weaponizes its occupied territories. It must also be considered whether China’s encroachment is ultimately in its own interest: The practice of constant acquisition and self-gratification may ultimately harm the soul of China irredeemably.

In any case, President Duterte should not be expected to sing the praises of conventional justice, especially when faced against a power such as the Chinese Communist Party. Still, when we hear “might makes right” being used as an excuse for vicious and unjust power grabs, we can stand against this slogan with Socrates, armed with our long white beards and walking sticks.


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