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.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Political Animal, Part IV

In the previous posting in this series we saw that, due to his acceptance of slavery as a "natural" condition for some beings that are human only in appearance, Aristotle came up against a serious logical problem. That is, only persons have rights, and rights are necessary for something to be able to function in society. Rights give something a "social identity," without which no one or no thing can be a true member of or participant in society; lacking rights means that a being has no legal — social — existence.

The problem was, however, that you had things — slaves — acting in society just as if they were actual persons. If only human beings could be persons, this could not be the case. Today, a "slave" is legally defined as a human being without rights, but Aristotle denied the humanity of "natural slaves"; they were "human only in appearance." There were thus two kinds of slaves, according to Aristotle. There were the natural slaves, who might look human but were not, and human beings who, due to some accident (meaning something other than nature), had become or been made slaves for the sake of expedience. Thus, slavery can be a permanent condition, as with chattel slavery, or temporary, as is the case when a State takes away rights from someone convicted of a crime after determination of just cause and through due process.

Aristotle concluded that somehow "things" (remember, slaves are not persons, but things), when they are owned by persons, "share" their owners' lives in some unspecified way. By being owned, a thing receives a "reflection" (we would call it "delegation" or grant) of its owner's virtue. This "reflected virtue" makes a thing into an extension of its owner and enables the thing (in this case, a slave) to act in society as if it were its owner to a limited extent. "Reflected virtue" from a natural person thus makes a thing into an artificial person.

Ironically, Aristotle's mistake about natural slavery was one that allowed him to make astounding advances in the science of politics that he would otherwise not have been able to make. The idea of how a government — a thing — receives a delegation of political power from its citizens — natural persons — organized into a State, is based on Aristotle's theory of how a slave participates in or shares its owner's virtue. Similarly, the whole idea of the corporation, an artificial person that is ultimately owned by natural persons, comes from Aristotle's idea of natural slavery and the problem of how a thing can be empowered to act within the social order as if it were a person. As we will presently see, these advances had a profound effect on Pope Pius XI's development of the doctrine of social virtue.

Aristotle's specific mistake was to conclude that human beings have different capacities to acquire and develop virtue. The capacity to acquire and develop virtue, however, is what defines us as human — the good common to all humanity: the common good. Aristotle's conclusion that this capacity is different for every human being is extremely serious, because — if true — it means that some human beings are more human than others, while there are some human-appearing creatures that aren't really human, and therefore can be owned in the same way as other things.

The implications of Aristotle's error are profound. If some people are more human than others, then inequality of rights is not a problem. There are even people who have no rights at all because they have no capacity whatsoever to acquire and develop virtue. Such creatures are not, strictly speaking, human at all, but things — natural slaves. Thus, people without the capacity to acquire and develop virtue do not participate in the common good to any degree, while those with limited or different capacities to acquire and develop virtue can only participate in society — the network of institutions by means of which the common good manifests — in a limited fashion. Thus, as far as Aristotle was concerned, no one has or can have full access to the common good.

There's also a problem in Aristotle's framework with direct access to that complex network of institutions by means of which the common good manifests in society. To put it bluntly, it can't be done. An exact match is necessary to fit two things together and allow direct access or interaction. You can't force a round peg into a square hole and expect the peg or the hole to remain undamaged. Partial or non-existent individual capacities to acquire and develop virtue cannot link up with the full capacity to acquire and develop virtue — the "fullness of virtue" — that is the common good of all mankind. There is no complete or perfect "fit," and therefore no direct access.

This sets up a paradox, for the common good as it manifests in the social order as a network of institutions provides the environment within which we acquire and develop virtue . . . and these institutions are specifically man-made things. What you end up with using Aristotle's analysis is the paradox that man has created social tools — institutions — to which he has no direct access. Lacking direct access, he cannot control or even recreate to make them controllable, and thereby conform our institutions to their proper roles in assisting individuals in acquiring and developing virtue. If we accept the Aristotelian analysis, then, man has built something beyond his own control.

Obviously, this does not make sense. As Aristotle realized, however, man is rational. Confronted with a problem, the thing to do is not give up, but to work in a manner consistent with nature and solve the problem. We will begin to examine the framework for problem solving in the next posting in this series.