The ethics of politics via Aristotle


Aristotle PoliticsPolitics, Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics, is the “master science of the good.” The good of which he wrote is the greater good, the “highest good” that benefits the state, not the personal.

For even if the good is the same for the individual and the state, the good of the state clearly is the greater and more perfect thing to attain and safeguard. the attainment of the good for one man alone is, to be sure, a source of satisfaction; yet to secure it for a nation and for states is nobler and more divine.

But good is hard to define, Aristotle wrote, and full of “irregularity” because, he added, “in many cases good things bring harmful results.”

For Aristotle and his fellow philosophers, politics was the science of figuring out what is conducive to life in a polis or city (which in the Greece of his day were city states); it determined how people can live together in communities and cities. It still is, which is why his 2,000-plus year-old work, Politics, is still taught in poli-sci courses.

Politics also has the practical side: the legislative component. And ethics underlies both parts.

Ethics and virtue are interconnected in Aristotle, but it’s not entirely the same virtue of which Machiavelli writes (and Aristotle described many more virtues than Plato’s four: courage, wisdom, temperance and justice). Aristotle’s virtue is a mean between excess and deficiency. It isn’t being super good, or unbendingly upright, or sticking to a dogma or theological script.

It’s almost like situational ethics (see Nicomachean Ethics, Book I.7). The BBC notes:

Situation ethics teaches that ethical decisions should follow flexible guidelines rather than absolute rules, and be taken on a case by case basis.

As this site notes:

Aristotle says that it is a mean between extremes, but not a mechanically determinable mean: “to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way”

For example, the mean between obsequiousness and cantankerousness is friendliness (see here). Angry, vituperative blogs full of accusation and wild allegation would not fit Aristotle’s definition of virtuous because they have a deficiency of social conduct, according to the chart.

As this site explains:

The good for human beings, then, must essentially involve the entire proper function of human life as a whole, and this must be an activity of the soul that expresses genuine virtue or excellence.

It also notes:

True happiness can therefore be attained only through the cultivation of the virtues that make a human life complete.

Cultivation: it means virtues have to be consciously worked at, and practiced. They are not innate or hereditary.

Ethics is the study of happiness (or rather what is required for happiness). But not happiness as in, “Gee you bought me a ukulele!” It’s not gratification, or simple pleasure. It really meant (in the philosopher’s vocabulary), “human flourishing” or thriving. And that comes from having a full life. Part of that fullness is in participation in the state. And that requires a state to be in good condition; itself flourishing, vital, growing and active.

Virtues, Aristotle wrote, are states of character acquired through effort and practice. You are virtuous because you work at it; you are conscious and conscientious of your actions. And being virtuous helps you flourish (which in Aristotle’s terms means happiness).

Virtue ethics, as Stanford University describes it, focuses on character and decisions, not rules or expectations of behaviour:

Virtue ethics is currently one of three major approaches in normative ethics. It may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach which emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that which emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism). Suppose it is obvious that someone in need should be helped. A utilitarian will point to the fact that the consequences of doing so will maximize well-being, a deontologist to the fact that, in doing so the agent will be acting in accordance with a moral rule such as “Do unto others as you would be done by” and a virtue ethicist to the fact that helping the person would be charitable or benevolent.

Aristotle commented that the basic, underlying reason that states and communities formed was to do good, or rather to do the good for the benefit of the greater community. And doing good requires virtuous people.

Aristotle's PoliticsAristotle is difficult at times, in part due to the various ways his classical Greek words have been translated into English. Even modern translations can be a slog.

The Politics opens with this statement (from the Benjamin Jowett 19th century translation):

Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.

Different translators approach this opening in other ways. T. A.Sinclair in the Penguin edition, translates it the word shown above as community as “association.” Carnes Lord used “partnership” in 1984, but in the second edition of his translation (2013), goes back to “community.” I’ve also read it translated as “social organization.”

The 1944 translation by Thomas Rackham has it thus:

Every state is as we see a sort of partnership, and every partnership is formed with a view to some good ?since all the actions of all mankind are done with a view to what they think to be good?. It is therefore evident that, while all partnerships aim at some good the partnership that is the most supreme of all and includes all the others does so most of all, and aims at the most supreme of all goods; and this is the partnership entitled the state, the political association

Communities are partnerships, but the words aren’t synonymous. Rackham noted in his choice of words that “The Greek word had not acquired a specially political connotation as the English word ‘community’ has.” But isn’t it a book about politics?

The 1912 William Ellis translation has this:

AS WE SEE that every city is a society, and every society is established for some good purpose; for an apparent good is the spring of all human actions; it is evident that this is the principle upon which they are every one founded, and this is more especially true of that which has for its object the best possible, and is itself the most excellent, and comprehends all the rest.

Again, society and community are not synonymous. But all translators stick with the word “good.” Me, I prefer community because, at least in today’s English, it conveys a localized association with some common interests, needs and desires.

Aristotle is also difficult because some of his ideals are simply archaic and even repulsive by today’s standards. He defends slavery, for example (I wonder how he would have felt about it had he known that within a couple of centuries, the Greeks themselves would be enslaved by the Romans). And he postulates government run by men; privileged men at that. Women were not part of any process, nor were the masses.

But we have to be careful not to project modern ideals onto him. He was writing about the norm more than two millennia ago when societies were egregiously patriarchal and slavery was considered natural (and in fact many societies depended on a slave economy). We cannot judge Aristotle entirely by today’s standards.

We also have to be careful not to dismiss him for those attitudes, either. Like all of the classical philosophers, we have to carefully sift through the content to find the material that is salient to our situation, while not colouring that content with our own perspectives and modern views. And, when we dig, we will find, as this site notes, the core of Aristotle’s political views:

Aristotle concludes that “man is a political animal”: we can only achieve the good life by living as citizens in a state… Aristotle’s Politics is sometimes classified as “communitarian,” because it places the well-being of the community as a whole above the well-being of the individual. Aristotle calls humans “political animals” because we cannot be fully human without active participation in a city-state, and his recommendations regarding justice and education bear in mind only what will make for the strongest state.

Stanford University’s description adds this:

Aristotle defends three claims about nature and the city-state: First, the city-state exists by nature, because it comes to be out of the more primitive natural associations and it serves as their end, because it alone attains self-sufficiency.
Second, human beings are by nature political animals, because nature, which does nothing in vain, has equipped them with speech, which enables them to communicate moral concepts such as justice which are formative of the household and city-state.
Third, the city-state is naturally prior to the individuals, because individuals cannot perform their natural functions apart from the city-state, since they are not self-sufficient.
These three claims are conjoined, however, with a fourth: the city-state is a creation of human intelligence. “Therefore, everyone naturally has the impulse for such a [political] community, but the person who first established [it] is the cause of very great benefits.” This great benefactor is evidently the lawgiver (nomothetês), for the legal system of the city-state makes human beings just and virtuous and lifts them from the savagery and bestiality in which they would otherwise languish.

In other words, to be fully human means being involved in the community’s affairs. And that requires an ethical, virtuous approach to the greater good of that community.

So what does that mean today? It means our politicians have to be involved, ethical and active, not merely creatures of ideology; not merely rubber stamping policies and laws because of party loyalties. Which, I suppose, is why I prefer to be in municipal politics: because it’s generally non-partisan (well, this term it is: no junk mail from MPs on our consent agenda!).

Does that mean we are ethical and virtuous? We may not all be paragons of virtue according to everyone’s standards, but some of us attempt to do what we perceive as ethical and in the best interests of the greater good of this community. Even those of us who don’t read Aristotle!

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Posted because I started reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics recently and wound up reading his Politics as well. I’m reading the Greek and Roman classics to try to understand and appreciate how they relate to modern life, behaviour and politics; as well as how to be a better human being by heeding the wisdom of the past.

Here are some Youtube videos (two of many) about Aristotle:



And you can download an audio book version at Librivox to listen in your car as you drive (Benjamin Jowett translation).