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 16, 2009

The Political Animal, Part VI

In the previous posting in this series we saw that certain of Aristotle's assumptions about how each person has a different capacity to acquire and develop virtue leads inevitably to two conclusions about the role of the human person in society. One, no human being can directly access (fully participate in) the institutional environment that gives specific form to a particular society. This is because there is no exact match between any individual's capacity to acquire and develop virtue, and the "fullness of virtue" that makes up the common good — the institutional environment. The institutional environment becomes accepted as a given.

Two, any individual only has indirect access to the common good, and then only if he or she has some measure of that special capacity to acquire and develop the specific type of virtue that makes a good ruler. This individual (sometimes a group, depending on the form of government) tries to make the good life (the acquisition and development of virtue) possible by passing and enforcing good laws. Our individual obedience to these laws has a generally good effect on society, while our individual disobedience has a generally bad effect.

Because the effect on the common good most often comes from obedience or disobedience to human laws, the virtue that affects the common good indirectly is called "legal justice." Because legal justice does not act directly on its object — the common good — it is not a particular virtue, but a general virtue. Further, because this legal justice does not look directly to its object, there is no specific ("particular") act that can be identified as an "act of legal justice." Instead, the "act" of legal justice can at best be described as the indirect effect that the acts of other virtues have on the general welfare of society.

It becomes evident, then, that this thing we call the common good has two aspects, one "particular," that is, specific, concrete, and identifiable, and the other vague and "general." The particular aspect of the common good is the network of institutions — including laws, customs, traditions, and so on — that give specific form to the social order within which we as political creatures work to become more fully what we are. (Again, there is another view on whether such things as laws, customs, and traditions can be considered "institutions," but we will try to get to that later.)

The general aspect of the common good — the "general welfare" — on the other hand, can possibly best be understood as the "tone" of a society: not just that good laws are being obeyed, but how they are obeyed, and even the quality of the laws themselves. Are the laws that are being passed, in fact, good laws? Even if they are clearly good laws, are people obeying them in the manner in which the lawmakers intended they should be obeyed, and are the laws having the desired effect?

In the Aristotelian framework, we thus have a paradox. We cannot act specifically (directly) on that part of the common good that has a specific — "particular" — identity. In philosophy and law, only a "person" can be the directed object of an "act." This is because only persons have rights. If we (in colloquial terms) perform an act that injures or benefits a thing — a non-person or that which has no rights — the goodness or badness of that act in human or social terms is not the goodness or badness of the effect that our act has on the thing. Rather, the goodness or badness of our act (again, in human or social terms) is determined by how our act affects the person whose rights to and over that thing have been injured or benefited.

Aristotle "solved" this problem by observing the institution of slavery. Seeing that slaves functioned in society on behalf of their owners as if they were their owners, Aristotle claimed that, in cases in which a thing functions in society as if it were a person, the thing becomes, in effect, an artificial person by reason of the reflection of virtue from its owner, and the exercise of rights on behalf of its owner.

A thing, of course, cannot be a natural person in its own right, but a thing can be an artificial person by means of a delegation of rights from its owner or (in the case of a political entity) its sovereign. This, obviously, says nothing about whether slavery is right or just. It is simply the theory that Aristotle developed to explain how, given the fact of slavery, a slave — or anything else that is not a natural person — manages to participate in the common good, even though a slave is not a person, but a thing.

In political matters (using the word in its modern sense) the identity of a sovereign in a State may be an issue, e.g., whether the people or a divine right ruler. The bottom line in any political arrangement, however, is that the State — a thing — must derive its just powers from a natural person or persons somewhere along the line. Similarly, there can be multitudes of artificial persons in society, such as slaves, charitable foundations, or business corporations, but somewhere there has to be a natural person or persons from which these artificial persons derive the rights that they exercise.

The act of creating an artificial person has a special word in philosophy: incorporation. This is probably a bad word, for today it is used almost exclusively to refer to business corporations and, on rare occasions, to political entities at the municipal level. We are going to have to use it, however, for the word was used later in the 17th century in the development of totalitarian political philosophies, and thus in the development of theories that countered those philosophies.

That, however, will come later. In our next posting we will begin looking at how Aquinas corrected Aristotle's error — though not the effects of the error or its continued widespread acceptance throughout the world.