Sunday, May 11, 2014

The good, the bad, and a quotation

Plato supposedly said: "Good people don't need the law to act responsibly. Bad people will always find a way around the law." I saw it on a random graphic just today. The internet wouldn't lie to me, would it?

I don't remember this quotation from when I was reading Plato in college, perhaps it's right, perhaps it's a confabulation. Don't know. Please bear with me while I check wikiquotes...

The quotation itself is really from Ammon Hennacy, a Christian anarchist. Here is the original version: "Oh judge! Your damn laws! The good people don't need them, and the bad people don't obey them."

Plato did write something vaguely like this, but its meaning is completely different: "Laws are made to instruct the good, and in the hope that there may be no need of them; also to control the bad, whose hardness of heart will not be hindered from crime."
[source: Laws, Book IX. Do a search in Google Books with the quotation as the search phrase to confirm this. I'd also like to mention the Talk page for Plato at wikiquote.]

I disagree with Hennacy. There are a minority of truly good and truly bad people in the world. What he says about those extremes is true. But for those of us who are a mixture of good and bad, the vast majority of humanity, we need the law, we need instruction in good moral behavior by our parents, by our schools, and by our culture. We need to condition our minds so that we are not merely accidentally good. These observations come not from contemplating the good, but contemplating the bad. My conclusion from studying the Holocaust and the rescuers who opposed it: you can teach ethics, you can live your ethics...but this takes work, more work than most people are willing to put into it - which explains why the Nazis found so many willing hands for murder...and why the rescuers were so few.

R. P. Bird: Professional writer since 1989. Author of the IN THE REALM OF THE GODS series and the SUZIE crime novels. Crazy, but highly reliable. Can fix about anything.