I received a telephone call from some business agency that wanted to reimburse me for a charge made some time ago on my credit card. His explanation for the reimbursement was hazy at best. When he began asking me questions such as my date of birth, my mother’s maiden name, and so on, my suspicion grew with each query. I refused to cooperate with his request that I divulge such personal information. After hanging up the receiver, I noticed that his phone number was not registered on my "call display" window.
The next morning, I went to my bank and told the security manager of the incident. He fully agreed that it all sounded like a scam, cancelled my credit card and assigned me a new one, which I would receive in a few days.
We spoke briefly about the considerable abundance of dishonest people in the world who make a living as clever scam artists. He said that he deals with security issues all the time, and that, 25 years ago, when he started working as a banker, there were exceedingly fewer such problems. But the criminals, he went on to say, seem to be getting smarter all the time; and bankers have all they can do to keep ahead of them.
I thanked him for his gracious help and left the bank asking myself why the number of credit card thieves has steadily increased over the past quarter century. My first thought had to do with the decline of Christianity in Canadian culture. No doubt this is a contributing factor. But it was not decisive. My next thought was of a completely different nature. It relates to a moral dilemma that Plato imaginatively presented in Book II of his Republic. The great student of Socrates foresaw that it might be extremely unlikely for many people to remain honest if they could somehow become invisible. Today’s World Wide Web, held together electronically, provides ample opportunity for thieves to commit their crimes without being seen and therefore without being punished. So many thieves now possess, as it were, "The Ring of Gyges."
Plato tells the story of Gyges, who is tending to his sheep one day when a violent thunderstorm and earthquake create a massive opening in the earth. In a state of amazement, the shepherd enters the opening and finds a bronze horse within which is a corpse wearing nothing other than a golden ring. Gyges takes possession of the ring and soon discovers that when he turns the collet toward himself, he becomes invisible, and when he turns it outward, he reappears. According to the tale, Gyges uses the ring to his advantage and, through a series of villainous deeds, usurps the king’s throne.
Plato introduces this story as a thought-experiment for discussion on the subject of justice. If a man could render himself invisible by so simple an act as turning the collet of his ring, would he not commit whatever unjust act he needed to commit in order to achieve his own ends? In the dialogue, the philosopher Glaucon argues that a man behaves justly only because he fears being caught and possibly punished.
Therefore, for Glaucon, a person’s acts of justice are performed involuntarily. Virtue is a sham, a mere pretext. Knowing that he is immune to prosecution, a person would be stupid, Glaucon insists, not to take full advantage of his privileged situation. If both a "just" and an "unjust" man possessed the Ring of Gyges so that they could get away with doing whatever they wanted to do, then that is precisely what each would do, the "just" as well as the "unjust" man. As Glaucon states, "No one would be so incorruptible that he would stay on the path of justice."
It is not easy for either Plato or Socrates to refute Glaucon, for, as the poet Hesiod writes: "Vice may be had in abundance without trouble; the way is smooth and her dwelling place is near. But before virtue the gods have set toil." The importance of character and the excellence of a virtuous life are not easy to defend against the prospect of the immediate gratification of one’s most urgent desires. We need to struggle before we become virtuous. Vice comes gratis.
"The Ring of Gyges," in our present world of cyberspace, is no longer a mere thought-experiment but relates to a pervasive reality. A person sitting before a computer possesses a virtual Ring of Gyges that allows him or her to become invisible while interacting with others. One is allowed to shed one’s personality, one’s body, one’s identity, and anything else that might render one visible to one’s sundry contacts. Anyone can become a ghost without a conscience, a cyber-point without a heart.
Robert Redeker has expressed the matter most imaginatively in his book Inhuman: "Man is captured, swallowed, digested and transformed into an immaterial being . . . the web – the invisible strand that wraps around him. His or her existence turns fluid, slipping from the biological toward the numerical (digital) order . . . whereby the body forgets and erases itself, melting into a worldwide mesh."
In a sermon on "The Ring of Gyges," Saint Ambrose pointed out, back in the fourth century, that even if invisible, a person is nonetheless stained by unjust acts. "The hiding-place of the wise," he writes, "lies not in their hope of impunity but in his own innocency . . . Thus he is not recalled from sin by fear of punishment, but by the rule of a virtuous life."
The virtuous person, the person of character, has no desire of becoming invisible, because he or she lives by an inner law of justice which is accepted as a sacred possession. What that person most fears is losing sight of the primacy of his or her moral nature. One does not want to be estranged from one’s own conscience, but to be a real person, to be whole and trustworthy.
As we think about our use of computers and other electronic media, it is important to remember three things: 1) that our true identity is who we really are as individual, engendered, bodily persons; 2) that even if invisible, our moral actions affect our moral being, for good or for ill; 3) that God is always watching, and for God, our heart and our actions are never invisible.
At the same time, we must be ever vigilant about those invisible defrauders who lurk, like spiders in their webs, in cyberspace, waiting to victimize innocent and unsuspecting strangers. The sad irony in our present electronic world is that the robbers are closer to us than ever before (in our own homes, in fact), although they remain quite invisible to us.
Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.