It appears that my book is officially out. In the hope of further enticing some of you to read it, or at least find a copy and flip through it, I here include a brief snippet from chapter 4 that may be of some interest. We pick up in the midst of my consideration of an alternative view (that of Mary Nichols in her Citizens and Statesmen) of what Aristotle means when he talks about ruling and being ruled “by turns” or “in part.” According to this alternative, I count as ruling “in part” with you provided that you rule me in a way that recognizes my existence as a distinct, independent, free person.
On this view, I can accurately be described as ruling in part even when I do not hold any office, limited or otherwise, and even when I will not hold such an office in the future. Those who exercise rule over me, likewise, are ruled in part by me because their decisions are limited and conditioned by their recognition that I am a free and independent person whose interests they should be aiming to promote. Whatever one thinks of this proposal as a piece of political philosophy, it is inconsistent with what Aristotle says about rule.
On the one hand, the ruled citizen that Nichols envisions would not participate in deliberation and judgment leading to the formulation of binding decisions. He would therefore not be exercising rule even in part, if the interpretation of ruling that I laid out above is correct. On the other hand, whether or not that interpretation is correct, Nichols’ reading fails to account for the distinctive character of political rule. As her appeal to the contrast between free and slave suggests, what she describes more accurately applies to the distinction between despotic rule or mastery and rule over free people. But, as Aristotle insists, rule over the free is not all of one kind. Nichols’ characterization of ruling and being ruled “in part” would be more aptly taken as a characterization of ruling for the sake of the ruled; the recognition of the ruled’s independence and the influence it has on the ruler’s actions are already a feature of a father’s rule over his children. But Aristotle never describes parents and children as ruling and being ruled by turns or in part. Children do not share in rule; citizens do.
The conflation of paternal and political rule entailed by Nichols’ account does, however, point in the direction of a more satisfactory answer to the question I have been addressing. Another way of formulating that question is to ask why a form of paternal rule over free adult males would be unjust. The father’s rule over his children is just because his exercise of authority is necessary if both he and his children are to achieve the good for the sake of which their community exists; the child’s psychological and moral development requires that he be subordinated to his father’s rule without sharing in rule himself. For mature adults, however, to be under that kind of authority is not only unnecessary, but precludes the exercise of their own deliberative faculties in deciding how they will live. To be ruled without sharing in rule is for one’s actions to be guided by the decisions of others and not one’s own.
Exclusion from political rule would not leave the ruled without any opportunity to make their own decisions. It would, however, entail that they have no active role in shaping the decisions that are supposed to be binding on them and that determine the political conditions under which they live. But living well requires living in accordance with one’s own deliberate decisions (Pol. 3.9.1280a31-4, EN 1.7.1098a16-18, 2.6.1106b36-1107a2, 2.5.1106a3-4, 3.3.1113a2-22, 6.2.1139a22-b5; cf. 3.5.1113b3-6, 5.5.1134a1-2). To be deprived of any role in determining the decisions that structure and guide one’s life and actions is, in effect, to be treated as a slave: Even if others seek to decide how I will live with my own best interests in mind, I cannot actually live well if those decisions are not my own. Of course, to be subjected to despotic rule is to be ruled for the sake of the ruler rather than for one’s own benefit, and so it might seem that a misguided but benevolent ruler would not be guilty of ruling despotically so long as he had what he takes to be his subjects’ best interests in mind. But whatever his motivations, anyone with a conception of the human good so deficient as to omit the role of self-direction and choice could not genuinely benefit others by ruling them.
It is important to add several qualifications to the preceding account in order to avoid the misleading impression that Aristotle was a kind of proto-libertarian. First, for Aristotle, living in accordance with one’s own decision is not to be identified with doing what one wants. That sort of ideal, which Aristotle associates with the “democratic” conception of freedom, is incompatible with an objective account of human well-being; living by one’s own decisions is necessary, but by no means sufficient, for living well (Pol. 5.9.1310a28-36, 6.2.1317b11-17). Second, and crucially, living in accordance with one’s own decision does not entail freedom from rule. Though a free adult male may be treated unjustly if he is deprived of any share of rule, this is not because being ruled is inherently oppressive or an obstacle to the pursuit of one’s own good that requires compensation in the form of gaining a share in rule. Being ruled is an essential component of living under laws, and it is law, more than the opportunity for virtuous acts of nobility and grandeur, to which Aristotle ascribes the importance of political community for living well (1.2.1253a29-39, EN 10.9.1179b23-1180a24). For being ruled by laws is necessary for all but the most extraordinarily virtuous human beings to live in ways that are conducive to the common good of the communities apart from which we could not live well at all. Yet we can likewise not live well if we do not live in accordance with our own decisions.68 Sharing in rule is a requirement of justice in politics not because it is a second best to not being ruled at all, but because it is only by co-operative sharing and interaction with others that we can achieve our personal and common good. By contrast, to subject others to my command without any regard for their own judgment and deliberation is not to co-operate with them, but to deprive them of the exercise of their freedom.
If this account of the value of sharing in rule is correct, it explains why having a share in deliberation and judgment is a necessary condition of justice in political communities even though activities like participating in the assembly, serving on jury courts, or holding limited offices are not intrinsically valuable and worthy of choice primarily for their own sake rather than for the sake of goods external to those activities. Aristotelian citizens need not be high-minded analogues of Aristophanes’ chorus of wasps, obsessed with the pleasures of co-operative deliberation rather than with the delights of exercising power over others. Yet this reading raises a question about how expansive a share in rule needs to be in order to meet the standards of justice. If justice requires that each free adult male be permitted to participate in the institutions which exercise the highest authority in the city, then Aristotle’s ideal will look like a form of democracy and his endorsement of apparently exclusionary constitutional arrangements like kingship, aristocracy, and even polity will be incompatible with his theory of justice. If, however, sharing in rule admits of degrees ranging from issuing decisions about the most general rules in the community to formally endorsing or rejecting the proposals of others, then Aristotle’s theory of political justice might be compatible with various forms of polity, aristocracy, and even kingship itself. In the next chapter, I turn to Aristotle’s constitutional theory and argue that it has just these implications.
68. Aristotle thus rejects a prominent modern view when he holds that living in accordance with one’s own decisions is not only compatible with, but even requires, living under an expansive system of strong laws. The assumption that he seems to reject, or perhaps not to consider, is that the value of living by our own decisions depends on our freedom from coercive norms designed to direct us to choose to live a certain kind of life. One thing he does not think is that living according to one’s own decisions is possible if we have no significant options between which to choose. But it is at least not implausible to suppose that our well-being does not depend on our liberty to choose to live in ways that are not conducive to our well-being, even if that well-being necessarily includes self-direction as a prominent component. I return to these issues in Chapter 6.
Your book is on my reading list (but I gotta wait for the Brown University library to get it)!
On the substance: all of us are ruled by the social consensus regarding values/norms and their informal and formal enforcement (in the various groups that we are a part of or participate in) and we generally have some influence on what these “ruling regimes” are like. What capacities for influence does justice require?
Here are two candidate standards (not mutually exclusive): (i) equal ability to influence the ruling process (but only in relevant important respects, full equality in all such ability being contrary to harnessing diverse interest and expertise for efficacious group action/results) and (ii) sufficient capacity for influence upon (or perhaps capacity to exit from) the regime of enforced values/norms to avoid (a) being systematically harmed or disadvantaged by others via the particular “choice” of enforced values/norms that has emerged or (b) coerced into supporting values/norms that fundamentally conflict with one’s fundamental values (one will be coerced or given incentives that one cannot very easily refuse in any case).
Not sure how this picture or these possibilities relate to (different interpretations of) Aristotle’s views!
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One immediately relevant issue is that for Aristotle ‘rule’ is a much more restricted notion, one that doesn’t, without some strain, allow for rule by social consensus, norm enforcement, and the like. I spend a fair amount of time in the book trying to figure out just what rule as such is for Aristotle (surprisingly not something that many people have tried to do, in good part because he has relatively little to say about it in general as opposed to its various kinds), but the relevant up-shot here is that you count as ruling me if and only if you are in a position to issue commands to me such that your decisions initiate my action. So strictly speaking social consensus and the like can’t rule anyone, because they can’t form decisions or issue commands. That isn’t to say that Aristotle has no resources for talking about the kind of thing you’re talking about, and in principle he allows that anything might fall within the scope of formally enforced law; he also seems to think that it’s best if some norms are adopted and enforced via informal processes that don’t involve formalized law (e.g., his claim that it is generally best for property to be privately owned but made common by its owners’ choices to use it in ways that promote the common good — this claim seems to require that there not be formal laws requiring people use their property in this way or that, else it would be hard to see in what sense it is private, though it isn’t entirely clear just what kinds of formal legal restrictions on property he takes to be consistent with private ownership; he’s certainly not a libertarian about it). In other words, he’s neither deaf to the issues that arise with informal social norms nor does he assume as a matter of course that whatever norms are best should be formalized in laws).
Aristotle would also probably balk at your equality requirement; though he thinks of it as a kind of equality (proportionate equality), he holds that influence over the ruling process should be distributed to people in proportion to their ability to influence it well, and both in principle and in fact, as he thinks, that will often turn out not to be equivalent to substantive numerical equality.
And of course, Aristotle will be unhappy with the language of things that “conflict with one’s fundamental values.” Some people’s fundamental values are mistaken or perverse. Unlike some political perfectionists, he does not conclude from this that law should simply coerce people, since he is sensitive to the limits of coercive political measures and he recognizes the obstacles to making everyone virtuous through coercion. But unlike many liberals, he does not think that morally coercive laws are illegitimate in principle (and I think he is quite right about that, though he does not offer an elaborate defense of his view given that there were no liberals around for him to have to defend it against). He simply recognizes that stability, which he takes to be a necessary condition for the achievement of justice, is far better served by arrangements that are genuinely persuasive to people, and that a stable but imperfectly just arrangement is to be preferred to one that would be more perfectly just if only it did not lead to faction. His views on these issues are fairly indeterminate, though; I try to say some more determinate things early in the final chapter of the book, though necessarily they are less developed than they would be had he said more. I’m inclined to think that his general view can be given a solid defense, but not that what he actually says about it, or what we can confidently attribute to him, offers a satisfactory defense to people who are sympathetic with Millian type objections.
P.S. I don’t say much in the book about how Aristotle’s views fit into the contemporary political philosophical landscape or how they might apply to a contemporary political context. But one among several reasons I’d be very gratified if you read the book is that I’d like to hear what people think about that. In general, I am neither firmly in the Miller-Long-Rasmussen/Den Uyl camp that sees the Politics as containing important insights for a libertarian/classical liberal politics nor of the MacIntyre-communitarian camp that sees Aristotelian politics as so antithetical to modern nation-state politics that the latter doesn’t even count as politics at all from an Aristotelian perspective. I think both camps get a lot of things right but also understate or downplay certain crucial aspects of Aristotle’s thought (though the Miller crowd, at least, tends to be quite happy to acknowledge that their appropriation is highly selective). Mainly I don’t talk about this sort of stuff in the book because it’s already long enough as a work of philosophical interpretation and because I feel as though dealing with these issues properly, as opposed to merely hand-waiving or pronouncing some dogmatic platitudes, would require a different book and a rather more detailed grasp on the contemporary material than I have. I am, after all, a classicist. But that’s not to say that I don’t think the questions are relevant at all; in fact one hope I have for the book is that it will lead some readers to reconsider some of the conventional wisdom about the relationship between Aristotelian and contemporary politics and offer an interesting point of view from which to consider just what our theoretical options are, even if anything that looks like Aristotle turns out not to be one of those options.
It did occur to me after I hit “Post Comment” that ruling is more often associated with (de facto) authority (in a pretty standard command-issuing-and-obeying sense) than it is with coercion via values/norm consensus and enforcement per se. However, I wonder whether the sort of thing that I was getting at is not of a kind with authority in the standard sense. Intuitively, the ‘authority’ tag fits. Working out just how functionally similar the two things are would take some work. Here’s a start. (1) At least typically, authority in the standard sense is usually backed up by a public understanding of norms (including norms about who is supposed to give the orders, who is supposed to obey, and why). Order-giving and order-following without such a public consensus or understanding (say, you giving me orders on a certain topic and my tending to obey) seems to me an outlier case. (2) There is, perhaps, in both cases, an acceptance of coercive measures in accord with publicly-accepted values/norms.
I agree that virtue is often achieved via coercion (usually weaker and informal coercion, but via coercion none the less). If one has internalized virtue particularly well, then perhaps social-consensus-type coercive incentives are not necessary to exhibit and maintain virtue, but I think the deeply virtuous are fooling themselves if they think that these sorts of social incentives (whether or not they are sufficient for being coercive) are not important in acquiring and maintaining virtue. I’m less enthusiastic about the use of state coercion (such as threat of imprisonment) to achieve the outer (or inner) workings of virtue in citizens, but I can see how doing this might be important in some societies (that are not particularly liberal and should not be).
The proper quasi-Rawlsian formulation of my second suggestion (in my last response, not this one) would replace ‘fundamental values’ with something like ‘reasonable-enough fundamental values’. I think this second suggestion reflects two things that are essential to liberal politics: (a) the idea that encouraging (reasonable-enough, wise-enough) “experiments in living” is consistent with political stability and actually promotes important proper goals of the political community and (b) the idea that it is not necessary, and may be dangerous, from the standpoint of what political community does for us, to rely on some one monolithic religious or quasi-religious picture of what is sacred in order to support a conception of justice and achieve political stability. I would expect Aristotle’s conclusions to be different, but he would have grappled with just these sorts of issues, in some form, in thinking about what is required for a just, stable political union. And I would guess that he had something analogous to [a] in mind in defending private property. These are perhaps some important points of contact between Aristotle’s view of politics and the modern liberal one.
(Warning! This is the perhaps overly self-indulgent part of my response. Do stop reading if I’m already boring you or if you are out of time (or desire to procrastinate regarding real, actual work)… One of the values that liberal politics is particularly alive to is that of being allowing or respecting of people in their pursuit of the good in their diverse life-plans (even when they are doing a pretty bad job of it). One of the circumstances that liberal politics is appropriately sensitive to – and takes advantage of to realize its values – is (a) the utility or instrumental value to all of allowing such diverse “experiments in living” and (b) the absence of the need to back up a public conception of justice with a particular conception of the sacred (i.e., by reference to religion) and the positive dangers of doing so (i.e., religious inter-state and civil war). Though I think the role of the following factor is overplayed by many liberals, one of the circumstances that speaks in favor of [a] – and against coercing people or ordering them around in the service of what it is in fact best for them to do is (c) moderate epistemic pessimism regarding our ability to reason well enough to get true beliefs and hence realize basic values (and perhaps give them appropriate relative weighting) in circumstantially appropriate ways. Here are two factors that speak to [c] being less integral to liberalism than is often thought: (i) sometimes, particularly in private life, respect for persons seems to require allowing them to pursue paths that we are pretty darned sure are wrong, suggesting that this way of realizing respect for persons does not depend on our not knowing which sort of path is best and (ii) it is pretty plausible that specific, actionable knowledge of what is best political-justice-wise is hard to come by, yet enforcing the best standards we can come up with (but that may be wrong) seems necessary to reliably obtain any measure of justice. I wonder to what extent Aristotle wrestled with these sorts of issues in coming to different conclusions – or at least specific standards for his social world distinct from the liberal standards that we take to be appropriate to our social world.)
I can’t respond adequately to all of that (which is neither self-indulgent nor boring, so don’t worry!), but here’s a few thoughts, both about Aristotle and about the broader issues.
1. On the one hand, Aristotle is usually willing to allow talk about things in a qualified, restricted, or metaphorical sense, and so he might not flatly reject using ‘rule’ language to talk about social consensus and informal norms. But he would insist that it’s a metaphorical sense, and I think we should probably do the same thing for ‘authority’ in a technical sense. The technical sense of authority is related to, but not co-extensive with, Aristotle’s ‘rule.’ The idea is that I act under your authority if and only if I take your say-so as by itself giving me a reason to do what you say – the contrasts being with (1) coercion, where I do what you say but only because you’ll punish me if I don’t, (2) persuasion, where I do what you say but only because you show me that I really do have independent reasons to do it, and (3) agreement, where I do what you say but only because I already believe that I have independent reasons to do it. It’s this narrow conception of authority that generates things like ‘the problem of authority’ where acting on authority allegedly appears thoroughly irrational. Some scholars have held that, in this sense, Aristotle and classical Greeks more generally do not have the concept of authority and instead work entirely with some combination of persuasion, agreement, and coercion, usually regarding persuasion and agreement as the proper form of ‘rule’ among free people and coercion as proper only for slaves. In response, others have held that Aristotle (and other classical Greek authors) obviously have the concept of authority because they plainly describe cases in which someone does what a ruler commands simply because the ruler commands it and not because he is persuaded, agrees, or wants to avoid the sanctions that come with disobeying. I argue in the book that both these lines are mistaken. The latter are correct that Aristotle recognizes what we pick out with the technical concept of authority and does not talk about politics as though persuasion, agreement, and coercion are the only options. But that is insufficient for ascribing our concept of authority to him, since he has no term or expression that is co-extensive with the technical concept of authority and he does not explicitly carve out conceptual space for it. Nonetheless, it is a mistake to think that he therefore reduces cases of acting on authority to cases of acting on persuasion, agreement, or coercion. He recognizes cases of what we would call acting on authority as falling under ‘being ruled,’ he just doesn’t neatly separate them from persuasion, agreement, and fear of sanctions.
Why doesn’t he carve out some special space for ‘authority’? Probably in part simply for historical reasons; nobody carved out a special conceptual space for ‘authority’ until many centuries later; as the Latin root of the word suggests, it develops out of reflection on Roman law. But I’m also inclined to think that he doesn’t carve out a space for it because, unlike some peddlers of ‘the problem of authority,’ he isn’t inclined to view these things in isolation from their broader context. Yes, when the cop tells me to pull over, I act on his authority and pull over simply because he tells me to; but my acceptance of the authority of police officers makes sense only in the context of my broader acceptance of the law and the government of the state of Texas and the United States of America, and I do not accept those merely on authority, but for independent reasons. For Aristotle, the question of why anyone does or should accept someone’s command as a reason for action wouldn’t arise apart from the broader question of why anyone does or should accept the broader framework within which the authoritative figure is recognized as authoritative, and the answers to that question will appeal to some combination of persuasion, agreement, and coercion. In other words, there is a sense in which Aristotle does not raise the question because it is not a problem at all within his framework. Since I think the problem of authority is a pseudo-problem, I’m inclined to think he doesn’t suffer much for lacking a clearly demarcated concept of authority
That said, we probably should distinguish between authority and the rest, and once we do, we’ll see that there are important differences between thinking of social consensus and informal norm enforcement as authoritative and thinking of them as persuasive or coercive. Probably many people do recognize consensus as authoritative; that’s how things are done here, so that’s what I should do. But so too, many people will respond to consensus and informal norm enforcement as something coercive or something persuasive, and while it may be impossible in many particular cases to pry persuasion, coercion, agreement, and authority apart, the differences in principle seem important.
2. Aristotle is, I think, more of a pluralist than he’s often taken to be, but he is still rather less a pluralist than I think we all should be. Crudely put, while he does think that very good lives can look very different on the ground, he also thinks that there’s a non-vacuous unity to them in virtue of which they can rightly be described as the same kind of life (this gets really complicated really quickly because he also seems to allow that genuinely different kinds of lives — broadly, theoretical lives vs. practical lives — can both be flourishing lives, but not equally so). In any case, complications aside, he is not a minimalist who wants to build up an account of reasonable-enough or good-enough values or ways of life and otherwise allow people the liberty to engage in experiments in living. He would quite unabashedly regard the ways of life of most Americans, for instance, as not worthy of respect, given that most Americans are engaged primarily in the pursuit of (a) pleasure and amusement, (b) wealth, or (c) forms of labor that are of merely instrumental value, typically instrumental value for others, and chosen by the laborers solely as a means to economic subsistence (or to (a) or (b)). A smaller minority of Americans organize their lives primarily around the pursuit of (d) honor and power. But Aristotle thinks, and not without good reason, that ways of life that focus on these things are variously shallow, empty, vain, vulgar, demeaning, and in any case lacking attention to more important goods and screwed up in their priorities. But to say that these ways of life are not worthy of respect is not to say that the people who endorse these ways of life are not worthy of respect or that it is either just or feasible to try to convert these people to better ways of life through morally coercive legislation. As I put it in my review essay on Gene Garver’s Aristotle’s Politics: Living Together and Living Well,
So from Aristotle’s point of view, much of what you say in the post above is question-begging and a politics based on it is pretty much a non-starter. But of course we don’t have to agree with Aristotle. I’m inclined to disagree with him on at least two relevant points: (i) that good lives can take more different shapes than he acknowledges, different enough to license something broadly like Mill’s ‘experiments in living,’ and (ii) that even setting aside the complications involved in trying to apply ideas developed for the Greek polis to the modern nation-state, the very sort of respect for people as free people that is built into his conception of politics requires a kind of respect for the holders of false and wrongheaded ‘values’ that precludes strong programs of legal and political coercion in principle and not simply because it is so unlikely to succeed (so, big surprise: I’m an Aristotelian, but I’m also a liberal; shocking, I know). But I do tend to think that he’s closer to right than many liberals are insofar as I don’t think the kind of respect we should show people should be confused with respect for their views and insofar as I think that enforced legislation aimed at preventing people from choosing bad lives and encouraging them to choose good ones is not illegitimate in principle, however difficult (and therefore inadvisable) it may be given not only the epistemic obstacles you mention, but the tremendous size and inevitably bureaucratic character of the modern nation-state. Ultimately I think I come down closer to Aristotle than to Mill; I just don’t think our states can be successful in implementing laws with ambitious perfectionist rationales while also producing “an arrangement of such a sort that people will easily be persuaded and be able to share in.”
3. Your comments about religion and the sacred raise an interest set of problems, not least because Aristotle has so little to say about religion in the extant portions of the Politics. On the one hand, he expects all the citizens to share in public religious practices. On the other hand, he doesn’t seem to worry that this will create any of the sorts of problems we immediately think of when we think about public religion. In part this is because Greek religion was very different from the Abrahamic traditions we’re most familiar with; it is typically not so totalizing and it tolerates a much greater extent of diversity in belief and even in practice (even Socrates’ accusers didn’t really complain that he held mistaken beliefs about the gods; they complained that by going around influencing people to share those beliefs, he undermined the city’s religious practices — and the impiety charge was probably mainly a facade for other, more directly political, motives, though that’s controversial). But he himself had read Plato’s Laws, which does envision the political enforcement of a rather strict orthodoxy of religious belief as well as practice. So it seems like he ought to have been more sensitive to these questions than he was, even if the idea of people literally killing each other due to religious disagreements would have struck him as wildly bizarre. And in any case, we have to deal with the deep diversity of apparently intractable religious disagreement, and while I am not satisfied with the usual Rawlsian strategy for dealing with it, the let’s-just-enforce-the-true-view alternative does not seem to be, well, a real alternative.