A common subject of inquiry among philosophers is the
difference between philosophical and political justice, i.e. what is morally
right versus what is legally right.  Many
believe that the two are completely separate and incompatible while others
believe that they are one and the same. In Plato’s famed philosophical work The Republic, Socrates attempts to
define justice and explain why one must act justly.  He is confronted with many different ideas
and definitions of justice and he skillfully refutes each of them.  Each of the people he encounters have
differing beliefs on who justice should benefit. Many of their beliefs and
claims support either philosophical justice or political justice. Martin
Scorsese’s acclaimed film Goodfellas further
explores the nature of justice and why it is important to act justly.  Through the story of the lives of the Henry
Hill and his fellow mobsters, Goodfellas
reveals that injustice has a negative impact on the soul and leads to
destruction of character.  It shows that
it is important to act justly, not for the sake of escaping punishment, but for
the sake of the soul. Many of the ideas presented in Goodfellas directly relate to the debates between Socrates and the
various men he encounters. From the ideas presented in Plato’s The Republic and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas regarding the nature of
justice, I argue that true justice benefits both the doer and the receiver and
that this true and complete justice is extremely rare if not impossible because
it requires the reconciliation of political and philosophical justice.  The reconciliation of these two types of
justice is nearly impossible because as human beings, our judgement of what is objectively
moral is frequently mistaken. 

1 and 2 Plato’s The Republic begin
the complex discussion surrounding the definition of justice and the purpose of
acting justly. Socrates refutes many arguments and makes many claims regarding
the nature of justice. As the definition of justice is developed, an issue arises.
It becomes clear that true justice is nearly unattainable because it requires
the reconciliation of political and philosophical justice. In other words, it
requires what is morally right and what is legally right to be reconciled.  At this point it is important to be clear on
what each of these types of justice demand. 
Philosophical justice demands that one acts for the good of the soul, or
the individual.  Political justice
demands that one acts for the good of the city, or the whole.  In The
Republic, Socrates is attempting to understand the nature of justice.  Does the just man do what is good for his
soul or does he do what is good for the city? 
Ultimately, I concluded that in order to achieve true justice, the law
must be in alignment with objective morality. 
The truly just man must be able to act for the good of his soul as well
as for the good of the city. 
Unfortunately, however, this is virtually impossible due to the
fallibility of human nature.  As flawed
human beings, our view of what is objectively right or wrong is often mistaken
and our laws are frequently not in line with objective morality.  Throughout history and into the modern-day,
what is legally right in a society is not always what is morally right. 

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Scorsese’s Goodfellas tells the story
of the life of famous gangster Henry Hill. Henry grows up in an area of
Brooklyn, New York dominated by a section of the mafia. Throughout his entire
childhood Henry idolizes the gangsters and dreams of becoming one. To Henry,
the gangster lifestyle is the ideal. They are greatly feared and respected and
they can do whatever they please without consequences. Henry does not see the
immorality of their actions as cause for concern and is convinced that a such a
life of injustice leads to power and success. 
He becomes involved in the mob at a very young age and is soon welcomed
into the tight-knit community of gangsters. He gets busted once for selling
stolen cigarettes, but evades punishment by sticking to the code and through
this he gains the respect of the other gangsters. He marries a Jewish woman
named Karen who is initially disturbed by Henry’s lifestyle, but eventually
accepts it.  His life seems to be going
well, but as the years go by, it begins to crumble.  Due to infidelity, his wife threatens him at
gunpoint and their relationship is never the same.  As well as this, he helps cover up the murder
of Billy Batts, a made man.  He gets a
10-year prison sentence after being turned in by the sister of a gambler who
they collected debt from in Florida.  In
prison, he begins selling drugs to help support his family.  Finally, he participates in the famous
Lufthansa Heist.  Eventually, he is
arrested and put in the Witness Protection Program after he testifies against
his fellow gangsters in court.  Ultimately,
his life and relationships fall apart as a result of his criminal lifestyle.

            In Goodfellas, the nature of justice is a
major theme. Henry and his fellow gangsters pay no mind to objective
morality.  The only moral code they live
by is “keep your mouth shut and don’t rat out your friends”.  As powerful gangsters, they can do whatever
they like without fear of punishment. 
They live lives of wealth and pleasure and they never consider the
negative effects this immoral lifestyle may be having on them.  In the film, Henry’s description of life in
the mob is extremely positive and enticing. 
He describes a life of success, power, wealth, and community.  Initially, it seems as though becoming a
gangster would be a smart career move. 
If such a great life comes from injustice, why be just?  This question regarding the purpose of acting
justly is a major focus in Goodfellas. Though
Henry’s description of life as a gangster seems attractive in the beginning,
the reality of living such a life soon becomes clear. As the film progresses,
the negative effects of injustice begin to reveal themselves. Henry’s life and
his relationships soon begin to crumble and he is filled with guilt and
paranoia.  Goodfellas shows us that a life of injustice leads to destruction
of character and damage to the soul.

Plato’s The Republic begins with a series of conventional definitions of
justice. Book 1 of The Republic begins
with a discussion between Socrates and a wealthy elderly man named Cephalus.
Cephalus is the first to present a definition of justice. He believes that justice
is “speaking the truth and giving back what one takes” (331d).  Initially, Cephalus firmly supports this
definition of justice.  However, Socrates
soon makes him doubt his beliefs. Socrates asks Cephalus if it would be just to
return a weapon to a madman. Cephalus concedes that this would be unjust even
though it is the madman’s property. After Socrates brings up this possible
scenario, it becomes clear that Cephalus’s view of justice is not always beneficial
to all.  Cephalus believes that justice should
be beneficial to all those involved and once he realizes that his definition of
justice does not align with this belief, he quickly removes himself from the
debate. In this debate, it is understood that justice should be beneficial to
both the doer and the receiver. Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas further supports this idea.  Though Henry Hill initially finds a life of injustice
beneficial to himself, he eventually realizes the negative effect this life is
having on him.  Eventually, it becomes
clear that injustice not only harms the receivers, it also harms the doers.
Henry and his fellow gangsters’ souls suffers as a result of their unjust

After Cephalus removes himself from
the debate with Socrates, his son Polemarchus takes over.  Polemarchus has a view of justice similar to
that of Cephalus.  However, he takes it a
step further.  Polemarchus sees the flaws
in Cephalus’s argument and presents a modified definition of justice.  He believes that “justice is doing good to
friends and harm to enemies” (332d).  This
idea of justice is a common one that has existed in many societies throughout
history.  It has been part of the law but
it is not objectively moral.  Socrates
begins his rebuttal by pointing out that our judgement of who is a friend and
who is an enemy is often inaccurate and unreliable and that this could lead us
to cause harm to good people.  He then
proves that justice can only come from justice. 
He asks Polemarchus “are musicians able to make men unmusical by music”
(335c).  In the same way, just men cannot
make men unjust by justice.  Therefore,
just men can only make men just by justice. 
This conflicts with Polemarchus’s definition of justice because he
states that harm should be done to enemies. 
To cause harm is an unjust act and because justice only comes from just
actions, acting unjustly towards another can only bring about more
injustice.  Finally, he concludes that since
justice is a virtue, it seeks the good and to cause harm to anyone is not a
good in itself.  Therefore, it is not
just to cause harm to one’s enemy. This debate further supports my claim that
justice is beneficial to both the doer and the receiver, for it proves that
since it is not virtuous or beneficial to all, causing harm to one’s enemy is
unjust.  In Goodfellas, the gangsters seem to have an idea of justice similar
to that of Polemarchus.  Their moral code
demands that they don’t betray their friends, but they cause much harm to
everyone else who is not useful or supportive of them. The injustice of their
actions throughout the film is obvious and it negates the idea that justice is
to do harm to one’s enemies and good to one’s friends.

After Socrates debates with
Polemarchus, Thrasymachus aggressively inserts himself into the argument,
claiming that Socrates has not said anything of substance regarding the
definition of justice.  He then gives his
own definition of justice claiming that “the just is nothing other than the
advantage of the stronger” (338c).  By
this he means that laws are made by the ruler for his own benefit and the citizens
are forced to obey them or else they will be punished as “a breaker of the law
and a doer of unjust deeds” (338e).  He
believes that it is the strong who make the laws and the weak who follow them.  Thrasymachus believes solely in political
justice.  He believes that justice means being
obedient to the will of the strong and powerful and by being obedient to the
will of the strong, one is doing what is best for the city, or the whole.  Because of this oppressive idea of justice,
Thrasymachus claims that justice is not beneficial at all and that injustice is
in fact more advantageous for the citizen because it means acting for his own
good.  According to Thrasymachus, those
who act justly are simply obeying the selfish will of another. When Socrates
brings up the possibility for a ruler to err and make laws that are actually
disadvantageous to him, Thrasymachus modifies his argument stating that “the
ruler, insofar as he is a ruler, does not make mistakes; and not making
mistakes, he sets down what is best for himself” (341a). Socrates continues his
refutation by discussing the idea that rulers often do what is best for their
subjects. He begins by speaking of other professions such as a piloting a ship
or doctoring. Socrates states that pilots or doctors are responsible for a
group of people and they do what is best for those people. Socrates then,
however, brings up how such people also ask for wages for their efforts. This
initially seems to contradict his earlier statement that true rulers do what is
best for the ruled.  However, it
eventually becomes clear that he means that a truly just ruler should also care
about his own good as well as the good of those he rules over.  This point that a truly just man cares for
the good of others as well as his own good supports my claim that true justice
comes from the reconciliation of political and philosophical justice.  It also supports my claim that this kind of
justice is impossible because a ruler’s own good does not always harmonize with
that of others.  Socrates goes on to
explain why justice is a virtue.  He
begins by having Thrasymachus confirm that he believes injustice to be a
virtue.  Then, he makes the argument that
a good and wise man seeks to get the better of the bad and ignorant in the same
way that a musical man seeks to get the better of anything unmusical.  Therefore, because the just man seeks to get
the better of the unjust man “the just man is like the wise and good, but the
unjust man like the bad and unlearned” (350c). 
This particular idea that injustice is vice and ignorance while justice
is virtue and wisdom is evident in Goodfellas.  Henry Hill and many of his fellow
gangsters became involved in the mob early on and never pursued a regular education.  Their whole life is being a gangster. They
are filled with vice and ignorance and as a result of this, they live a life of
injustice without shame.  They do not
fully understand their own human dignity nor that of the people they harm and
because of this ignorance, they are unjust not only to their victims, but to

The next man who takes over the
discussion with Socrates is Glaucon. Glaucon is still unsatisfied with
Socrates’s conclusion about justice and continues to question him.  He states that he believes there are three
forms of good.  The first kind of good is
one “that we would choose to have not because we desire its consequences, but
because we delight in it for its own sake” (357b). The second is kind of good
is one “we like both for its own sake and for what comes out of it” (357c). The
third kind of good is the finest form of good which we “like both for itself
and for what comes out of it” (358a). Glaucon asks Socrates to prove that justice
is a good in itself and should be desired not only for its consequences but for
its own sake. Glaucon is asking for Socrates to prove that true justice is
philosophical justice which is for the good of the soul, or the
individual.  If justice is a good in
itself, then it is beneficial to the soul. 
Glaucon makes the claim that justice may belong to the first form of
good.  He supports this claim with the
story of the ring of Gyges.  The ring of
Gyges was a magic ring that had the power to turn the wearer invisible, giving
him the ability to perform any action without consequences.  The purpose of the story is to claim that if
any man was given such power, he would always choose to act unjustly for his
own benefit.  In Goodfellas, the gangsters have a similar immunity to
punishment.  As widely feared and
respected members of the mafia, they are able to get away with almost
anything.  However, the negative effects
of their actions become evident, revealing that even if one can act unjustly
without consequences, they will still suffer because justice is a good in
itself that benefits the soul.

question of whether or not what is legally right and what is morally right are
the same is one that has been discussed for centuries.  Throughout history it can be seen that unjust
and immoral laws have existed in many societies.  Though, at the time, the lawmakers of such
societies may have thought their laws to be objectively moral, they were sorely
mistaken.  Ultimately, I argue that such human
error makes it impossible to completely reconcile laws and morals.  True justice is universally beneficial and it
is extremely rare to create a law that truly benefits the doer and the
receiver.  Socrates’s refutations of the superficial
definitions of Cephalus and Polemarchus support my claim that true justice
benefits both the doer and the receiver. 
Cephalus and Polemarchus presented traditional definitions of justice
that had existed for centuries.  However,
these definitions were unsatisfactory because they did not portray justice as a
purely virtuous thing that is advantageous to all.  Thrasymachus’s definition supports the idea
of political justice alone while Cephalus asks Socrates to prove that
philosophical justice is true justice. 
Socrates’s discussion with these two men support my claim that neither
of these kinds of justice can stand on its own. 
True justice comes from both philosophical and political justice.  Socrates proves that a truly just ruler creates
rules that are advantageous for both the city and his own soul.  Unfortunately, the existence of such a ruler
in our world is rare.  Despite this,
however, we can still work towards creating a world with this true and complete


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