THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Political Animal, Part II

We saw in the first posting in this series that, according to Aristotle, humanity is by nature neither solely individualistic nor purely social/collectivist. Humanity is, instead, an apparently unique combination of the individual and the social that Aristotle called political. The human condition is a paradoxical blend of individual rights and identity within a social environment. How well our institutions within the common good reflect that combination and are adapted to serve individual and social needs at the same time determines how effectively the social order assists each individual in acquiring and developing virtue, thereby becoming more fully human.

This sounds relatively simple. Human beings are both individual and social in nature — political. We consciously come together and organize with others in accordance with our dual nature and establish institutions to assist ourselves in the ultimate business of life: acquiring and developing virtue, that is, becoming more fully human by conforming ourselves ever closer to our own nature. That network of institutions within which we carry out the task of conforming ourselves to nature is called the common good.

The common good is not an aggregate of individual goods. It is, instead, something special, so special, in fact, that it defines us as human: the capacity to acquire and develop virtue, or (as America's Founding Fathers phrased it) the "pursuit of happiness." Paradoxically, this general (generic) capacity to acquire and develop virtue inherent in each human being manifests itself as particular institutions that provide the specific environment within which we pursue our individual good or goods. The most important of these goods is our individual realization of our personal capacity to acquire and develop virtue within a social context, thereby becoming more fully human.

This presents us with a problem — the same problem that faced Aristotle and which he (bound by certain preconceptions about human nature) failed to solve adequately. Not that we should blame Aristotle. People today are still making the same mistake. This mistake is rooted in the fact that it is all too common to confuse our individual capacity to acquire and develop virtue, with the institutions — social ("corporate") bodies — within which we acquire and develop virtue. This confusion seems to be the common ground on which the individualists and collectivists meet, even though they draw opposite conclusions from similar premises.

The individualist understands that each of us has an individual identity and natural rights. He or she recognizes that the exercise of individual rights is the chief means by which we acquire and develop virtue. Now, keep in mind that the individualist (in common with the collectivist) confuses his or her individual capacity to acquire and develop virtue, with the social network within which we acquire and develop virtue. The individualist then logically concludes that society is, one, completely unnecessary but tolerable, two, a necessary evil to keep order, or three, must actively be suppressed so that people can become more fully human. Institutions are, at best, only prudential, because they interfere with the functioning of individual rights. The individualistic analysis ignores the fact that rights, while individual, are just as much institutions as any other institution, and can only be realized within a social context.

The collectivist, on the other hand, realizes that institutions are necessary for each of us to acquire and develop virtue in a manner consistent with our nature. Recall, however, that the collectivist, too, is confusing individual acquisition and development of virtue, with the environment within which this happens. Within his or her frame of reference, the collectivist logically concludes that individual rights only get in the way of becoming more fully human. Individual rights are, at best, only prudential. This is because individual rights interfere with the functioning of institutions, that is, with the mechanisms by means of which the social order operates and which give a society its specific form. The collectivist analysis, too, ignores the fact that exercise of individual rights is as fully an institution as any other institution. (There is another view on this, equally valid, that we will get to presently, but it doesn't quite fit here.)

According to Aristotle, instead of contradicting ourselves by rejecting institutions in favor of individual rights, or dismissing individual rights to safeguard only (other) institutions, the task of the human person assembled in the polis is to organize and work with others to come to some accommodation between the two competing sets of institutions. The conflicting demands of individual rights and the other institutions of the common good need to be balanced in order to arrive at an optimal arrangement between the two so that society can function. This is why politics is considered the "art" (science, really) of the practicable.

There is, however, a serious problem, the solution to which ultimately eluded Aristotle — and which the failure to resolve results in the twin errors of individualism and collectivism. That is, how can an individual person affect social institutions, and how can individual rights and social institutions both be valid and have equal claims on us?

These are the issues we will start to examine in the next posting in this series.