Sunday, November 18, 2012

Aristotle: The Middle Way

I've talking about Aristotle's The Politics , starting here. We were just talking about his warning about over-reliance on expert judgment, and the need to emphasize the "middle" kind of life.

This leads to a very important point. One major criticism of virtue ethics is that it is only for an aristocratic elite. I looked at an Oxford roundup of articles, here.

One of the contributors, Schneewind, says

The Aristotelian theory may have been suited to a society in which there was a recognized class of superior citizens , whose judgement on moral issues would be accepted without question (p200)

But in fact Aristotle is not arguing for exclusive reliance on a higher class of superior individuals. He says:

If we were right when we stated in our Ethics stated that virtue is a mean, and that a happy life is a life without hindrance in its accordance with virtue, then the best life must be the middle life, consisting in a mean which is open to men of every kind to attain. p266

This is very important, because it refutes one of the principal objections to virtue ethics that we have come across: the argument that the good life is only one philosophers can aspire to.

The state aims to consist as far as possible of those who are like and equal, a condition found chiefly among the middle people. And so the best-run constitution is certain to be found in this state, whose composition is , we maintain, the natural one for a state to have. p267

it is the middle citizens in a state who are the most secure: they neither covet, like the poor, the possessions of others, nor do others covet theirs as the poor covet those of the rich. So they live without risk, not scheming nor being schemed against. p267



Aristotle is not arguing for a guardian class, like Plato. Even further,

The superiority of the middle constitution is clear also from the fact that it alone is free from factions. Where the middle element is large, there least of all arise factions and divisions among the citizens. And big states are freer from faction, for the same reason, that their middle element is large. p268

Faction seems endemic to just about any human group or organization, unfortunately. He specifically warns against the "greedy grubbiness of the rich."

But at all times a legislator ought to include the middle peope in the constitution. .. The better mixed a constitution is, the longer it will last. It is a mistake made by many, even by those seeking to make an aristocratic constitution, not only to give to great a preponderance to the rich, but to cheat the people. In the long run mistaken good inevitably gives way to unmistakable evil for the greedy grabbing of the rich does more harm to the constitution than that of the people. p272

So there is a sympathetic element to the Occupy 99% there. On the other hand,

In democracies the rich ought to be treated with restraint: there should be no redistribution of property, nor of income, such as goes on unnoticed in some constitutions. p327

Confusions arise from overextending the ideas of equality, or inequality.

Democracy arose from the idea that those who are equal in any respect are equal absolutely. All alike are free, therefore they claim that they are all equal absolutely. Oligarchy arose from the assumption that those who are unequal in some one respect are completely unequal: being unequal in wealth they assume themselves to be unequal absolutely. p296

I think this is a common problem. Gay marriage, for example, is a claim to be 'equal absolutely' even if other citizens have to be coerced or sued into accepting it. Any difference in any respect in equality or any disparate impact is seen as unacceptable.

But, says Aristotle, there are two kinds of equality - numerical, and what amounts more or less to proportionate equality:

Inequality is everywhere at the bottom of faction, for in general faction arises from men's striving for what is equal. .. Now, there are two kinds of equality, the one being numerical, the other of value. I use 'numerically equal' to cover that which is equal and the same in respect of either size or quantity, and 'equal in value' for that which is equal by ratio. ... To lay it down that the equality shall be exclusively of one kind or the other is a bad thing, as is shown by what happens in practice: no constitution that is constructed on such a basis lasts long. p298

Too much emphasis on simplistic equality, taken to an extreme in either direction , can lead to political collapse.

He is also wary of faction arising from different regions or ethnic backgrounds.

Then there is difference of stock, which remains a stimulus to faction until such time as the two groups learn to live together; for just as a state cannot be made out of any and every collection of people, so neither can it be made in any space of time at will. Hence faction has been exceedingly common when the population has included an extraneous element, whether these have joined in the founding or have been taken on later. p304.

The "learning to live together" takes time, and multiculturalism, so to speak, can just as much lead to bitter faction instead of universal harmony. This is a common theme with Aristotle: you most often cannot simply enact things by will. People have to be habituated to them.

Of course, much of this runs counter to current liberal orthodoxy. But it may be there are some timeless issues with human nature that we have to remember to make genuine progress possible. This does not mean we should not look to have people from different backgrounds living together, of course, in the interests of diversity. But it does suggest we need to be on the lookout for faction if so.

He also has a precursor to the "broken windows" theory of law enforcement that became popular in the 1990s, which said minor crimes like turnstile jumping could lead to more widespread major crimes like assault or murder:

Now in constitutions that are well-blended it is essential to take many precautions, and certainly against anything being done contrary to the laws; and it is essential in particular to guard against the insignificant breach. Illegality creeps in unobserved; it is like small items of expenditure which when oft-repeated make away with a man's possesions. The spending goes unnoticed because the money is not spent all at once, and this is just what leads the mind astray. p323.

We will look at Justice and law next.



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