The Trouble with Invisible Men: How Reputational Concerns Motivate Generosity

Matthew Feinberg
Kyle Irwin
Michael Schultz
Brent Simpson
The Handbook of the Sociology of Morality

“I looked about me at the hillside, with children playing and girls watching them, and
tried to think of all the fantastic advantages an invisible man would have in the world.”

- H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man

Typically portrayed as unrestrained, capricious, and immoral, literature and film have
traditionally turned a suspicious eye towards invisible men. For example, in The Republic,
Plato ([380 B.C.E.] 1955) describes a debate between his brother, Glaucon, and his mentor,
Socrates, on the nature of justice and human morality. Glaucon argues that just behavior of
humans is simply an artifact of their desire to avoid formal and informal punishment, making
his case via a thought experiment regarding what would happen should men possess rings that
could make them invisible. Glaucon argues that even those we perceive to be moral would
become evil if granted the power of invisibility: “There is no one, on this view, who is iron-
willed enough to maintain his morality. . . when he is able to take whatever he wants from the
market-stalls without fear of being discovered” ([380 B.C.E.] 1955).