Plato and the ‘Noble Lie’

Author: Kiara Wang

Sub-editor: Elena Murphy

Image Credit: Raphael, The School of Athens, fresco, 500 cm × 770 cm, Vatican City, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_School_of_Athens?fbclid=IwAR0xcMQz4QG5eE_cBTG64bTCoRlAOxmdL3sIkZ_JTmFtG_ahoBFzmdyQMEg.

In The Republic, Plato elucidated that a noble lie could be justified in order to ensure the normal functioning of a ‘just city.’ This article examines whether it is morally permissible for rulers to lie to their citizens. It could be argued that this noble lie might be justified in the context of ancient morality, but it is nevertheless inconsistent with Plato’s previous statements on the nature of falsehood. Moreover, this noble lie undeniably contains assumptions of human nature that fundamentally conflict with modern morality; namely, how human morality should be defined, as well as how well the majority of citizens can reason based on a philosophical standard. Therefore, this essay will (A) firstly explain what Plato’s noble lie is; secondly, (B) divide the problem into two circumstances: (B.1) if the ruler does NOT know the truth, thus is NOT intentionally deceiving their citizens; and in contrast (B.2) if the ruler actually knows the truth and is deliberately deceiving. Thirdly, (C) the differences between the ancient morality and modern morality standards will be examined, and the moral problematics based on both the (C1) ancient morality standard, and (C2) modern morality standard (in particular, the Kantian perspective) will be critiqued. 

A: What is the noble lie?

Plato argues in The Republic that for a city to function well, a noble lie needs to be disseminated. This noble lie is the myth of the metals, as Plato declares that “but the god, in fashioning those of you who are competent to rule, mixed gold in their birth…in auxiliaries, silver; and iron and bronze in the farmers and the other craftsmen.” This chiefly suggests that people are born naturally with a different metal attached to their souls. The golden soul is the most honoured one, which means that whoever possesses a golden soul should be the ruler. Citizens who have silver attached to their souls should be the auxiliaries and people with iron and bronze attached should be farmers and other craftsmen. Plato believes that this noble lie should be spread in the city to keep citizens in their divinely assigned positions, and obeying the rules that had been established by the eligible ruler (the philosopher-king). He even holds that everyone needs to genuinely believe that if anybody is placed in the wrong position, the whole city will be destroyed.

B: Is the ruler lying?

As demonstrated above, Plato advocates this noble lie to ensure the normal functioning of the city. To analyse the moral problems attached, it is necessary to clarify whether this action can be considered a lie at all. Lying should be defined as using languages that intentionally deceive others. However, Plato is ambiguous about this concept. He states that “could we, somehow contrive one of those lies that come into being in case of need, of which we were just now speaking, someone noble lie to persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city.” From this, it can be inferred that even Plato is uncertain about whether the ruler has been lied to. Thus, the problem needs to be divided into two situations: (B.1) if the ruler does not know the truth, thus and is not intentionally deceiving their citizens; or (B.2) the ruler actually knows the truth, and is deliberately deceiving others.

B1: When the ruler does NOT know the truth

If the ruler does not know the truth, it could be assumed the ruler has been deceived as well. Thus, they genuinely believe that the reason why they should rule is because they naturally have a soul mixed with gold. Therefore, the ruler will tell all citizens the same metal myth, and allocate them based on the so-called ‘natural character of their soul. In this case, there is no moral problem involved either in respect to ancient or modern morality standards, because the action of promoting noble lie does not involve intentional deceiving, as the ruler is only spreading the myth as a genuine belief. However, this assumption is logically flawed as it contradicts with the ruler’s “all-knowing” philosopher-king nature. 

All-knowing nature of philosopher-king as ruler 

Plato argues that the rulers should be philosophers, as he stated, “unless the philosophers rule as kings or those now called kings and chiefs genuinely and adequately philosophise, and political power and philosophy coincide in the same place.” Secondly, in Plato’s definition, philosophers should be able to recognise the truth (the form). He notes that “philosophers are those who are able to grasp what is always the same in all respects, while those who are not able to do so but wander among what is many and varies in all ways are not philosophers.” Thus, the logic evidenced in this explanation is as follows:

  1. A ruler should be a philosopher
  2. A philosopher should be able to know the truth (all-knowing)
  3. Thus, a ruler should be able to know the truth (have the same all-knowing nature)

Hence, this logic infers that philosopher kings are “all-knowing” in nature. 

The logical flaw of being a deceived ruler: 

Therefore, if  Plato’s notion of what a philosopher-king should be able to do is accepted, a significant contradiction appears. If the philosopher-ruler sincerely believes the metal myth, it indicates that they are not able to recognise the truth, which makes them unskilled. As Plato mentioned later, “those men who are really deprived of the knowledge of what each thing is; those who have no pattern in the soul, and are hence unable to…give laws about what is fine, just, and good.” Hence, if the ruler has indeed been deceived, this indicates that the rulers should not even be the ruler in the first place due to their incompetence in recognising the truth. Thus, although no moral problem can be discussed in this situation, the logic present is flawed. 

B2: When they do know the truth

As demonstrated previously in the “all-knowing” nature, the philosopher-king rulers need to be able to discern the truth. Otherwise, the logic could be flawed in Plato’s argument. Thus, in the next section (C), the situation when the rulers DO know the truth and are intentionally deceiving others will be discussed. It needs to be noted that this action of intentional deceiving fits the definition of lying. Therefore, this is morally speaking problematic, thereby requiring more investigation into its ethical value. 

C: Is it morally problematic with Plato’s noble lie

In this section, the difference between ancient morality and modern morality will be elucidated, then subsequently discuss this behaviour (lying) in the context of both standards respectively. 

C1: Ancient morality

Morally justified if it promotes virtuous characteristics 

Ancient morality is ego-centred, and believes that morality is based on self-development and moral dispositions. This means that if an action can promote virtuous characteristics, either for society or personal development, it will be defined as moral. According to Plato, “it is appropriate for the rulers, if for anyone at all, to lie for the benefit of the city in cases involving enemies or citizens, while all the rest must not put their hands to anything of the sort.” Thus, based on ancient morality standards, Plato held that the noble lie is morally justified if lying is required for the city to survive, which could promote justice. However, is this noble lie actually essential for the city to survive?

Is the noble lie essential?

Some people might argue that Plato’s noble lie is to prevent the city from being corrupted and destroyed. However, for Plato, the aim of spreading this “noble lie” is to ensure that everyone is in the right position and doing the right thing based on merit. He held that without this “noble lie,” people with corrupted souls would become greedy and thus generate conflicts and wars. Additionally, Plato states in Meno that “when people do not recognise something bad as bad…they desire what they take to be good, even though in actual fact it is bad,” which means that people will not do or want bad things if they could correctly recognise the form of badness. Therefore, the logic here is:

  1. People have a natural ability which decides their role in the city
  2. Doing what individuals are naturally good at is good both for the person and the city
  3. People will not choose to do bad things if they could correctly recognise them

Thus, for Plato, the only possibility as to why people do not choose to do the right thing is that they are unable to recognise it by reasoning.

Is lying as an action itself unmoral?

Regardless of how much the city needs the noble lie to survive, Plato’s statement above seems to be a double standard. He argues the ruler is justified to lie, while the others are not. He even holds that “for a private man to lie to such rulers is a fault the same as, and even greater than, for a sick man…not to tell the truth about the affections of his body to the doctor…” In this analogy, Plato is comparing a deceived citizen to a sick man, and a ruler to a doctor. This indicates that people with higher reasoning capacity are morally justified to lie to people that are less skilled than them.

Suppositions (ancient standards): 

Thus, three suppositions can be inferred from previous sections:

  1. Lying in itself is neither moral nor immoral, it depends on what moral disposition lying promotes 
  2. The majorities either lack the ability of reasoning, or cannot reason well
  3. It is morally justified for people with a higher ability in reasoning (the skill of being a ruler) to lie to people with a lower intellectual capacity

Although these may be considered odd and unacceptable in contemporary moral theory, they could all flawlessly adhere to ancient morality standards. For Plato, the ruler is lying to their citizens to protect them, though it is paternalistic to some extent. Thus, based on ancient morality, it should be morally permissible for the rulers to lie to their citizens. However, this reveals a contradiction that Plato, a philosopher who values truth over any other things, could believe justice—as a virtue – can be established upon a falsehood. 

C2: Modern morality

In contrast with ancient morality which is ego-centred, modern morality is mainly either based on the reason behind the action (as espoused in Kantian ethics), or the consequence (according to consequentialism/ utilitarianism). Thus, Kantian ethics will be referred to in order to demonstrate why the idea of a noble lie conflicts with modern morality principles; this includes the problems that (1) morality is defined differently; and (2) modern morality assumes that everyone should be viewed as equally capable in rationality, which deserves the same amount of moral consideration. 

  1. Modern morality focuses on the external world (universal law)

Differing from ancient morality, modern morality cannot be discussed separately from the external world, as it mostly focuses on how people interact with each other in society. For example, Kant’s Categorical Imperatives (CI) infers that an action is moral if the maxim behind this action could be applied to every rational being universally. As Kant states: “(CI) is to act only…with…maxim…which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” Therefore, lying is sufficiently immoral in itself. As Kant states that “anyone…may promise whatever they like with the intention of not keeping it, then…the purpose one has in promising (will be) impossible to achieve. No one would believe they were being promised anything.” Thus, the modern definition of morality is fundamentally different from what Plato believes, as listed in the prior supposition (i). 

  1. Modern morality views human beings as equally rational: 

As listed in (ii) & (iii), Plato believes that (ii) the majority of people cannot reason properly enough to distinguish right from wrong; and (iii) it is morally justified for people with a higher ability in reasoning to lie to people with a lower reasoning capacity. However, these contradict modern morality standards fundamentally. Contrary to Plato, Kant stated, “human reason…knows very well how to distinguish…what is good from what is evil, what conforms to duty or is contrary to it.” This means everyone has equal reasoning capacity (morally), and thus deserves equal moral consideration. Hence for Kant, it is immoral to intentionally deceive others, as this person is being used as a mere means, not an end. 

Accordingly, Plato’s noble lie contains ideologies that inherently contravene modern morality principles. Thus, it is not morally permissible in a modern context. 

Conclusion: 

Ultimately, the metal myth is only morally problematic if the ruler is intentionally deceiving others. As morality is defined vastly differently from ancient times to modern times, the noble lie will mainly be considered moral in ancient context, but immoral based on modern standards (especially in Kantian ethics). Due to the fact that the idea of the noble lie contains pre-assumptions of human morality and human reasoning capacity, it fundamentally conflicts with modern values.

Bibliography

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1785.

Plato. Meno and Other Dialogues: Charmides, Laches, Lysis, Meno. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Plato. The Republic of Plato. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 2016.