Lesson 11: Aristotle’s Justice (Sandel, Chapter 8)

AristotleAristotle believed humans are political creatures by nature. He thinks this is apparent when we see how our speech enables us to relate to one another quite differently than beasts or gods. Politics not only gathers us into communities for defense against foreign powers, but also for using rational speech rather than physical violence to control physical force within the society.

Justice then is a matter of politics. We can discern what it is just by debating what the common good of our society is. We promote this by enacting laws that honor and reward actions appropriate to this purpose. Justice is not based on a neutral government maintaining law and order by settling conflicts between individuals fairly. It rather involves the government cultivating habits that lead to the good character that benefits the community. In other words, justice depends more on education than law enforcement.

Because he felt the chief obstacle to justice is ignorance, Aristotle thought this debate should take place among the learned, those with the ability to do it appropriately. A modern Aristotelian approach might see the whole community engaged in this discussion of the common good. Of course, we have to ask if this is possible in a large, pluralistic society. It might work in his small city-state, in a New England town meeting, or in a profession where goals are shared and evident, but a larger diverse community presents more difficulty. Our present political gridlock in which our officials refuse to converse as Aristotle proposes demonstrates this clearly.

Our present inability to discuss what a common good might be contributes to our resorting continually to the violence justice is supposed to replace. We end up with slogans, such as “the only way to stop a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun”. From Aristotle’s perspective that is a response typical of a beast, not a human.

Our inability is also evident in what our society honors and rewards. We often claim the purpose of government is to provide defense and jobs. But we do not seem to reward and honor those who do this. Yes, we have a big defense budget to protect against foreign military aggression, but we fail to defend citizens from internal powers that take advantage of the weak. Powerful corporations seem to control government rather than the other way around. And rather than honor those who provide jobs and products for our citizens, we reward those who play games for profit. This includes not only highly paid athletes, but also financiers who use the stock market not for supporting industry but as a means for gambling and advertisers whose aim is profit rather than providing a product. If we can judge a society by looking at what it rewards and honors, we do not do too well.

Christians ethics are often based on an Aristotelean model. We discuss what is involved in the common good Jesus describes in his pictures of the future Kingdom of God and then honor and reward those actions that lead us to that beloved community in which all have enough. We also appreciate what the ancient philosopher said about language. However, we believe the problem has to do with sin rather than ignorance as can be seen when we use the Tower of Babel story as an illustration of evil. Even though we appreciate Aristotle’s work on making ethics relevant to real life rather than abstract reasoning, we think he missed an important aspect of human nature.

Give some thought to what you would consider the common good of our society. What is the picture you have of the community for which we are striving? What would we reward and honor if we all agreed on this purpose?

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2 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Derek says:

    I am finding myself very dubious of Aristotle’s idea of learned elites being able to properly determine the common good. Aristotle had his defense of why slavery was right and proper. Earlier Kant, when faced with a problem of his own, came to the conclusions that making “artful dodges” was a universally applicable ethical act in contrast to his earlier stance on lying.

    It does not seem that starting from a religious basis can make one immune to this. I am no historian or biblical scholar. But I do not get the impression that the Pharisees were a bunch of secret atheists out to hoodwink the people with various laws. Rather they had worked out a code of laws based on Scripture and ended up with something quite wrong. The history of Christianity seems to show similar problems.

    This and the law of unintended consequences make claims for what we should do for the common good murky to me.

    For example, at first it seems simple to say that those who have more should be taxed in order to provide for the needy.

    However unlike tithing to a church, giving directly to someone in need, or donating to a charity in the name of Christ I doubt anyone has been drawn deeper in faith by paying taxes to avoid going to jail. Similarly I am doubtful that it is counted to one as righteousness, and I am sure no stewardship or temple talk I’ve been at has contained a statement like “I know you already give a significant portion of your income to the needy through your taxes but.” Rather I expect the tax causes less to go into the church coffers, and if anything this may be an additional bit of distress for those who wish they could give more of their pre-tax dollars.

    On the other end, while a personal gift or faith based shelter may have brought many to faith, I have my doubts anyone has been brought to Christ through a welfare check. Instead the practice of financially punishing marriage and offering support if someone has a child without any way to support it has, as I understand the statistics, led to many more people choosing that life path which if anything will tend to create a wedge between one and a church and God that are not as affirming of those choices as the check.

    So what seems like something that should be a no brainer from a Christian point of view seems quite damaging to the church and people’s faith. Thus my confusion on what sort of policies one should attempt to enforce for the common good, even if one could define the sort of community one would like to be a part of.

  2. Bob Nordvall says:

    Christians don’t accept idea that evil is just a matter of ignorance. This idea is based upon man as a rational being. Those who first studied the idea of crime and punsihment, were attacted to the idea that the best criminal system is one of proportionate punishments that would dissuade potential criminals but not give more punishment than was necessary to do so. Their ideas assumed man is rational.

    We know man is not completely rational. The problem is that it is hard to think of laws and government programs that can change irrational behavior. So maybe government has to assume a rational paradigm even if we know it is incomplete.

    As Derek point out, those claiming a purely “rational” perspective, often come to oppostie conclusions. Kant’s idea of PURE REASON freed from personal prejudice, cultural constraints, and personal preferences is simply not operative.

    I think people often overemphaisize the power of goverment programs to change society. Single motherhood outside of marriage is much more common than it once was. The availability of welfare for single mothers may have accelerated this trend, but it is naive to think that such a large scale social change grew only out of welfare policies. This trend reflects a whole range of changes in society, many of which have nothing to do with the government.

    In trying to influence behavior in society, government can adopt laws based upon rational theories. These programs can have an effect, postive and negative, but I think goverment can REFLECT the morality of society: I don’t think it can greatly shape that morality.

    At one time the “government” tried to install ethical principles through the schools. What students read and were taught often was chosen to inculcate ethical principles.This effort in the schools was supplemented by a parallel effort in the churches. Was this a great success? Was our society more “moral” in 1880, 1920, 1940, 1960, etc. than it is today? Even if it was, can we return to the pedagogical and religious formulas of the past in modern society?

    What can government do? It can try to be ethical and moral in its own actions. It can try to set an example of good behavior. This is Justice Brandeis’ idea of goverment as “the great teacher.” As for shaping the morality of the people through laws and programs directed at such a goal — I am a skeptic.


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