The Intrinsic Value of Justice: Socrates’ Descriptive and Normative Response

Conceptions of justice have echoed throughout philosophical texts for centuries. The epitome of the enquiry occurs in Plato’s “Republic” when Socrates praises the intrinsic value of justice despite counterarguments from Thrasymachus, Glaucon and Adeimantus. I will begin by exploring Socrates’ explanation of the intrinsic value of justice. Next, I will use Immanuel Kant’s arguments to argue Socrates does not provide an adequate explanation of the intrinsic value of justice. I will then use philosopher Michael J. Zimmerman’s work to argue the intrinsic value of justice can take a descriptive or a normative form. Finally, I will use arguments by Kant, Zimmerman, John Stuart Mill and philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse’s explanation of virtue to demonstrate while Socrates’ conception of the intrinsic value of justice fails descriptively, it succeeds normatively. My hope is to merely provide a preliminary framework for future conversation.

Socrates’ Explanation of the Intrinsic Value of Justice

When speaking with Thrasymachus, Socrates asserts “the function of each thing is what it alone can do or what it can do better than anything else.”[1] Socrates asserts “it is by means of [each thing’s] own proper virtue that their function performs the things it performs well, and by means of vice badly.”[2] If a thing is denied its proper virtue, then it will function badly. Further, Socrates establishes the function of the soul is living.[3] Therefore, a soul must have a proper virtue and cannot perform its function of living well without its proper virtue.[4] Socrates and Thrasymachus agree “justice is a soul’s virtue and injustice its vice.”[5] Socrates asserts “a just soul and a just man will live well and an unjust one badly.”[6]

Glaucon then joins the conversation on behalf of Thrasymachus. Glaucon and Socrates agree there are goods valued “for [their] own sake” and not for their consequences (e.g. enjoyment), goods valued “for [their] own sake, and also for the sake of [their] consequences” (e.g. health), and goods we would only choose “for the sake of their rewards and other consequences” (e.g. medical treatment).[7] Socrates asserts justice is “the finest” good, “the one that anyone who is going to be blessed with happiness must love both because of itself and because of its consequences.”[8] Socrates asserts justice has both intrinsic and extrinsic value.

Adeimantus asks “How does [justice] −because of its very self− benefit its possessor, and how does injustice harm him?” and implores Socrates to “show what effect each one itself has, because of itself, on the person who has it −the one for good, the other for bad− whether it remains hidden from gods and human beings or not.”[9] Glaucon and Adeimantus question: If justice doesn’t result in benefits from society or the gods, even more if it is detrimental, then why be just? Why should justice be pursued for its own sake?

Socrates asserts there are three parts of the soul, each performing a function and endowed with a virtue: the rational part’s function is to rule aided by wisdom, the spirited part’s function is to protect armed with courage, and the appetitive part’s function is to provide for the appetites regulated by temperance.[10] The virtues of each part of the soul help each part perform its function well. Justice is, firstly, each part knowing its place and performing its own function, and secondly, the harmony of the parts working in unison.[11]  Socrates asserts what is called “just and fine [is] the action that preserves this inner harmony and helps achieve it.”[12] Socrates equates health with justice and asserts just as healthy actions lead to health, just actions lead to justice.[13] To achieve a healthy soul one must perform just actions, while performing unjust actions leads to an unhealthy soul.[14] Justice of the soul is a fourth virtue and “is a sort of health, a fine and good state of the soul.”[15] For Socrates, the virtue of justice is required for the health of the soul and the health of the soul is required for living well. Therefore, Socrates asserts the benefits for being just are a healthy soul and living well.

Applying Kant’s Concept of Intrinsic Value to Socrates’ Response

Socrates’ challenge is to offer a conception of justice that demonstrates how it is valued for its own sake. In response, Socrates asserts the value of justice, even if it is hidden from society and the gods, is its benefits to the soul, which are health and living well. Does Socrates’ response adequately address why justice has intrinsic value?

Kant offers a meaning of intrinsic value. He argues a good will is the only unqualified good, meaning it is intrinsically good regardless of what it achieves.[16] Kant states “A good will is good not because of what it effects or accomplishes, nor because of its fitness to attain some proposed end; it is good only through its willing, i.e., it is good in itself.”[17] Kant asserts “When it is considered in itself, then it is to be esteemed very much higher than anything which it might ever bring about merely in order to favor some inclination, or even the sum total of all inclinations.”[18] If actions originating from good will fail to achieve beneficial consequences, even if the actions achieve harmful consequences, a good will would “still shine by its own light as something which has its full value in itself.”[19] Actions have moral worth when they are based on intentions that are not comprised of inclinations toward an end.[20] Kant asserts actions performed based on inclinations toward an end could be in accordance with duty, and could achieve beneficial consequences, but would not be morally worthy because their “maxim lacks the moral content of an action done not from inclination but from duty.”[21]

Something has intrinsic value when it is admired merely for what it is, not for its beneficial consequences. Actions are morally worthy if they originate from a source of intrinsic value. Actions are not morally worthy if they originate from an inclination toward beneficial consequences. Why should a person be just even if they receive no benefits from society or the gods? Kant’s answer seems to be because their duty, which originates from a good will (a source of intrinsic value), requires it. If so, then justice is an extension of duty, thus has intrinsic value. Socrates’ answer is because the person’s soul is benefited from health and living well. Justice, in Socrates’ view then, is beneficial. Zimmerman defines extrinsic value as that which is valued “for the sake of something else and to which it is related in some way.”[22] To assert justice is beneficial is to assert the value of justice is extrinsic. If one reads Socrates’ explanation of justice as being a description of what justice is, then Socrates has not met the challenge posed because he reduces the value of justice to health and living well.

Descriptive versus Normative Conceptions of Intrinsic Value

However, what justice is (a descriptive explanation of justice) is a different question from why someone acts justly (a normative explanation of justice). Zimmerman defines the descriptive concept of intrinsic value as that which is “nonderivatively good,” meaning that which is non-reducible to some other good.[23] Based on Kant, Socrates fails to give a descriptive explanation of the intrinsic value of justice. However, Zimmerman argues Kant’s application of intrinsic value to a good will is best understood as a normative directive of how we ought to act towards rational beings as opposed to a descriptive account of what a good will is.[24]

Applying Mill’s Concept of Intrinsic Value to Socrates’ Response

Mill also infers intrinsic value could be normative or descriptive. He asserts utilitarians believe “actions and dispositions are only virtuous because they promote another end than virtue,” yet see it as a “psychological fact” that virtue is “to the individual, a good in itself, without looking to any end beyond it; and hold, that the mind is not in a right state, not in a state conformable to Utility, not in the state most conducive to the general happiness, unless it does love virtue in this manner −as a thing desirable in itself.”[25] Mill asserts “besides being means” virtue is a “part of the end.”[26] Like Socrates, Mill asserts virtue has extrinsic and intrinsic value.

Mill is asserting acts can originate from sources of intrinsic value and have extrinsic value. Mill’s point is to act and believe virtue is intrinsically valuable is a part of happiness, even though the effects of doing so are extrinsically valuable. One can read Socrates’ explanation of the value of justice as a normative directive for action, like Zimmerman ascribes to Kant. If Socrates is understood to be speaking normatively of the intrinsic value of just acts, like Mill describes, then Socrates meets the challenge. Socrates shows there is intrinsic value in the virtue of justice because the individual believes and acts as if there is. The extrinsic values of health and living well can only result from believing and acting as if justice is intrinsically valuable, and these extrinsic values don’t detract from the intrinsic value for the individual.

Socrates’ Normative Conception of the Intrinsic Value of Justice

Does reading Socrates as ascribing normative intrinsic value to just actions meet Kant’s criteria for the moral worth of actions? Hursthouse describes the embodiment of virtue as “a multi-track disposition” and a virtuous person as not concerned with consequences, but instead recognizing the “relevant reason” for performing virtuous acts is because to do differently would be un-virtuous.[27] The virtuous person values, even loves, virtue in itself.[28] Like Hursthouse, Mill describes the virtuous person as loving virtue simply for what virtue is. We can equate virtue with justice. A just person performs just acts simply because they love justice. For Kant, the intention, originating from a source of intrinsic value, to perform a just act makes the act morally worthy. If one has an intention, one must also have had considered the matter in order to develop the intention. However, per Hursthouse’s explanation of virtue, if the just person performs just acts, it is because they cannot act otherwise. Just people don’t consider nor intend to perform just acts, they perform the acts naturally. Kant’s most important criteria for moral worth is that the act originates from a source of intrinsic value. So, even if we remove the intention of the person, just acts based simply on the love of justice for its own sake would fit the criteria of moral worth.


Socrates asserts justice has extrinsic and intrinsic value. If Socrates is understood as explaining the intrinsic value of justice as a description of what it is, then Socrates doesn’t adequately describe the intrinsic value of justice because he reduces its value to health and living well. However, if Socrates is understood as explaining the intrinsic value of justice normatively, as meaning the just person cannot not perform just acts by their own very nature of loving what justice is, then Socrates not only meets the challenge posed by Glaucon and Adeimantus, but also meets Kant’s criteria for morally worthy actions.

[1] Plato, Republic, 353a; Morgan, pg. 92

[2] Ibid. 353c; Ibid.

[3] Ibid. 353d; Morgan, pg. 93

[4] Ibid. 353d-e; Ibid.

[5] Ibid. 353e; Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. 357b; 357c; 357c-d; Morgan, pg. 93-94

[8] Ibid. 358a; Morgan, pg. 94

[9] Ibid. 367d-e; Morgan pg. 99

[10] Ibid. 441a; Morgan, pg. 144; Lane, online; class notes

[11] Ibid. 443d-e; Morgan, pg. 146; Lane, online

[12] Ibid. 443e; Ibid.

[13] Ibid. 444c-d; Ibid.

[14] Ibid. 444d-e; Morgan pg. 146-147

[15] Ibid.; Lane, online; class notes

[16] Morgan,pg. 947

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid. pg. 947-948

[20] Ibid. pg. 949

[21] Ibid. pg. 950

[22] Zimmerman, online

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid. Zimmerman argues attributing a descriptive reading to Kant’s conception of the intrinsic value of a good will would lead to inconsistencies in Kant’s overall body of work. He asserts if one were to read Kant’s conception of a good will descriptively, it would result in this world being the best of all possible worlds (because rational beings would have a good will intrinsically, thus infinitely, and this world is populated by rational beings) which Kant explicitly denies in other works.

[25] Morgan,pg. 1087

[26] Ibid.

[27] Hursthouse, online

[28] Ibid.

 Works Cited

Hursthouse, Rosalind. “Virtue Ethics.” Stanford   Encyclopedia of Philosophy. March 8, 2012. (accessed November 25,   2012).

Kant, Immanuel. “Grounding   for the Metaphysics of Morals.” In Classics of Moral and Political   Theory, by Michael L. Morgan, 947-950. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett   Publishing Company, 2011.

Lane, Melissa. “Ancient   Political Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.   September 6, 2010.    (accessed November 25, 2012).

Mill, John Stuart.   “Utilitarianism.” In Classics of Moral and Political Theory,   by Michael L. Morgan, 1087. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing   Company, 2011.

Plato. “Republic.” In Classics   of Moral and Political Theory, by Michael L. Morgan, 92-94; 99; 144;   146-147. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2011.

Zimmerman, Michael J.   “Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value.” Stanford Encyclopedia of   Philosophy. December 17, 2010.  (accessed November 25, 2012).


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