Anyone who wants an accessible but thorough introduction to the key questions in Greek ethics should look no further than “Irregular Around the Margins” – an episode from the fifth season of the Sopranos that I caught last night. Tony, who we know too well by now as a serial womaniser, incapable of controlling his impulses despite their repeated disastrous consequences, finally shows signs of ethical progress. When he’s attracted to his nephew’s fiancé, he resists the temptation to sleep with her and raises the dilemma with Dr. Melfi, his psychiatrist. He knows it would be a bad call. He doesn’t want to do what he desires to do. She’s delighted that for once he has recognised this tension, and naturally advises him to let his head rather than his dick win the day.
And his head does win. He acts according to his better judgement. The problem is that this personal success on his part unfortunately fails to pay its due rewards. A misunderstanding leads his nephew to think that Tony did sleep with his fiancé, so all the familial tension and personal turmoil follow just as they would have done if he had in fact betrayed his nephew. Tony snarls to Dr. Melfi that he might as well have fucked her. Thanks very much for the advice.
There’s lots going on here, but I’ll just flag two things.
First, the extent to which Tony suffers from akrasia, and how he finally overcame it. Both Plato in Protagoras and Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics are interested in the question of how it’s possible that people act in a way that they think is foolish. Both are inclined to say that it’s not really possible. They would say that Tony’s past actions suggested he didn’t genuinely deem his own behaviour bad at all. I discussed this topic at length in a post last summer.
Second, there’s the question of whether there’s any reason to do the right thing if it’s not in your own interest. Did Tony’s action really become worthless once the consequences were as if he had done the wrong thing? Should he have not bothered to stay loyal if he had known his nephew would think he had been betrayed either way? Again, I’ve discussed these questions before, both here and here. The topic vexed the Greeks. But Thrasymachus in The Republic was certain about what Tony should think:
so entirely astray are you in your ideas about the just and unjust as not even to know that justice and the just are in reality another’s good; that is to say, the interest of the ruler and stronger, and the loss of the subject and servant; and injustice the opposite; for the unjust is lord over the truly simple and just: he is the stronger, and his subjects do what is for his interest, and minister to his happiness, which is very far from being their own. Consider further, most foolish Socrates, that the just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust. First of all, in private contracts: wherever the unjust is the partner of the just you will find that, when the partnership is dissolved, the unjust man has always more and the just less… they who do such wrong in particular cases are called robbers of temples, and man-stealers and burglars and swindlers and thieves… mankind censure injustice, fearing that they may be the victims of it and not because they shrink from committing it. And thus, as I have shown, Socrates, injustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom and mastery than justice; and, as I said at first, justice is the interest of the stronger, whereas injustice is a man’s own profit and interest.