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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Lessons from Plato and the Ring of Gyges

Maria Lutgarda Glorioso

Maria Lutgarda Glorioso

Maria Lutgarda Glorioso

“Now the problem is nobody can tell if you’re a troll. Or a hacker. Or a bot. Or a Macedonian teenager publishing a story that the Pope has endorsed Trump.

This [anonymity] has poisoned civil discourse, enabled hacking, permitted cyberbullying, and made email a risk.”

Almost one year ago, Walter Isaacson wrote an article for The Atlantic arguing that “anonymity poisoned online life.” Online anonymity is sometimes used as a tool for bullying, scheming for personal and private information, and proposing violence against others. These cases purport Isaacson’s argument that anonymity poisons civil discourse among other dilemmas.

Anonymity plays a large role in how people play out their online lives. Positively, people can join online forums and communities and share their joy for hobbies with other anonymous people. We can freely share information that would otherwise be censored in certain countries. In the case of the social uprisings, we can post and share riveting videos leading to positive social change.

In contrast, anonymity can be used as Isaacson argues- a tool for injustice. To support his argument, Isaacson employs Plato’s story, the Ring of Gyges, from Republic. When given a ring, a shepherd named Gyges becomes invisible and anonymous. Through his invisibility he seduces a queen, kills her king, and takes over the kingdom. The argument is made that the Ring of Gyges- invisibility and anonymity- is the only barrier between a just and an unjust person. Further, the argument states that we would all be unjust if we had a cloak of anonymity. Injustice is far more profitable. We are only just because it is necessary.

I believe that it does not take anonymity to be unjust. Time and time again we see people publicly posting or doing equally harmful things on the internet. Outlawing online anonymity will not do anything to deter harmful activities such as scams, doxing, and making threats. As people grow more and more confident in their ability to speak out and act upon hatred, there will be more confidence in sharing things publicly. In fact, I believe people are shedding their skin of anonymity and embracing the power of their public online personality.

Gyges became confident in his actions because of his ring. He acted violently on the power gained from the ring. Plato argues that deep inside, we are innately like Gyges-- we are rule abiding because it is necessary to live in our society. I am not here writing blogs on freedom of speech and civil discourse because I am unjust and it is necessary for me to fit in. I do this because I desire to be a just and fair person to my fullest extent. Our individual decisions cannot represent entire populations as whole. We need to look at each other as people, not as anonymous figures or people with labels attached to stigmas. You are someone beyond your online persona. And for that reason, we cannot outlaw anonymity because it is merely a blanket solution to a deeper and more complex issue.

Nov 10, 2017

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