Justice, Equality, and Democracy

This post will not be nearly so interesting as its title would suggest.

This review will also not be quite so interesting as its title suggests, but it will be more interesting than this post (I hope): in it I review Georgios Anagnostopoulos and Gerasimos Santas’ Democracy, Justice, and Equality in Ancient Greece: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Enjoy.

(and yes, I can’t help but thinking that justice comes first)

16 thoughts on “Justice, Equality, and Democracy

  1. “This review will also not be quite so interesting as its title suggests”


    “Scholars all too often ignore justice as lawfulness, as though it were of minimal interest to Aristotle in comparison to his ‘particular’ species of justice.”

    Notably, the modern idea of “social justice” arguably traces its ancestry, back through Catholic social teaching, to Aquinas’s engagement with Aristotle’s conception of lawful justice. So for that reason alone it seems to deserve more attention than it often gets.

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  2. I’ve only gotten the chance to skim the review (need to print it out, and don’t have a printer here), but looks like good stuff. In my case, probably a better chance to get the book through Felician library via ILL than to hope for a purchase. Took a couple of years for Aristotle on Political Community to get from purchase order to purchase.

    A slight change of topic, but: when is someone going to write the epoch-making paper on “law enforcement in the Greek polis“? I get the impression that the issue doesn’t come up at all in this book (does it?). I raised the issue when David, Michael, and I were discussing David’s book on Aristotle: how well policed was “the” Greek polis? Did the Greek polis have an analogue to a modern police department? If not (I assume not), how were criminals or other law-breakers dealt with at ground level? How did citizens manage to get the suspect from the scene of the crime into court for trial (assuming that the average suspect was tried)? The short answer turned out to be “by informal methods,” but of course the interesting questions are matters of detail: what exactly were those methods? The answers would help clarify whether the Greek polis was really a species of state (“city-state”) or was more of a kind of anarchy.

    I dutifully raised these questions at every stop during my recent trip to Palestine–with particular interest when I was in refugee camps, which have a self-governing, polis-like structure (sort of), but absolutely no police and no courts. Answer? By informal methods.

    It’s a long story, but I was struck by the fact that the answer I got in Jenin Refugee Camp was essentially the same as the answer I got from David re the Greek polis. An essential similarity was the preface to the answer: “Well, it’s complicated, and there’s really no single answer to your question that covers all the cases.” Another similarity was the role of communal reputation. A lot of what does the work of “law enforcement” in a refugee camp is the collective sense of pride in the camp’s moral reputation: “certain things aren’t done here, and those who do those things aren’t welcome here.” So (for instance) an ordinary car thief is going to have trouble finding sanctuary in the camp. Eventually, he’ll be discovered and simply tossed out of it for others (non-residents of the camp) to deal with as they see fit. I get the impression that something similar was true of the Greek polis.

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    • Thanks for bringing that back up. I won’t be able to give a full treatment due to limitations of both time and materials, but I’ll plan to write up something less hand-wavy than the answer I gave before (i.e., self-help, citizen prosecution, and a very small group of Scythian slaves empowered to arrest people at the direction of officials). It might take me a while, as I have to focus on senior thesis meetings for a few weeks (Augustine’s De Libero Arbitrio and Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism), but I’ll see what I can do. Perhaps Roderick’s old series on classical Athens has something on this?

      Nothing at all about it in the book under review.

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      • I hadn’t meant to be demanding that you write up the epoch-making article on this, posthaste! Or even a blog post. I just mentioned it in passing because the review reminded me of it, and the trip to Jenin was fresh in my mind.

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        • Well, I think epoch-making articles are beyond me at this point, but I’m going to use your response as an excuse to write a more in-depth blog post, in part because it’s a topic of relevance here, in part because I’m interested in learning more about it, and in part because I like it when people actually read what I write. Besides, I’ve been wanting to read the excellent Adriaan Lanni’s recent Law and Order in Ancient Athens for a bit now, but never have, so I just ordered it. I spent the money, so now you have to live with the consequences. It’ll take me a bit, but I’ll write up a PoT book report on Lanni. As an appetizer, I give you the book’s introductory paragraph:

          This book is motivated by a puzzle. Classical Athens had only a limited formal coercive apparatus to ensure order or compliance with law. There was no professional police force or public prosecutor, and nearly ever step in the legal process depended on private initiative. Moreover, Athens did not enforce norms expressed in statutes in a predictable and consistent manner. And yet Athens was a remarkably peaceful and well-ordered society by both ancient and contemporary standards. Why? This book draws on contemporary legal scholarship that understands ‘law’ as the product of the complex interaction between formal and informal norms and institutions to explore how order was maintained in Athens.

          That’s pretty much the puzzle that I’ve noticed in the past and had no idea how to solve. So I’ll look forward to the book, and writing about it for PoT will allow me to rationalize ignoring other stuff to do it.

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          • That’s very cool.

            I read a bit past that paragraph. I’m just musing off the top of my head, so this is little more than a half-baked hunch, but both her account of Athens (as far as I got to read of it from the preview) and my experiences in the West Bank suggest the need for a concept that bears a family resemblance to a Lockean State of Nature without quite being one.

            A Lockean State of Nature is an anarchy that can, in principle, be basically justice-respecting, stable, and prosperous. The concept I have in mind is a quasi-anarchy with those features. It’s not precisely a Lockean State of Nature, because it doesn’t entirely do away with a State possessing a monopoly on force, but the monopoly involved is so weak (in the sense of being so dependent on consensus or informal norms) that it resembles an anarchy without quite being one. For lack of a better term, call it a quasi-anarchy.

            You’d at first be inclined to think that maybe Nozick has some such concept in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, since Anarchy depicts a gradual “backing-into” the State from a Lockean State of Nature. But I don’t think he does. The quasi-anarchy I have in mind is implicit in Nozick’s account, but is not something he gives a name. It definitely isn’t what he calls the “ultra-minimal” or the “minimal” state. Nozickian minimality doesn’t have anything to do with the weakness of the state’s monopoly on force, or its reliance on informal norms; it has to do with who gets protection and the narrowness of the State’s proper functions. Both ultra-minimal and minimal states involve full, formal monopolies on force. Whereas a quasi-anarchy could well protect more people than an ultra minimal state, and have broader functions than a minimal state. What it would lack is the full-fledged, formalized, weaponized, police-based monopoly on force that modern States typically have.

            I wonder if the concept of a quasi-anarchy clarifies anything about the Athenian case. I think it helps clarify the situation in the less governed (in the sense of governed-by-a-State) parts of the West Bank, especially the refugee camps.

            (Sorry, something went wrong with my italics function, so I can’t italicize.)


            • I’ve started reading the book, and so far my response to what you say above is: well, let’s see.

              Lanni’s main explanatory competitors are scholars who have argued that the solution to the paradox lies in informal procedures and internalized norms. She argues, against the competition, that formal legal norms played an indispensable and even leading role, despite the absence of a strong central authority that reliably enforced norms and thereby created powerful deterrent incentives. So far as I’ve read, her idea is that the informal and internalized stuff depended for its effects on the formal legal institutions and practices, though the latter also depended on the former. I suspect she’ll steer clear of the “was the polis a state?” debate, and rightly so, because if she’s even close to right about how Athens maintained order, Athens will only have failed to be a state on some boringly stipulated sense of ‘state.’ I’ll avoid trying to extrapolate from the introduction and first chapter, but the interesting stuff here will range well beyond semantics. But whether or not it will look like what you’re calling quasi-anarchy remains to be seen.

              I’m looking forward to this, though as I said it might take me a few weeks to post something worth serious discussion. As I write it up, though, I’ll try to leave the broader theoretical questions as open as possible and represent her view as she does, so that we can go on to consider how it relates to your quasi-anarchy with the least risk of begging questions.

              I can’t resist, however, the speculation that at least one prominent Greek view of politics will necessarily look like quasi-anarchy, but only quasi-anarchy, from a point of view that takes the distinguishing features of the modern state as its point of departure. If the Greeks were right that their poleis differed from the states of the ancient Near East and Egypt, that might be what we should expect. I’m still holding out for the non-anarchy part being every bit as important as the quasi-anarchy part, though.

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  3. DJR, thank you, thank you! By your review,I learned of this book, what’s in it, and I just plain learned. I’ve got the book by Ober, and I’m going to get this one right away for my collection. To be sure, a printout of your review will be kept tucked inside my copy.

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  4. Anyone have a suggestion for something to read on the idea expressed in the second sentence below?

    The constructive aspect of Anagnostopoulos’ approach fails to convince, especially since it requires an interpretation of ‘merit’ on which a citizen’s needs count as a relevant merit. This interpretation seems inconsistent with Aristotle’s conception of merit, on which the merit relevant to distributive justice is one’s contribution to a shared goal (Pol. III.12 12823a1-3).


    • Offhand:

      Howard Curzer, Aristotle and the Virtues (Oxford 2012), ch. 13.
      Eugene Garver, Aristotle’s Politics: Living Well and Living Together (Chicago 2012), ch. 3.
      David Riesbeck, Aristotle on Political Community (Cambridge 2016), 17-30, 228-235.
      David Riesbeck, ‘Review Essay: Eugene Garver’s Aristotle’s Politics: Living Well and Living Together‘, Reason Papers 36.1 (2014), 122-131.

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      • I’ve finally gotten a chance to write out what I was getting at in bringing up the need/merit issue in your review. I’ll have to re-read your stuff (which I have read before), and go out and read Curzer and Garver (as well as Anagnostopoulos), but here is my off-hand thought, having recently read only Politics III.12.

        At first glance, the distinction between distributions on the basis of need and those on the basis of merit seems clear enough. Merit-based distributions are distributions on the basis of positive contribution to a common good; need-based contributions satisfy needs, which people have whether or not they make any such contribution. My worry, though, is that in practice, need- and merit-based distributions aren’t clearly exclusive in the way that this distinction seems to suggest. The same distribution can have elements of both. As far as I can see, the distribution-of-flutes example that Aristotle gives in Politics III.12 is not particularly helpful in clarifying what he’s trying to say.

        What he says is that flutes ought to be distributed according to musical merit: the better players should get the better flutes, the worse players should get the worse. The discussion seems to presupposes three things: (a) that we’ve already drawn the distinction between better and worse players, (b) that the distinction between better and worse players is relatively fixed, and (c) that the flutes available for distribution differ substantially in quality. I guess we’re also assuming (d) that the flute example generalizes to other relevant examples.

        The problem with (a) is that it punts on the situation in which you’re trying to make a distinction between good and bad players at the outset. In that context, it would make no sense to give the “good” players the best flutes and the “worse” players the worse flutes. Apart from the fact that ex hypothesi, you don’t know which is which, the procedure in question stacks the deck in a way that produces a perverse path-dependency: other things being equal, the good players will become better with good flutes in hand, and the worse will become worse with bad ones.

        Second, it’s unclear why assumption (b) should be made. If you give good flutes to good players and bad flutes to bad ones, you misleadingly contribute to the impression that flute playing capacities are relatively fixed even if they aren’t. You’ve set the situation up so as to make things easier for the good players and harder for the bad ones. In doing that you’ve created a situation in which you can’t tell whether good flute playing is produced by musical merit or by quality of instrument. The introduction of a non-merit-based confounding factor (quality of instrument) doesn’t seem like a good discovery procedure for merit.

        It’s also unclear why assumption (c) should be made. Aristotle is trying to give us an example intended to specify or exemplify a normative principle applicable to an idealized situation. But the situation in which we’re saddled with flutes of substantially differing degrees of quality is a suboptimal one. Why invoke a suboptimal situation to explain the workings of a principle intended for an idealized context? Why not give both the superior and inferior flute players flutes of equal quality, then let the superior flute players outperform the inferior ones, and take matters from there? On the other hand, if the example acknowledges that the situation in question (where we’re forced to distribute crappy flutes) involves suboptimal conditions, why is Aristotle invoking that sort of situation as the paradigm that expresses his principle? In that case, it just seems like a bad, methodologically counter-productive example.

        Assumption (d) just seems vaguely dubious to me. I played the flute in fourth grade, but little in the rest of my life has been much like my flute playing career. Why think that this flute playing example is going to go very far in explaining anything of consequence?

        All that said to crap on the flute playing example.

        If we set the flute playing example aside, the distinction between need-based and merit-based distributions seems less clear-cut than your criticisms of Anagnostoupoulos suggest. Take very basic needs, like food/drink, shelter, health care, or basic education. Causally, those needs have to be met prior to a person’s being in a position to make any merit-based contributions to anything. A starving, sick, illiterate homeless person can’t feasibly make any substantial contributions to the common good. So let’s suppose that those needs have to be met before any actual contribution to the common good is expected.

        There are at least two ways of describing the preceding situation. One is to say that the distributions in question are need- rather than merit-based distributions. That preserves the distinction between the two kinds of distribution, It also makes sense of your claim that Aristotle sometimes appeals directly to the needs of citizens. But it gives us two incommensurably different kinds of distributions, need- and merit-based (unless they’re commensurated by saying that both contribute in irreducibly different ways to the good).

        But another way of describing the situation is to say that there is a species of need-based contribution that is made in expectation of the beneficiary’s future merit-based contributions (and where continued need satisfaction may be contingent on the beneficiary’s making the relevant contribution by some specified date, at some specified level). In other word, the beneficiary’s needs are met (and only met) contingent on the expectation of the display of future merit. At a bare minimum, this type of need has to be distinguished from pure need, i.e., need abstracted or disconnected from any expectation (however weak) of future merit. They’re just different phenomena. But it’s also hard to imagine how merit could ever be exemplified in the absence of needs being satisfied in this “mixed” or anticipatory way. So you’d think that an explicit discussion of the latter was in order in a context where merit was being discussed.

        So my first question is: do you want to say that these need-satisfactions-in-anticipation-of-future-merit are need based rather than merit based? (Or: is that your interpretation of Aristotle?)

        Second concern: I take it that the need-in-anticipation-of-future-merit view that I’m sketching is something like the view Anagnostoupolos defends in his essay (I can’t be sure, not having read him). But if so, I don’t quite get this sentence:

        This approach thereby threatens to reduce the city’s concern for its citizens to a concern for their effectiveness as political instruments.

        Why not describe it instead as motivated by a concern to facilitate the expression of merit? Am I really using you as a means in some reductive sense if what I’m doing is satisfying your needs so as to facilitate your capacity for merit? The expression of the relevant sort of merit is, after all, partly constitutive of your good. The city’s concern for citizens’ effectiveness is not something invidious; it’s as much a concern for the good of the city as it is concern for the good of the citizens displaying the relevant sort of merit. Why describe that as a “threat” or (flutes aside) invoke the language of instrumentalization?


        • Thanks. I agree that all of these questions are relevant to the misgivings I have about Anagnostopoulos’ reading of distributive justice in Aristotle, and indeed to any reading of distributive justice in Aristotle. I chose to be even briefer than usual in a review because I wanted to be sure to say something about all of the chapters. So, predictably, I was only able to offer a vague sketch of an objection. We’ll see if I can do better here.

          You’re right at least to some extent that the flute player analogy offers less help than it might have. In the best case, we have to make some interpretive judgments about what the analogy is supposed to be doing and not doing, because the text doesn’t tell us very explicitly exactly how it wants us to apply it. At least some of your complaints seem not to be very serious when we take the analogy in context. Others raise questions that we don’t get a clear, explicit answer to anywhere that I know of in the texts.

          So first, take (a): we’ve already drawn the distinction between worse and better players. I take it that one reason why he selected this analogy is that he is indeed supposing (quite rightly, I’d say) that we often can easily distinguish better and worse flute players. One of my own gripes about the analogy is that it doesn’t tell us precisely enough what the relevant activity and goal are: is this a single collective musical performance with multiple flute players, a series of separate performances by different flute players, or something else? Is our goal here to have the best single performance, the best set of performances overall, to make sure that the best individual performance is as good as it can be, or what? But if we suppose that Aristotle managed to be as clear as he thought he needed to be, then the point is probably the straightforward one that if we want good music and we have to give a number of flutes differing significantly in quality to a number of people differing significantly in their skills, we achieve the goal best by giving the best flutes to the best flute players, rather than giving them to people on the basis of qualities that don’t contribute to the relevant goal, like their beauty or nobility of birth. Of course we can fill out the details of the example in ways that will complicate that conclusion; perhaps we have two world class flute players and can’t readily determine which one is better, or perhaps our goal is more educational than performative, so that giving the best flute to less accomplished players promotes the goal better. My guess is that Aristotle ignores these details because he’s intending the example to do fairly straightforward work of illustrating that “the superiority must contribute to the work” (1283a1). The comparanda here are readily recognizable differences between better and worse; the thesis is that not all such differences have any bearing at all on the justice of a distribution, because not all such differences make a person better or worse at the relevant task for the sake of which we’re making the distribution. The analogy doesn’t presuppose that it is always clear who the better and worse flute players are, or which flutes are better or worse; it just depends on there being straightforward cases in which the goal is to get the best flute playing, not all of our flutes are equally good, and some players are recognizably better or worse at playing the flute, while the worse ones are also prettier and come from more illustrious families.

          The example doesn’t involve punting on any important questions, because, as the arguments of the surrounding chapters make clear, Aristotle is not presupposing that the relevant differences are so apparent in the case under discussion, viz. the distribution of political office. The prime candidates in the contest are freedom, wealth, nobility of birth, and virtue, and these chapters are arguing that virtue matters more than any of the others. The flute analogy is meant to show simply that any candidate’s case depends on its contributing to the relevant goal(s) of political community; we need (and get) further argument that virtue wins the contest, and in that argument Aristotle offers more details about what the relevant goal(s) of political community are and how virtue contributes to them while the other candidates do not, or not so much (commentators disagree about which). Of course we might think that Aristotle’s arguments are not adequately worked out; in particular, we might worry that the conception of virtue he’s working with is too indeterminate. But even if that indeterminacy is a weakness rather than a strength — one might think the indeterminacy a strength insofar as it manages to exclude real alternatives and to provide us with a fruitful framework for further inquiry and debate into what the relevant virtues really look like — it’s not at all a punt.

          So too, the assumption (d) that the flute example generalizes is in one way part of what Aristotle is arguing for (rather than an unquestioned assumption), but in another way irrelevant. He doesn’t need the example to generalize in all respects. What he strictly requires, I think, is just that contexts of distributive justice involve a common goal, function, or work (ergon) to which some varieties of excellence or superiority make a greater contribution and others do not, and that just distributions be grounded in relative contributions. I’m not entirely prepared to hold that Aristotle regards all merit as forward-looking, let alone as forward-looking rather than backward-looking; I don’t see any reason why he should have trouble with, say, distributing honors based on past performance, provided that the past performance somehow bears on the shared goal, function, or work. The scholars who stress the forward-looking dimension of merit are right to do so because it’s true of his treatment of merit in contexts of the distribution of political office; Aristotle would agree with Brennan that political office is “not an honorific meant to show we respect that person’s character,” but a matter of giving power to the people best able to use it well. The flute example doesn’t need to generalize to other examples beyond their sharing that structure: distribution should be in accord with the excellences that enable the people involved to contribute well to the shared goal, function, or work.

          As for the assumption (b) that the distinction between better and worse players is relatively fixed, I’d agree that Aristotle makes it for the flute example, but I don’t think this creates any problems for him. Once again the example is underspecified, but it’s natural enough to suppose that we’re making a one-off distribution of flutes here, not determining for all time who shall have which flutes. At the time of the distribution, relative flute skills will be fixed. There’s no implication that relative skills can’t change, but that fact is irrelevant to how we should distribute flutes right now. For a perhaps more familiar sort of example, the young violinist currently in the 4th desk of second violins might in a few years have become outstanding enough to be first violin, but that future potential doesn’t matter so much right now, when the orchestra is preparing to perform a string of concerts in a few weeks. If the orchestra has one Stradivarius, it makes sense for the current first violin to play it during the performance, not to assign it to the 4th desk second violin. Of course, if we suppose that the example is supposed to involve a once-for-all assignment of flutes and that this feature of the example is supposed to generalize to political distribution, then there’s a problem here. But there’s no good reason to think that Aristotle envisions the example or its generalizability in that way, and there is some good reason to think that he’s adequately sensitive to the problem. In Politics II.11, he criticizes the Carthaginians for requiring office-holders to possess a certain amount of property; in response to the argument that ruling well requires leisure, and so wealth, he responds that the lawgiver and the constitution should ensure that the virtuous have enough wealth and leisure to hold office rather than excluding virtuous people who aren’t rich. More tellingly, perhaps, Aristotle spends two whole books of the Politics sketching out a constitution that prioritizes collective education for virtue; if anything, he overestimates the potential impact of well designed education, but he can’t be accused of supposing that the institutional design of a political community has no significant role to play in how well suited for political office its citizens become. He may not have a viable solution to the problem, but it’s not a problem that he overlooks.

          The assumption (c) that the flutes available for distribution differ substantially in quality corresponds, I take it, to a pervasive, though not essential, feature of distributions: the quantity and quality of what is distributed tend to differ. If Aristotle supposes that political distribution necessarily has this feature, then he’s arguably mistaken, because strict equality is a possibility. But it’s also a possibility of which he is vividly aware and arguing against in the very chapters that employ the flute player analogy. I don’t think there’s any good reason to think that he’s trying to trick us into thinking that strict equality isn’t really an option because it wasn’t an option in the flute player example; he doesn’t exactly conceal the strict equality option, and his argument doesn’t depend on any assumption that strict equality isn’t even possible. It’s perhaps worth emphasizing that the flute player example appears at a stage in the argument directed primarily against alternative criteria for unequal political distributions. Not only does Aristotle leave the door wide open for egalitarians to argue that everybody, or all free people, or all people meeting some other very widely shared criteria, are equally capable of contributing to the shared goal, function, or work of political community; in a way he argues that those very conditions are sometimes met, not by individuals as such, but by individuals as contributors to groups exercising political power collectively. The flute example’s assumption that we don’t have equally good flutes to go around does not, so far as I can tell, exert any influence on the additional arguments for arithmetically unequal distributions.

          As for why he should “invoke a suboptimal situation to explain the workings of a principle intended for an idealized context,” I just don’t think that’s what he’s doing. For one thing, the example’s suboptimal features don’t invariably generalize to the political context. More importantly, though, I don’t think the principle is intended only for “an idealized context.” He’s not doing utopian political theorizing and offering up a principle of justice that would apply if everything were as we might hope for it to be, but otherwise doesn’t apply; this principle is supposed to apply everywhere, and he does indeed apply it to the many conditions that he regards as non-ideal. The ideal stuff comes in books VII and VIII; books IV-VI are applying the principle (and others) to the assessment and proposed strategies for improvement of non-ideal cities in non-ideal circumstances, even (in book V), tyrannies. So it’s not simply that the unavailability of equally good flutes doesn’t get generalized to the political context; the political context isn’t assumed to be invariably ideal.

          Your other questions raise more interesting problems, though. I probably can’t deal adequately with them in one go, but the following might help clarify at least what I’m thinking.

          First, I take it that considerations of need do not amount to a need-based approach to distribution when the needs in question get attention solely because their fulfillment enables or promotes the successful performance of some limited role. This seems easy to see in certain narrower contexts. Suppose I am your employer, and what I want is for you to produce as many high quality thumbtacks as possible each week. I recognize that, alas, in order to produce a high quantity of high quality thumbtacks for me over an extended period of time, you need time away from thumbtack production to sleep, eat, and recuperate. You’re desperate for employment, so I could probably get 60 hours a week from you without your dying or quitting, but studies show that production quality falls off after 45 hours a week. So I happily grant you a contract that maxes out your workweek at 45 hours. There is a straightforward sense in which your needs are not the basis for my decision; they enter into it, but only insofar as they affect your performance, which matters to me only insofar as it is productive of high quality thumbtacks. My decision about your hours is not based on your needs; it’s based on efficiency in production. The fact that the needs in question — for sleep, food, time away from work — are needs that you would continue to have regardless of whether you worked for me, and indeed are needs that you have qua human being or even animal or living organism (as opposed to needs that you might have qua thumbtack producer, e.g., the need for some working machines) doesn’t change the role that they play in my decision. Your needs influence my decision solely insofar as they affect your productivity. Hence it would be odd to say that my decision is based on your needs.

          In a broader political context, we find something like this in some interpretations of Plato’s Republic (I would contest this interpretation, but its strengths or weaknesses as an interpretation aren’t what’s at issue here): benefits and duties are distributed in Kallipolis according to ability, where each gets what he or she needs to do her or his work well, and that work is some task that benefits the city as a whole, and only incidentally what benefits him or her as an individual. The good of the city is like the beauty of a statue; if all of the parts are ugly, the whole won’t be beautiful, but the beauty of the whole is not reducible to the beauty of any of its parts, and none of them need to be especially beautiful in their own right in order to contribute to making the whole beautiful as a whole. Now, in Kallipolis we certainly pay attention to what people need, and we ensure to the best of our ability that people’s needs are met. But we meet your needs, and even determine what they are, solely by reference to your role as a contributor to the good of the city. What you can do best for us is to make shoes. In order to do that, you need certain things; health, food, clothes, shelter, adequate rest, good training, equipment, and so on. But we’re meeting your needs not because they’re your needs, but because if we don’t meet them then you won’t be able to do your work well. Of course we suppose that you will not be terribly unhappy or deprived, since if you were you wouldn’t be likely to keep doing your job well. But the reason why we try to ensure that your needs are met is that we want you to contribute to the good of the city. Fulfilling your needs is not an end for us; it’s purely a means. Hence our distributions — of occupations, of material goods, of education, etc. — aren’t based on your needs; they’re based on your potential contribution to the good of the city.

          Now, I ultimately don’t even think Plato goes in for that sort of view, but I certainly do not think that Aristotle goes in for it either. Neither does Anagnostopoulos, at least so far as I can see. Aristotle is far clearer than Plato that the goal of a city is the happiness of its citizens, not simply qua citizens in some narrow functionalist sense, but as human beings. The common good of a political community is (at least) the conditions that promote and protect the citizens’ ability to live happily. So if you are a citizen in Aristotle’s best constitution rather than in the organic-holist version of Kallipolis, the city takes a direct interest in your well-being along with that of your fellow citizens, not simply the sort of indirect interest generated by the concern that you be best able to do whatever work most benefits the city. The whole point of the city is to enable us to live good lives. So we aim to provide you with what you need in order to live a good life not because if those needs are met you’ll be able to benefit the city in some further way, but because securing what we need to live good lives is the whole point of our having a city in the first place, and you are one of us. The trouble I see for Anagnostopoulos’ approach is not that he denies any of this and tries to turn Aristotle into an organic-holist thinker on the model of certain interpretations of Plato. It’s that treating needs as relevant to distributive justice simply insofar as the fulfillment of those needs enables greater contribution to the good of the city really only makes sense on that kind of model. Aristotle’s treatment of the distribution of political offices does rest on considerations of who can best contribute to the good of the city. For that very reason, it can’t be a sufficient basis for all of the policies that Aristotle endorses, even the ones that are what we today think of as distributive (e.g., educational opportunities, property, etc.). That, of course, is my preferred explanation of the puzzle that Anagnostopulos is trying to resolve, viz. why Aristotle doesn’t actually appeal to the distributive principle of Pol. III when discussing how much property citizens should have, what sorts of educational opportunities they should have, and so on.

          So far as I can see, there is only one way to make Anagnostopoulos’ strategy work: by supposing that the happiness at which the city aims just is political activity narrowly construed in terms of holding office and engaging in deliberative decision-making. If that were so, then the citizens’ needs for happiness would be identical to their needs for functioning well in their role as citizens exercising offices involving deliberative decision-making. I have argued against that interpretation at length, but of course it’s held by some pretty well informed people. Anagnostopoulos doesn’t discuss it, so far as I recall. In any case, I think we’d need a very strong version of it: not just that political participation is an intrinsic good and a necessary component of happiness, but that it is, as such, the principal constituent of happiness, if not identical to it. I don’t think Aristotle anywhere comes close to endorsing that view, but at the very least we’d need a defense of it. Otherwise, we’ll be left with a problem: the city aims at the happiness of its citizens, and so what makes someone a good citizen is his ability to contribute to the project of promoting and protecting citizens’ happiness; so long as that happiness consists in anything in addition to holding political office, the city will already have sufficient reason to concern itself with people’s needs prior to any consideration of how the fulfillment of those needs impacts their ability to contribute to the project of promoting and protecting citizens’ happiness; and so the city will inevitably concern itself directly with citizens’ happiness and needs.

          I don’t want to give the impression that Anagnostopoulos’ paper is not worth reading. I can’t recommend it unreservedly, since I think its main project can’t succeed, but even if I’m certainly right about that, it’s an interesting and wide-ranging survey of the issues that arise. I just wish that he’d at least considered whether justice as lawfulness provides a more fruitful (and more accurate) perspective for understanding how Aristotle thinks about some of these questions.

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