Policing a Turbulent World: The Enduring Relevance of Plato’s Guardian

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Selection of Police Officers: Three Essential Qualities

A people and society that strives towards justice and stability require protection. Duties entailed by society’s need for protection constitute the responsibility of the guardian.

Not all individuals are well-suited to assume the role of guardian: careful selection of guardians is required. The capacity to train for and perform the role of guardian is predicated upon natural aptitude and the capacity to cultivate the knowledge and skills that the role requires. The more duties that are assumed by the guardian, the more society will need to invest in training and developing its guardians. The less responsibility citizens assume for their own behavior – and the less capable citizens become of regulating their own behavior – the more society will require intervention by guardians.

The higher the duties of a guardian, the more time, and skill, and art and application will be needed by him. (He will) also require natural aptitude for his calling… Then will it be our duty to select, if we can, natures which are fitted for the task of guarding the city… the selection will be no easy matter…but we must be brave and do our best.

Specific personal qualities are selected for. Above all, the guardian must have concern for the truth. The guardian “will never intentionally receive into their mind falsehood, which is their detestation, and they will love the truth.” 

In selecting guardians, truthfulness needs to be approached not only as a value or virtue, but as an essential mental function. The guardian’s capacity to be relied upon to make accurate reports is critical to effective policing. The guardian’s capacity to be relied upon to testify accurately is critically important to the effective functioning of the criminal justice system. In order for society to effectively function, people need to trust guardians.

Threats to truthfulness derive not only from a conscious intent to deceive. Ignorance and a tolerance or predilection for Bullshit – i.e., lack of concern for how things really are – is equally dangerous. The guardian should not only hate lies but should be “impatient of involuntary falsehood”.  She should also be impatient of those who do “not mind wallowing like a swinish beast in the mire of ignorance and have no shame at being detected.”

Another critically important mental function resides in the officer’s capacity to exercise restraint, even when confronting and arresting behavior that threatens the safety and order of the community:

To keep watch dogs, who, from want of discipline or hunger, or some evil habit or other, would turn upon the sheep and worry them, and behave not like dogs but wolves, would be a foul and monstrous thing in a shepherd… and therefore every care must be taken that our (guardians), being stronger than our citizens, may not grow to be too much for them and become savage tyrants instead of friends and allies. Through education (and the cultivation of habits) should be such as will neither impair their virtue as guardians, nor tempt them to fall prey upon other citizens.

The capacity to exercise good decision-making and judgement is similarly essential. The capacity to exercise requisite judgment refers to the quality that allows an individual to distinguish between what “things (are) to be feared and (what things) are not to be feared.”

Threats to the Creation of a Just and Stable Society

Plato invokes the parable of the mutineers to explain our propensity to ignore wise or sensible recommendations:

 In vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a talker, a stargazer, a good-for-nothing?

We harbor an unwillingness to make use of sensible and responsible advice partly because so many recommendations are not derived from genuine knowledge or expertise but “only seem cheap imitations of it.”

Another threat to effective guardianship derives from an extreme moral relativism, for an attitude that is dismissive of attempts to define and strive for the good necessarily gives rise to lawlessness and dishonorable behavior:

When a man is driven into believing that nothing is honorable any more than dishonorable, or just as good (as the) the reverse….do you think that he will still honor and obey (laws) as before?  Impossible.  And can he be expected to pursue any life other than that which flatters his desires? He cannot. And from being a keeper of the law he is converted into a breaker of it? Unquestionably.

Moral relativism is associated with excessive valuation of money and those who possess it. In such a culture money can be perceived as the only thing that is real and the only good worth pursuing. Dishonorable behavior is much more likely in a culture that worships money:

And in proportion as riches and rich men are honored in the State, virtue and the virtuous are dishonored. What is honored is cultivated, and that which has no honor is neglected. Men honor and make a ruler of the rich man and dishonor the poor.

Freedom – When Not Properly Understood or Employed – Devolves to Chaos and then Tyranny

Legitimate protests aimed at reversing injustice can be accompanied by lawless and violent behavior. Violence and lawlessness are trends that are particularly destructive to the creation of a just and stable society: the culture that tolerates such behavior is analogized by Plato to an “evil cupbearer” who presides over a “feast” of disorder. Such a cupbearer “has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom”.There is not only no respect and reverence for those would be expected to advocate action that is more effective and prudent, but those who would be expected to dispense wise counsel “condescend to the young and are full of pleasantry and gaiety; they are loathe to be thought morose and authoritative, and therefore they adopt the manners of the young.” Such a crowd becomes ungovernable and cannot tolerate the imposition of peace, lawfulness, or order:

…see how sensitive the citizens become; they chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority and…they cease to care even for the laws, written or unwritten; they will have no one over them.

Plato observed that lawlessness and violence can give rise to a society that destroys freedom and our capacity to effectively address social and political problems:

Excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction……and so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy.

Violence and lawlessness – and an unwillingness or inability of government to curb it – can give rise in the population to a yearning for safety, order and stability at all costs – including the cost of our freedom and democracy.

*As expressed in Plato’s Republic, translated into English by B. Jowett, Oxford University & the University at Leiden, 1892.

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