Anonymity and Justice
There is no universally agreed-upon definition of justice. Since humanity and various cultures hold different meanings of justice and injustice, the Ring of Gyges thought experiment can be leveraged to explore this topic and how it still plays out in modern society. The movie Batman Begins offers multiple character examples of how anonymity is like wearing the Ring of Gyges, and how anonymity is used to commit injustices as well as to fight injustices. Perhaps anonymity simply demonstrates the on-going challenge of defining justice and Heraclitus’ claim that “strife is justice” and “war is father of all” aptly sums up the problem (Graham). Or perhaps there is a lesson to be learned in empathy in how to apply justice by way of another thought experiment called the empathy machine (Groothuis). Thought experiments like the Ring of Gyges and the empathy machine, and movies like Batman Begins, are valuable because they prompt discussion and dialogue of what it means to be just and how to act accordingly.
Glaucon and Socrates discuss the concept of justice in book two of Plato’s Republic. Glaucon contends that the just person would ultimately run the same course as an unjust person. He explains through the thought experiment, called the Ring of Gyges, that the wearer of the ring could become invisible and commit any act they wish; and subsequently a person claiming to be just would ultimately commit injustice if granted invisibility (Plato, et. al., 359c – 361a). Does anonymity make everyone unjust? Or are there examples of people who use anonymity to fight injustice. The film Batman Begins offers insight into various characters who have the power of quasi-anonymity.
Batman Begins is a 2005 film which explores the origins of the comic book hero Bruce Wayne, whose parents were murdered when he was a boy (Nolan). When Bruce was a college student, the murderer of his parents, Joe Chill, was to be released on parole. At the hearing, Bruce comes prepared with a handgun with the intent to kill Chill. He is about to shoot Chill, when an assassin for the mobster Falcone, kills Chill. Bruce watches intently as Chill dies. Later, his close friend, Rachel Dawes, discovers Bruce’s intent. When she learns this, she slaps him across his face, telling him that his father would be ashamed of him for bypassing the justice system. Feeling the sting of shame, Bruce vows to fight injustice by immersing himself in the criminal underworld for seven years.
While exploring the criminal underworld, Bruce is recruited by a man named Henri Ducard, who belongs to the League of Shadows and whose leader is Ra’s al Ghul. As a member of the League of Shadows, Bruce learns martial arts and arts of deception and disguise. At the pinnacle of his initiation, he is forced to decide whether to behead a murderer or part ways with the league. Having determined that he would never kill, he escapes the League of Shadows, saving his friend Ducard and thinking that Ra’s al Ghul dies in a fire at the home of the League of Shadows.
Bruce returns to his home in Gotham and crafts his alter-persona: Batman. As he assumes anonymity, he begins to fight the Gotham criminal underworld, using his quasi-invisibility to exact justice on the mobsters of Gotham. Through the course of his detective work, he learns that Ra’s al Ghul still lives, and in fact, is his friend Ducard. Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows have plotted to destroy Gotham, intending to commit injustice. Batman fights Ra’s al Ghul, who dies in a train wreck, and subsequently, Gotham is saved.
Both the protagonist and antagonist of Batman Begins wrap themselves in invisibility and disguise. Bruce Wayne does so to fight injustices on the streets of Gotham which the police department is powerless to fight because of corruption. Bruce’s choices demonstrate that a cloak of invisibility does not align with Glaucon’s contention that a proverbial Ring of Gyges corrupts the wearer. On the other hand, while the antagonist Ra’s al Ghul has a warped sense of justice by destroying everything to force civilization to reboot, he is willing to commit significant injustices to accomplish some justice in the world. Ra’s al Ghul is an example of what Glaucon contends: that invisibility only encourages the person to commit injustices.
It does not take much imagination to make the leap from the fiction of Batman Begins to the non-fiction of the real world. Today, cyber criminals and malicious actors work in hidden shadows and the dark web to steal people’s identities and commit all types of injustices from buying and selling drugs to human trafficking. Also cloaked in anonymity and invisibility are justice warriors from governments and military organizations and even vigilantes. Like Batman, the cyber world is full of invisible actors, many committing grave crimes, and others, such as vigilantes, fighting them in the name of justice (e Silva).
Is Glaucon’s thought experiment, resolved? Does invisibility turn all people into actors of injustice? Applying the analysis of Batman Begins and the battles being fought on the Internet, it can be stated that invisibility does not turn all into actors of injustice. Therefore, what is to be learned from this thought experiment? Perhaps the real lesson from Batman Begins and the gift of anonymity is that it reveals humanity will always be locked in a struggle to define what is just and unjust. What happens overtly also occurs anonymously as the fight for justice and against injustices simply moves to a meta world. Consequently, when Heraclitus says, “We must recognize that war is common, strife is justice, and all things happen according to strife and necessity” and that “war is father of all and king of all” it simply denotes the endless fight over the definition of justice (Graham). Ra’s al Ghul felt compelled to fight injustice in his own way, and in turn Batman felt compelled to fight Ra’s al Ghul and the criminal underworld. Humanity is trapped in a perpetual struggle to define and execute justice and how to fight injustice. But is humanity truly trapped in this unending battle?
To begin to address injustice, all people need to gain self-awareness and empathy. One University of Sydney academic philosopher wrote, “invisibility may be self-induced through self-justifying rationalizations, and ignorance may be manifested and expressed as lack of self-reflection and self-knowledge” (Edward, 564). This idea of ignorance and lack of self-examination and reflection may be key to unlocking a universal understanding of justice. What if justice began with self-examination and reflection? If more people were to be instilled with empathic awareness, could humanity step closer to universal justice? Two scenes from Batman Begins show two characters with a sense of empathy and how these acts of kindness had knock-on effects.
One scene shows a young Bruce at the police station, shortly after his parents were murdered by Chill. With empathy and kindness, a police officer named James Gordan took time to think of the feelings of a frightened child. His act was to simply put a coat around the young boy and offer comfort. Later in the film, in difference scene, the hero similarly shows empathy for a young boy whose life is full of stress. While surveilling a rough part of the city, a young boy walks onto the balcony to leave a heated argument between his parents. To his surprise, he sees Batman on the terrace. He explains to Batman that none of his friends would believe him if he told them he saw Batman. Without saying a word, Batman hands the boy a surveillance tool and the boy breaks out in a wide, happy expression. Having the ability to understand what it feels like to be in another person’s shoes and then to treat that person, accordingly, may be the right thought experiment to advance the conversation of justice.
One professor of philosophy proposes that moral virtue, including justice, may be better understood with a thought experiment called the empathy machine.
When one is hooked up to the empathy machine, there is a radical shift from the third-person and second-person to the first-person; from propositional knowledge to experiential knowledge … from hearing about pain and observing pain to being in pain and thus knowing it from the inside out. It is a shift from hearing-about or being-near to being-there (Groothuis, 86).
Experiencing the pains of injustice may begin to shape humanity to reconsider actions which may be unjust. Instead of allowing baser instincts of protection, revenge and survival to guide humanity, perhaps there ought to be greater focus on tapping into emotional intelligence in an effort to expand not only self-awareness, but other-awareness.
While humanity may long argue over what justice is and is not, the thought experiments of the Ring of Gyges and the empathy machine, along with the plot of Batman Begins help to sort out how humanity can apply justice at the interpersonal level. Indeed, Heraclitus may always be correct about humanity being trapped in a perpetual cycle of strife and war. Or, perhaps there may be some hope in a more enlightened civilization, in which the citizenry taps into the rich potential of empathy and reaches escape velocity from the ceaseless cycle of conflict.
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Graham, Daniel W. “Heraclitus (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford.edu, 2019, plato.stanford.edu/entries/heraclitus/.
Groothuis, Douglas. "THE EMPATHY MACHINE: A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT." Think, vol. 19, no. 55, 2020, pp. 85-94. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/empathy-machine-thought-experiment/docview/2384820659/se-2, doi:https://doi.org/10.1017/S1477175620000081.
Nolan, Christopher. Batman Begins. Warner Bros., 2005.
Plato, et al. A Plato Reader : Eight Essential Dialogues. Hackett Pub. Co, 2012.