Justice Is The Advantage Of The Stronger

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

And so I bring back an ancient debate between Socrates and Thrasymachus. Socrates is the much more known philosopher, and for good treason. But the continuing debate that these two had with each other concerns an issue so very relevant today (and tomorrow, too, I know).

Thrasymachus proffered that  “Justice is the advantage of the stronger.” Other historians have opined that Thrasymachus said it in other ways, too, like “Justice is simply the will of the strongest person or party,” or, “Justice is what is good for the stronger.”

The strength, and weakness, of the view of Thrasymachus lies in the difference between the ideal and the real, the philosophy and the application. The philosophy of justice, as Socrates advanced, is its highest nature, transcending the prejudice and partisanship of man, and necessary to attaining the ideal state. Philosophically, therefore, Socrates may have offered the finer perspective. In real life, however, Thrasymachus was dead on.

Thrasymachus could have been talking about the Philippines where his point of view would have been the universal one. For one, people struggling to survive, as about 30 million Filipinos do, and people struggling to maintain dignity, as another 30 million do, or people struggling to rise above poverty and land in the middle class with more security, as at least another 30 million OFWs and their families do, all these have little or no time for the finer points of philosophy. They will listen to the opinion of Thrasymachus and agree—that justice favors the strong, that justice is according to the will of the stronger, etc.

Most Filipinos will agree, even the better off who belong to the top 10% because they taste and enjoy the advantages, with Thrasymachus even though they do not know him, have not heard of him, and never knew that about 2,400 years ago, he had already described what life would be for Filipinos. In simplified form and substance, may I share what he said:

  1. In each city and/or state, the stronger element is the rulers (or the governing group);
  2. The rulers make laws to their own advantage;
  3. They declare these laws to be just for the subjects—and justice means obeying the laws;
  4. Therefore, justice works to the advantage of the stronger.

Before those who are getting agitated form reactions in the minds and make a mover towards their laptops and mobile phones, remember that neither Thrasymachus or Socrates were politicians. They were philosophers trying to get at the truth, the highest truth, the purest truth. Thrasymachus was not claiming that the rulers wanted advantage that would suppress or oppress their subjects. Thrasymachus was simply saying that, in making laws, the rulers kept or promoted their advantage – and that obeying laws was part and parcel of justice.

Of course, eventually, Thrasymachus conceded that there should be some standard of wise rule, that there must be a standard of justice beyond the advantage of the stronger. In the field of law, most especially in an alleged democracy, philosophy pointing to an ideal is crucial and integral, a view that should be pursued relentlessly. The absence of such a philosophy will not trigger a societal direction, no matter how weak or sporadic, towards that elusive ideal state.

That is why I bring this issue out again, because this underlies our effort to address poverty and corruption, our two main societal cancers. Starting from the higher philosophical worldview of Socrates, poverty itself is fruit of corruption, a immorality and crime that can be committed only by the powerful. With poverty and corruption as the main evils of a society, justice is not only denied, it is mocked.

To expect, then, the rulers who create the laws and enforce them through their agents (like the military and police), will themselves initiate reforms on themselves, go against their own interests, and promote instead an operating system that lifts the weak and restrains the rich and powerful, that is Socratic, or Fantasia. It will fall before the more mundane and real assumption of Thrasymachus, that justice is the advantage of the stronger. And, again, one uses the fact of poverty and corruption as the main cancers afflicting the nation.

This continuing reality is a definition of justice that is crafted by rulers, enacted and enforced by rulers, and naturally favors rulers. It is no surprise, then, that corruption thrives, as corruption is the immoral use of power for personal gain, and can be committed only by rulers. Until wisdom overtakes those who rule, the rich and powerful in our society, there can be no standard of justice beyond the advantage of the stronger.

Unless the weaker find strength in their numbers, find both the courage and the humility to form a unity, and gain a strategic bargaining asset. It is never easy to move against the established rulers, and revolutions have always been the forced option adopted by the disadvantaged. Reality and history will point out, however, the scarcity of success – and the bloody price paid to attain it even unsuccessfully. The rarer success is the strength from unity in numbers, but may be the best option for peaceful and sustainable progress.

Today’s unique situation, too, offers another possibility. The younger generations are showing signs that a strange collective mindset is rising to pursue its own priorities, often against the traditional norm. The youth of today, from their tender ages to their 40’s, are simply an enigma to established order. And they are not lawbreakers or angry rebels as well. This situation is very promising as even the traditionalists are forced to accommodate they younger ones who are their very children or grandchildren.

The owners of the future, as Rizal referred to them, may be the evolutionary response of existence, or the kind blessing of god who pity the prayerful among Filipinos. The Filipino youth may yet swing the argument from the realism of Thrasymachus to the idealism of Socrates. How wonderful that would be.

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