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.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Political Animal, Part III

In the previous posting in this series we saw that there is a conflict built into the social order. All societies embody competing demands between individual rights and organized society. Another practical — that is, political — problem is, how can individuals affect social institutions? Isn't that trying to add apples and oranges?

The individualist believes he has the answer. That is, organized society is either unnecessary, a barely-tolerable interference with our individual rights, or a positive evil that must be eliminated for our own good. There is no question about individuals affecting the common good, because this "common good" doesn't exist. There is only individual good. Common good is a misnomer, an oxymoron, for it consists of unjustly imposing collective notions on free individuals, to their ultimate detriment. Organized society is, at best, a prudential expedient that individuals can tolerate if they receive sufficient personal advantage from it.

The collectivist, too, believes he has the answer. That is, individual rights are an illusion, a selfish and egocentric fantasy, something that interferes with the proper functioning of the social order. There is no question about individuals affecting the common good. This is because "individual rights" do not exist, being (at best) prudential expedients for the common good, being granted by the State or some agency that is the State in all but name as deemed necessary or appropriate.

The "common ground" between these two otherwise diametrically opposed groups is their rejection of what Aristotle really meant, and his conception of how society and individual rights manage to integrate into a more or less common sense whole. The irony is that Aristotle's thought, while closer to reality than that of either the individualists or collectivists, contains a serious flaw that allows the distortions of the individualists and collectivists to take root.

This is obviously a complex situation. Resolving it is not easy — although it must be possible, or basing society on the natural law as a reflection of human nature either makes no sense at all, or is an impossible task. To begin, we need to take a look at what Aristotle really meant by his statement that man is by nature a political animal.

Aristotle made his declaration that man is by nature a political animal in the first book of The Politics, viewed by many authorities as the second part of The Nichomachean Ethics. In the Ethics, Aristotle examined the questions of "good" and "virtue," coming to conclusions about justice and the common good.

To summarize Aristotle's thought in the Ethics (too) briefly, "good" is "that for which all men strive." Good is embodied the natural moral law, the basic code of human conduct. Our ideas of what is good derive from a general consensus of the entire human race in all times and places as to what constitutes "good," and consists of conforming one's self to one's own nature. "Virtue" is the habit of doing good, that is, of conforming to nature. We of course mean human nature. The Latin word virtus — virtue — is best construed as "excellence in achieving human-ness." The "common good" (skipping over the long and involved reasoning) is the capacity to acquire and develop virtue, that is, humanity's inherent ability to grow and develop and thereby become more fully human.

This is fine as far as it goes. Then in the Politics, Aristotle made one of his very few mistakes. This was to conclude that there are non-human beings called "natural slaves." These human-appearing creatures, although lacking all capacity to acquire and develop virtue, interact in society as if they could acquire and develop virtue. The question for Aristotle became, "How is this possible?"

How Aristotle solved this problem will be covered in the next posting in this series.