Legend speaks of a Greek shepherd named Gyges who came across a great crevasse in the ground following a storm. Climbing down into the opening, he found within a metal horse with a hollow belly. Inside of that was a giant’s skeleton adorned by nothing except a golden ring. He soon discovered that it was no ordinary piece of jewelry, for if the collet was turned downward, the wearer was rendered invisible. Seeing its potential, Gyges used its power to seduce the Queen, murder the King, and take the throne for himself.
Plato used the myth of Gyges to illustrate a wide truth about our unenlightened moral characters. Given such power as that which the ring affords, he argued in The Republic that,
…no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men.
Plato went on to argue that no deep or lasting happiness can actually come from acting immorally, for the commission of immoral acts is itself a source of unhappiness. Problem is, most of us don’t conduct our lives from a place of moral enlightenment.
Imagine being able to bend the thoughts of those around you to your will, for as long as you liked, and for as long as they remained nearby. Using this ability, you could make them think, feel, and act in any way you wanted. Who would be so virtuous that they would never use this power to invade the minds of others and alter their minds to their own advantage? Who would not use it to help themselves procure sex, money, and power? The temptation would be colossal, and I suspect that most people would succumb, perhaps reasoning away their violations as somehow justified or legitimate, or at least as not too bad in the overall scheme of things.
It is rarely comfortable to confront the limits of our moral commitments, for so much of our identity and self-worth derives from our ideals and their expression in behavior. What the story of Gyges points to is the possibility that we could find ourselves in situations where our treatment of others gives way to our own selfish interests and desires. History proves this as a possibility.
A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.
At the end of the Second World War, millions of women ended up being raped by Russian soldiers as they took up positions across Eastern Europe. The situation was particularly bad in Berlin, the former stronghold of Nazi resistance, where girls as young as 12 and women as old as 80 were raped, including by gangs of drunken soldiers taking turns amongst themselves. Screams from the attacks rang out in the night air and were made all the more obvious to others by the fact that so many of the city’s windows had been blown out by the Allied aerial bombing campaign. Many women wisely chose to hide in cellars or attics and to venture out in public only during the morning, a time at which they were less likely to be raped. Others chose to offer themselves to Russian officers in the hope that, by doing so, they might be protected from being raped by gangs. Fathers, husbands, and sons who attempted to intervene to stop the rapes were shot. Thousands of women ended up dying from their injuries—some were literally raped to death—and a great number of suicides and unwanted pregnancies resulted. Like all moral tragedies that pass beyond a certain point in scale, we are left only to guess at the enormity of the harm inflicted.
So how did it happen? It is too much to believe that the psychological profile of a significant portion of those enlisted in the Russian army at the time just happened to include so many 'natural born' rapists. Vastly more probable, it seems, is that the rapes were committed by people who were in many ways morally ordinary. In fact, their moral ordinariness was part of the problem, for they found themselves in a situation where they held great power over others, they could rape whoever they wanted with impunity, they had access to large quantities of alcohol, they were not initially discouraged from doing so by their commanders, they had not seen their wives or girlfriends in a long time, and they burned for revenge after four savage and grueling years of bloody horror on the Eastern front. Putting these various factors together, it's not hard to see how something as grotesque as that which happened actually did.
In light of these kinds of human moral frailties, it could be argued that there is tremendous benefit to retaining religious belief in god. After all, belief in god’s existence, permanence, all-seeingness, and perhaps most importantly of all, his judgment and capacity for punishment, help people look past the temporary contexts of their lives and see themselves in an enduring metaphysical context of ultimate accountability. When hell stands as punishment for wrong-doing, and when we cannot hide those we do, we have a powerful reason not to do any in the first place.
That is one perspective. My own view is that the far wiser course for humanity to take is to expend great effort trying to understand what it is about ourselves and the situations we find ourselves in that either undermines or promotes our virtuous moral functioning. Though a better understanding of this aspect of our moral psychology clearly would not guarantee morally consistent and appreciable behavior, belief in a judging and punishing god evidently doesn’t do that either.
Our moral frailty is certainly a significant problem, but the higher path for humanity surely rests in seeking greater knowledge, not greater fear.