Mormon Vigilance & the Ring of Gyges

By: hawkgrrrl
June 5, 2012

Imagine you have a magical ring that renders you invisible and even imperceptible to potential victims.  Nobody would ever know you had done it.  You would benefit from your actions but have no social or personal repercussions.  You would never be held accountable.  If you are really being totally honest with yourself, what things would you rationalize doing that you would never do if people knew it?  Would you take revenge?  Eavesdrop?  Have sex with someone?  Steal?  Cheat?

In The Republic, Glaucon (Plato’s brother) asks Socrates to imagine what would happen to a man who had the mythical ring of Gyges, a gold ring that makes its wearer invisible at will.  With no social check on his power, his actions would be the same as those of an unjust person.  According to Glaucon’s thought experiment, people are only virtuous because they fear the consequences of getting caught.

The story of Gyges’s ring was a well-known myth before Plato used it in his book.[5] It told of a man named Gyges who lived in Lydia, an area in modern Turkey. He was a shepherd for the king of that land. One day, there was an earthquake while Gyges was out in the fields, and he noticed that a new cave had opened up in a rock face. When he went in to see what was there, he noticed a gold ring on the finger of a former king who had been buried in the cave. He took the ring away with him and soon discovered that it allowed the wearer to become invisible. The next time he went to the palace to give the king a report about his sheep, he put the ring on, seduced the queen, killed the king, and took control of the palace.

File:Etty-Candaules King of Lydia Shews his Wife to Gyges.JPG

Plato used the story as a metaphor for the corruption caused by power. . . Glaucon argues that men are inherently unjust, and are only restrained from unjust behavior by the fetters of law and society. In Glaucon’s view, unlimited power blurs the difference between just and unjust men. “Suppose there were two such magic rings,” he tells Socrates, “and the just [man] put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely what he liked out of the market or go into houses and lie with anyone at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point.”

Our Families Can See Us

Families are also great enforcers of socially desirable behaviour.  People generally seek approval from their parents and have a hard time doing something that they know their parents would disapprove unless they know their parents will not know about it.  As I think back on my own life, the first big lie I remember telling was to my parents when I was 13 years old, and I wanted to go to a concert with my best friend (also age 13) and some people I didn’t really know who were going to drive us.  I was pretty sure my parents would never agree to this scheme, so I told them I was going roller skating (a much more age-appropriate acceptable activity for a 13 year old).  Actually, that is a story my parents still don’t know, come to think of it.  Familial pressure can be very influential on our behaviour.

Add to that in the Mormon church that families are forever, and we believe that our deceased (and possibly even future) family members are watching our actions (some of whom made great sacrifices related to the church), and the pressure to behave increases considerably.  In a famous general conference address, we are told the importance of keeping the name of our ancestors honourable (a trait common in Chinese culture as well where ancestors are revered and worshipped).

Other Mormons Can See Us

Religious communities are also great at enforcing desirable behaviours.  Within Mormonism, as within all communities, social vigilance provides a strong incentive to comply with cultural norms.  Some women have talked about the “pants police,” people within the church who enforce the unwritten dress code for women that includes wearing a skirt or dress rather than pants to church.  That is an example of social vigilance.  Another example is teens within the church using social pressure to encourage their peers to live standards like chastity and not drinking.  Those who do not follow these norms may lose social capital among their peers or within the community.

How would you behave if you knew your bishop or stake president was watching?  Well, since they can’t be everywhere, instead we have all members account to them for several key behaviours every two years in a personal interview!  What if your fellow Mormons were watching?  If you are unable to hold a calling or say a prayer, they may be aware of your standing.  It’s another reason Mormon missionaries wear a name badge.  Not only are they identified as representatives of the church, but their behaviour becomes instantly more visible.  This reminds me of a joke I heard.  What is the difference between a Mormon and a Southern Baptist?  The Southern Baptist will wave at you when they see you in the liquor store.

God Is Watching

New Atheists have argued that people will behave in moral ways without a belief in the supernatural.  To some extent, they are right. After all, people are still being watched by their families, their neighbours, and their broader communities.  Yet, from a Glauconian standpoint, God is the ultimate fail safe against bad behaviour because unlike human monitors who have physical limitations, God can see all and mete out justice, either in this life or in the life to come.  We teach our Primary children to sing “If the Saviour stood beside me” for a reason.  They will curb their behaviour more often if they believe they are being watched.

Just how far will people go when they believe there are no consequences?

Many psychologists have studied the effects of having “plausible deniability.” In one such study, subjects performed a task and were then given a slip of paper and a verbal confirmation of how much they were to be paid. But when they took the slip to another room to get their money, the cashier misread one digit and handed them too much money. Only 20 percent spoke up and corrected the mistake.24 But the story changed when the cashier asked them if the payment was correct. In that case, 60 percent said no and returned the extra money. Being asked directly removes plausible deniability; it would take a direct lie to keep the money. As a result, people are three times more likely to be honest. You can’t predict who will return the money based on how people rate their own honesty, or how well they are able to give the high-minded answer on a moral dilemma.

Belief in Ourselves

Another psychological experiment was described in the book Predictably Irrational.  Dan Ariely gave participants the ability to earn more money if they claimed to have solved more math problems than they really did.

When given the opportunity, many honest people will cheat. In fact, rather than finding that a few bad apples weighted the averages, we discovered that the majority of people cheated, and that they cheated just a little bit.  People didn’t try to get away with as much as they could. Rather, when Ariely gave them anything like the invisibility of the ring of Gyges, they cheated only up to the point where they themselves could no longer find a justification that would preserve their belief in their own honesty.

When we stop believing in ourselves or at least when we stop feeling our actions are justified, we undermine our ability to be successful until we begin to believe in our own inherent goodness again.  We can achieve that by either changing our actions or changing our beliefs about our actions.  If we have wronged someone we can apologize and change our behaviour, or we can give ourselves plausible reasons why our actions were justified or why they deserved it.

Our belief in our own goodness is the final safety against the corruption of power.  But thanks to human nature and our impressive ability to rationalize our choices, it’s a pretty flimsy safety net.

In conclusion, how do you feel about our social vigilance in the church?

  • Does belonging to the church keep you out of trouble or place unnecessary restrictions on your behaviour?
  • Do you alter your behaviour based on how you think family, other Mormons and God will perceive your actions?  Is that a good thing or does it create scrupulosity and excessive guilt for you?  Which of these factors is the strongest motivation for you?
  • When have you felt your actions were unjustifiable and changed your behaviour accordingly?  How does your belief in your own rightness affect your success in life?  Has self-recrimination held you back?
  • What would you do if you would never be held accountable?  How far would you go if your power was completely unchecked?  Do you value or resent the checks on your power?


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18 Responses to Mormon Vigilance & the Ring of Gyges

  1. salth2o on June 5, 2012 at 8:02 AM

    What would I do if I were never held accountable?

    I would have started a food fight in the cafeteria at Deseret Towers. Man, that would be an epic food fight.

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  2. ji on June 5, 2012 at 8:21 AM

    I try to do good and to be a supporting member of my Church community far more because of my own internal light than the eyes of those around me. But I mindful that I am a member of a larger community, and I want to build up that community, and I don’t want to be a stumblingblock for others in the community.

    But I don’t see the eyes and the hearts of others in my faith community as a restriction, a restraint, or a check on my power. At least, I haven’t had that discussion with myself yet.

    I don’t like the term “social vigilance.” I hope others will look at me with confidence, hope, and prayers — and that I will look towards them in the same way.

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  3. NewlyHousewife on June 5, 2012 at 9:12 AM

    Growing up the idea of being in detention scared me straight. Not being able to get governmental aid for college kept me from doing drugs (and still does).

    Not having a temple recommend is the only reason I don’t drink.

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  4. Silhan on June 5, 2012 at 9:13 AM

    I think an important consideration for the person wearing the ring would be the extent to which their actions would harm other people. For someone with good empathy skills, any harm caused to others would also be felt by the person wearing the ring. The resulting emotional pain would help to deter an “anything goes” attitude toward others.

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  5. Will on June 5, 2012 at 9:30 AM

    You are as sick as your secrets.

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  6. Stephen M ( ethesis ) on June 5, 2012 at 9:49 AM

    Experimental ethics are really neat stuff. Social norming seems more important than getting caught. It is seeing others do what is right seems to make it more likely we will.

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  7. Martin on June 5, 2012 at 12:16 PM

    It’s horrible to realize, but a Ring of Gyges would destroy me, should it come into my possession. Devastatingly depressing thought. Ugh. I’d think I’d be more than am by now.

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  8. Miss Rissa on June 5, 2012 at 1:23 PM

    I’d like to think that the good I try to do towards others and in my community is because I truly believe in being a good person, creating good around me, and the world is a better place when filled with love and rainbows and unicorns. I’d LIKE to think that :) and mostly I think it’s true but I’m sure there are things that I do mostly because I want to be “socially accepted”.

    But, the things I would use a ring for, so to speak, wouldn’t really affect others, I don’t think. For example, the only reason I do not drink coffee is because of having a temple reccomend and if I “had a pass” I would forgo the garments and wear some tank tops and shorter shorts– I’m just so tired of being so dang hot all the time!!! :)

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  9. hawkgrrrl on June 5, 2012 at 6:58 PM

    I think for me my strongest motivator is wanting to believe in my own goodness. That’s why I would probably be in the 20% who told about the overpayment without prompting, but even in that case, when you speak up in that situation, you do get a little bump in social capital because the person is pleased you were honest enough to speak up. And you also can smugly think “what a good person I am!”. There is also some sort of karmic thought with that along the lines of “the Universe or God approves my actions” which gives me confidence in my decisions. For me, I would probably use a ring for revenge or to get free travel. I am pretty sure social capital keeps me in check, but when it’s gone, your restraints on behaviour are gone too. I’ve often said at work: “You can do anything you want on your last day at work” which is true whether you gave notice or just start doing whatever you want with no regard for the organization. Either your behaviour gets you fired or quitting alters your behaviour – if you feel entitled to take something back from the organization because you felt wronged somehow. I’ve seen it many many times.

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  10. prometheus on June 5, 2012 at 9:59 PM

    Interesting thoughts. I enjoy my life quite a lot, and I can’t imagine that I would do much of anything differently, ring or no ring – the things that interest me are all right where I want them to be. :D (And all very boring, too – I would fail miserably at reality TV.)

    Now, a ring that would let me split myself into multiple copies? I’d be all over that one! Heh.

    That being said, I totally get the ‘What are they gonna do, fire me?’ thing that you brought up, Hawk. Been there, done that. More along the lines of not working very hard on the last few days than anything malicious, but still…

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  11. Bonnie on June 6, 2012 at 11:47 PM

    We all do have the ring if we think we do. We are as anonymous as we choose to be. To me this is the great question of life: do you really believe anyone will ever hold you accountable for anything? Since thoughts are the ultimate anonymity, and thoughts are the seed of all action, the real battleground is in our heads. What do we do there?

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  12. Taryn Fox on June 7, 2012 at 6:19 PM

    Yet, from a Glauconian standpoint, God is the ultimate fail safe against bad behaviour

    Does the evidence bear out your hypothesis that theists are more ethical than atheists?

    My personal, anecdotal experience has been that there are a lot of theists who think their god will reward them for being jerks.

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  13. Taryn Fox on June 7, 2012 at 6:26 PM

    I’d also like to second the thought about empathy. It’s normally used in an LDS context along with shaming, i.e. “Think how your family / the savior would feel.”

    I feel this is used by abusers and controlling, manipulative jerks against people with empathy, when they do something that violates social norms but doesn’t hurt anyone.

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  14. hawkgrrrl on June 7, 2012 at 9:30 PM

    Taryn Fox – are theists more ethical than atheists? Studies would say that all people will cheat as far as they can justify it to themselves and hide it from others. I would say that people who believe God is watching (which certainly doesn’t include all who attend religions) and believe in a day of judgment have an extra reason to behave. Likewise for those who feel a social responsibility to their co-religionists (or fellow atheists) to represent the best that group believes in. There is probably disproportionate anti-social behaviour among those who are ex-theists and for whom a fear of God’s judgment had been a motivator.

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  15. Widespread Panic on June 10, 2012 at 6:01 AM

    Good question. This is a tough one. Wait, who am I kidding. Let’s be brutally honest here, I like… boobies.

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  16. fbisti on June 10, 2012 at 9:16 AM

    While I agree that “social vigilance” has some effect on me in certain ways, and a considerable effect on most, there is a “motivation” (for lack of a better word) missing in both the post and comments. That perspective derives from the law/principle/reality of Agency. It is often defined as the right or power to choose. It is so much more than that. It is what makes our nature totally within our control, within our will. By my thoughts, intentions, desires, and actions, I am continually becoming. I am becoming more honest, or less honest. More kind and unselfish, or less so. Honesty, kindness, humility–and all the rest of the list of Christ/God-like attributes are NOT blessings given for obeying. There is no “Book of Life” to be opened at the Judgment. God is not watching my every action. Those attributes are (as are jealousy, avarice, selfishness, and dishonesty) consequences of my will and Agency. I make myself good or bad.

    So, though far from completely honest, completely kind, or completely selfless, I often am motivated to good behavior primarily because it is furthering the inculcation (in my character) of good attributes.

    Of course that raises the complex issue of altruism.

    I think it is disappointing that (in particular) our current (last 50+ years) Church leaders say so very little in that regard. The message is almost always obey because God, or the church, say so.

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  17. fbisti on June 10, 2012 at 9:59 AM

    I was pulled away before I finished my thoughts. I failed to include a key “evidence” of my position–the several times in the scriptures we are told we are “agents unto yourselves.”

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  18. Jon on June 12, 2012 at 5:26 PM

    I admit it. I took some of my four year old daughter’s Halloween candy without asking after telling my wife she should ask first. It was just sitting there on the fridge, just a little wouldn’t hurt I told myself. True story. No, I am not perfect, but I am trying to become better.

    I have returned money to a cashier and have returned wallets. When I was a kid I was swimming in a popular swimming hole in Sedona. There was a $20 bill floating in the water, I asked the guy next to me (stranger) if it was his. He immediately said yes and took the money. In retrospect I should have asked how much he lost without showing him the money. Regardless, $20, who cares. My conscience is more important.

    Now, I’ll have to go make some cookies for my daughter.

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