A common subject of inquiry among philosophers is thedifference between philosophical and political justice, i.e.
what is morallyright versus what is legally right. Manybelieve that the two are completely separate and incompatible while othersbelieve that they are one and the same. In Plato’s famed philosophical work The Republic, Socrates attempts todefine justice and explain why one must act justly.
He is confronted with many different ideasand definitions of justice and he skillfully refutes each of them. Each of the people he encounters havediffering beliefs on who justice should benefit. Many of their beliefs andclaims support either philosophical justice or political justice. MartinScorsese’s acclaimed film Goodfellas furtherexplores the nature of justice and why it is important to act justly.
Through the story of the lives of the HenryHill and his fellow mobsters, Goodfellasreveals that injustice has a negative impact on the soul and leads todestruction of character. It shows thatit is important to act justly, not for the sake of escaping punishment, but forthe sake of the soul. Many of the ideas presented in Goodfellas directly relate to the debates between Socrates and thevarious men he encounters. From the ideas presented in Plato’s The Republic and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas regarding the nature ofjustice, I argue that true justice benefits both the doer and the receiver andthat this true and complete justice is extremely rare if not impossible becauseit requires the reconciliation of political and philosophical justice. The reconciliation of these two types ofjustice is nearly impossible because as human beings, our judgement of what is objectivelymoral is frequently mistaken. Books1 and 2 Plato’s The Republic beginthe complex discussion surrounding the definition of justice and the purpose ofacting justly. Socrates refutes many arguments and makes many claims regardingthe nature of justice.
As the definition of justice is developed, an issue arises.It becomes clear that true justice is nearly unattainable because it requiresthe reconciliation of political and philosophical justice. In other words, itrequires what is morally right and what is legally right to be reconciled. At this point it is important to be clear onwhat each of these types of justice demand. Philosophical justice demands that one acts for the good of the soul, orthe individual.
Political justicedemands that one acts for the good of the city, or the whole. In TheRepublic, Socrates is attempting to understand the nature of justice. Does the just man do what is good for hissoul or does he do what is good for the city? Ultimately, I concluded that in order to achieve true justice, the lawmust be in alignment with objective morality. The truly just man must be able to act for the good of his soul as wellas for the good of the city. Unfortunately, however, this is virtually impossible due to thefallibility of human nature. As flawedhuman beings, our view of what is objectively right or wrong is often mistakenand 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. MartinScorsese’s Goodfellas tells the storyof the life of famous gangster Henry Hill. Henry grows up in an area ofBrooklyn, New York dominated by a section of the mafia. Throughout his entirechildhood Henry idolizes the gangsters and dreams of becoming one. To Henry,the gangster lifestyle is the ideal.
They are greatly feared and respected andthey can do whatever they please without consequences. Henry does not see theimmorality of their actions as cause for concern and is convinced that a such alife of injustice leads to power and success. He becomes involved in the mob at a very young age and is soon welcomedinto the tight-knit community of gangsters. He gets busted once for sellingstolen cigarettes, but evades punishment by sticking to the code and throughthis he gains the respect of the other gangsters.
He marries a Jewish womannamed Karen who is initially disturbed by Henry’s lifestyle, but eventuallyaccepts it. His life seems to be goingwell, but as the years go by, it begins to crumble. Due to infidelity, his wife threatens him atgunpoint and their relationship is never the same. As well as this, he helps cover up the murderof Billy Batts, a made man.
He gets a10-year prison sentence after being turned in by the sister of a gambler whothey collected debt from in Florida. Inprison, he begins selling drugs to help support his family. Finally, he participates in the famousLufthansa Heist. Eventually, he isarrested and put in the Witness Protection Program after he testifies againsthis 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 amajor theme. Henry and his fellow gangsters pay no mind to objectivemorality.
The only moral code they liveby is “keep your mouth shut and don’t rat out your friends”. As powerful gangsters, they can do whateverthey like without fear of punishment. They live lives of wealth and pleasure and they never consider thenegative effects this immoral lifestyle may be having on them. In the film, Henry’s description of life inthe mob is extremely positive and enticing. He describes a life of success, power, wealth, and community.
Initially, it seems as though becoming agangster would be a smart career move. If such a great life comes from injustice, why be just? This question regarding the purpose of actingjustly is a major focus in Goodfellas. ThoughHenry’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 andhis relationships soon begin to crumble and he is filled with guilt andparanoia.
Goodfellas shows us that a life of injustice leads to destructionof character and damage to the soul.Plato’s The Republic begins with a series of conventional definitions ofjustice. Book 1 of The Republic beginswith a discussion between Socrates and a wealthy elderly man named Cephalus.Cephalus is the first to present a definition of justice. He believes that justiceis “speaking the truth and giving back what one takes” (331d). Initially, Cephalus firmly supports thisdefinition of justice. However, Socratessoon makes him doubt his beliefs. Socrates asks Cephalus if it would be just toreturn a weapon to a madman.
Cephalus concedes that this would be unjust eventhough it is the madman’s property. After Socrates brings up this possiblescenario, it becomes clear that Cephalus’s view of justice is not always beneficialto all. Cephalus believes that justice shouldbe beneficial to all those involved and once he realizes that his definition ofjustice does not align with this belief, he quickly removes himself from thedebate.
In this debate, it is understood that justice should be beneficial toboth the doer and the receiver. Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas further supports this idea. Though Henry Hill initially finds a life of injusticebeneficial to himself, he eventually realizes the negative effect this life ishaving on him. Eventually, it becomesclear that injustice not only harms the receivers, it also harms the doers.Henry and his fellow gangsters’ souls suffers as a result of their unjustactions.After Cephalus removes himself fromthe debate with Socrates, his son Polemarchus takes over.
Polemarchus has a view of justice similar tothat of Cephalus. However, he takes it astep further. Polemarchus sees the flawsin Cephalus’s argument and presents a modified definition of justice. He believes that “justice is doing good tofriends and harm to enemies” (332d).
Thisidea of justice is a common one that has existed in many societies throughouthistory. It has been part of the law butit is not objectively moral. Socratesbegins his rebuttal by pointing out that our judgement of who is a friend andwho is an enemy is often inaccurate and unreliable and that this could lead usto cause harm to good people. He thenproves 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 cannotmake men unjust by justice. Therefore,just men can only make men just by justice. This conflicts with Polemarchus’s definition of justice because hestates that harm should be done to enemies. To cause harm is an unjust act and because justice only comes from justactions, acting unjustly towards another can only bring about moreinjustice. Finally, he concludes that sincejustice is a virtue, it seeks the good and to cause harm to anyone is not agood in itself.
Therefore, it is notjust to cause harm to one’s enemy. This debate further supports my claim thatjustice is beneficial to both the doer and the receiver, for it proves thatsince it is not virtuous or beneficial to all, causing harm to one’s enemy isunjust. In Goodfellas, the gangsters seem to have an idea of justice similarto that of Polemarchus. Their moral codedemands that they don’t betray their friends, but they cause much harm toeveryone else who is not useful or supportive of them. The injustice of theiractions throughout the film is obvious and it negates the idea that justice isto do harm to one’s enemies and good to one’s friends.
After Socrates debates withPolemarchus, Thrasymachus aggressively inserts himself into the argument,claiming that Socrates has not said anything of substance regarding thedefinition of justice. He then gives hisown definition of justice claiming that “the just is nothing other than theadvantage of the stronger” (338c). Bythis he means that laws are made by the ruler for his own benefit and the citizensare forced to obey them or else they will be punished as “a breaker of the lawand a doer of unjust deeds” (338e). Hebelieves that it is the strong who make the laws and the weak who follow them. Thrasymachus believes solely in politicaljustice. He believes that justice means beingobedient to the will of the strong and powerful and by being obedient to thewill 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 isin fact more advantageous for the citizen because it means acting for his owngood. According to Thrasymachus, thosewho act justly are simply obeying the selfish will of another. When Socratesbrings up the possibility for a ruler to err and make laws that are actuallydisadvantageous to him, Thrasymachus modifies his argument stating that “theruler, insofar as he is a ruler, does not make mistakes; and not makingmistakes, he sets down what is best for himself” (341a). Socrates continues hisrefutation by discussing the idea that rulers often do what is best for theirsubjects. He begins by speaking of other professions such as a piloting a shipor doctoring. Socrates states that pilots or doctors are responsible for agroup 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. Thisinitially seems to contradict his earlier statement that true rulers do what isbest for the ruled. However, iteventually becomes clear that he means that a truly just ruler should also careabout his own good as well as the good of those he rules over. This point that a truly just man cares forthe good of others as well as his own good supports my claim that true justicecomes from the reconciliation of political and philosophical justice. It also supports my claim that this kind ofjustice is impossible because a ruler’s own good does not always harmonize withthat of others. Socrates goes on toexplain why justice is a virtue. Hebegins by having Thrasymachus confirm that he believes injustice to be avirtue. Then, he makes the argument thata good and wise man seeks to get the better of the bad and ignorant in the sameway that a musical man seeks to get the better of anything unmusical.
Therefore, because the just man seeks to getthe better of the unjust man “the just man is like the wise and good, but theunjust man like the bad and unlearned” (350c). This particular idea that injustice is vice and ignorance while justiceis virtue and wisdom is evident in Goodfellas. Henry Hill and many of his fellowgangsters became involved in the mob early on and never pursued a regular education. Their whole life is being a gangster. Theyare filled with vice and ignorance and as a result of this, they live a life ofinjustice without shame.
They do notfully understand their own human dignity nor that of the people they harm andbecause of this ignorance, they are unjust not only to their victims, but tothemselves. The next man who takes over thediscussion with Socrates is Glaucon. Glaucon is still unsatisfied withSocrates’s conclusion about justice and continues to question him. He states that he believes there are threeforms of good. The first kind of good isone “that we would choose to have not because we desire its consequences, butbecause we delight in it for its own sake” (357b). The second is kind of goodis one “we like both for its own sake and for what comes out of it” (357c). Thethird kind of good is the finest form of good which we “like both for itselfand for what comes out of it” (358a). Glaucon asks Socrates to prove that justiceis a good in itself and should be desired not only for its consequences but forits own sake.
Glaucon is asking for Socrates to prove that true justice isphilosophical justice which is for the good of the soul, or theindividual. If justice is a good initself, then it is beneficial to the soul. Glaucon makes the claim that justice may belong to the first form ofgood. He supports this claim with thestory of the ring of Gyges. The ring ofGyges was a magic ring that had the power to turn the wearer invisible, givinghim the ability to perform any action without consequences. The purpose of the story is to claim that ifany man was given such power, he would always choose to act unjustly for hisown benefit. In Goodfellas, the gangsters have a similar immunity topunishment. As widely feared andrespected members of the mafia, they are able to get away with almostanything.
However, the negative effectsof their actions become evident, revealing that even if one can act unjustlywithout consequences, they will still suffer because justice is a good initself that benefits the soul. Thequestion of whether or not what is legally right and what is morally right arethe same is one that has been discussed for centuries. Throughout history it can be seen that unjustand immoral laws have existed in many societies. Though, at the time, the lawmakers of suchsocieties may have thought their laws to be objectively moral, they were sorelymistaken. Ultimately, I argue that such humanerror makes it impossible to completely reconcile laws and morals.
True justice is universally beneficial and itis extremely rare to create a law that truly benefits the doer and thereceiver. Socrates’s refutations of the superficialdefinitions of Cephalus and Polemarchus support my claim that true justicebenefits both the doer and the receiver. Cephalus and Polemarchus presented traditional definitions of justicethat had existed for centuries. However,these definitions were unsatisfactory because they did not portray justice as apurely virtuous thing that is advantageous to all. Thrasymachus’s definition supports the ideaof political justice alone while Cephalus asks Socrates to prove thatphilosophical justice is true justice. Socrates’s discussion with these two men support my claim that neitherof 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 createsrules that are advantageous for both the city and his own soul. Unfortunately, the existence of such a rulerin our world is rare. Despite this,however, we can still work towards creating a world with this true and completejustice.