The Ring of Gyges is on your finger

2013-03-17 10:00

If you had unlimited power to do anything you wanted, would you use your power for good or for self-serving interests?

This is the question Plato poses in the Ring of Gyges when he narrates the story of a shepherd who comes across a ring with supernatural powers. When the shepherd twists the ring on his finger, he becomes invisible and uses his power to commit adultery with the king’s wife and ultimately take over the kingdom.

One of the key propositions in Plato’s story is that if an individual has unlimited power, he is likely to act in a way that reinforces his power.

As we reflect on Plato’s story and consider the difficult human rights issues of the last few months, from social media racism to police brutality, we must wonder whether humans are inherently bad and self-serving.

Evolution ensures that self-preservation is ingrained and perhaps this inherent need to survive causes us to behave badly.

But evolution also makes it clear that the tribe is stronger than the individual – which allows for altruism, sacrificing ourselves for the survival of the group, our children or our partners.

Self-preservation and self-sacrifice are evolutionary characteristics both inherent in humanity.

This innate duality is tested by the Ring of Gyges when we exercise our power. This power could emanate from something as basic as our masculinity, as basic as our physical power to suppress women such as Anene Booysen.

It could stem from our collective strength as a tribe, allowing us to burn foreigners who come here to “take our jobs”.

Our power could stem from the authority given to enforce the law which, instead, is used to kill protesters such as Andries Tatane.

But there are also individuals and institutions who use their power for good.

Activists who campaign for antiretroviral drugs, judges who uphold the Constitution, and organisations such as the Human Rights Commission and the Public Protector that are established to hold government accountable. There are courageous journalists, police officers who give their lives to protect us and teachers who inspire.

What separates those who use their power for good from those who are self-serving? How do we create an equal society based on human dignity and justice?

I believe that human rights provide the framework for the next stage of evolution. As we celebrate human rights month, we should consider our personal evolution.

Can we ultimately evolve to the point where we recognise our inherent human dignity in the dignity of others?

While human rights may provide the framework for this evolution, the Ring of Gyges is on your finger and it affords you an opportunity to do good. Use your power wisely.

»?Ahmed is CEO of the South African Human Rights Commission

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