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.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Political Animal, Part V

In the previous posting in this series we discovered that, if we allow ourselves to be trapped by one of Aristotle's few errors, we are confronted with an insoluble paradox. That is, if we assume that humanity has no direct access to the common good (meaning to the complex network of institutions that make up the social order), then we have no way of improving our institutional environment. We're stuck with whatever the situation happens to be, and must make the best of it, no matter how bad things get.

On the other hand, humanity — being political by nature — creates institutions and thus a social order to assist people in the task of acquiring and developing virtue. Logically, if human beings create institutions, then human beings can reform institutions and bring them closer into conformity with our own nature. Otherwise the institutions are not doing the job for which they were intended.

The bottom line to trying to work within Aristotle's flawed framework is that we are building tools (and institutions are tools to assist us in our acquisition and development of virtue) that we can neither use the way they are intended to work, nor redesign them so that they will work as intended. We are building tools — machines (including the "machinery of the State") — that we cannot control.

Thus, in Aristotle's analysis people are essentially helpless before the social inertia of something that humanity itself has created. Within that framework there are only two ways to affect the common good — our institutional environment. The first is the way of individualism, or (carried to its logical extreme) anarchy. That is, break things apart and make them smaller. The current delusion of the individualist is to declare that "small is beautiful," and to demand that everything be reduced to "human scale," with "human scale" understood as individual human scale. This will presumably allow individuals to take charge of their own lives.

The problem with the individualistic approach (besides being completely egocentric and ultimately relativistic) is that the human person is not merely an individual, but also has a social nature, a combination Aristotle described as being political. Anything involving even one other person is automatically beyond individual human scale. Within the "small is beautiful" paradigm, then, anything "larger" than or beyond the competence of a single, unaided human being must be eliminated if we are to follow the principle logically, that is, in a manner consistent with our rational nature. Because of our social nature, the individualistic approach is directly contrary to what we are as political animals. It leads necessarily to anarchy, that is, a state of no laws, individual redefinition of laws, or each person making the decision as to which law or laws he or she chooses to obey.

The second way to affect the common good — the social order — is the way of collectivism. That is for the strongest to take charge and impose his or her will on the social order. Within the Aristotelian framework we can, however, only do this indirectly, by the strongest passing good laws and demanding obedience. This has an indirect effect on the wellbeing of all of society, the "general welfare," but does nothing directly to change or improve the institutional environment that has a specific, not a general identity. There may be (and often is) an improvement in the common good in such situations, but it cannot be directed, that is, controlled.

In light of this observation, only two conclusions are possible: 1) the individualistic assumption that society is irredeemably evil and must be abolished at all cost for the sake of humanity, or 2) the collectivist deduction that the individual is irredeemably lost, and must be subsumed in the collective for the sake of humanity. We will begin to look at how to get out of this trap in the next posting in this series.