Summary of Aristotle on Politics (The Good Society)

In our previous post we considered the pursuit of the good or meaningful life as if it were a solitary affair. But Aristotle does not think we can live well alone—we are social creatures—and we need to consider other persons. Justice is that virtue that is concerned with the good of others, both of our friends and all the others in society. Having friends and living in a just society greatly increases our chances of having good lives.

But since all people are not friends, we need justice to bind people together in society. Justice intervenes when love or friendship fails; it determines what one person has a right to expect from another. Were it not for justice, groups might not stay together, and having a good life would become more difficult. In short, his point was that a good human life is most likely if one lives in a just society, a society with good government. And to the extent that government is not good, it will be much more difficult for an individual to have a good life. And that is why Aristotle said that political science is the most important science.

What Do Others Have a Right to Expect from Us?

That we keep our promises, tell the truth, return what we borrowed, pay our debts, do not steal, injure or kill them, interfere with their freedom, etc. In short, others have a right to expect that we not do anything that would impede their living well, anything that would interfere with their obtaining the real goods necessary for a good life. Since they need these goods to live well, that gives them a right to expect them.

While others should expect that we not interfere with them, Aristotle did not think that justice demands we act positively to help them live good lives. Love or friendship or generosity may imply that we act positively to help others, but justice does not.

Still the state should make and enforce laws that require such action, inasmuch as the existence of the good society is important for individuals trying to live good lives. The end, goal, or purpose of the good state, Aristotle says, is to promote the happiness of the individuals who compose it. It should promote their pursuit of good lives. When the state promotes the welfare of others, it is indirectly promoting their chance of living well.

What Do We Have a Right to Expect from Others and from the State?

You have a right to expect from others exactly what they have a right to expect from you—that they tell the truth, keep their promises, not kill or injure you, etc. And that is because what is really good for them is also good for you.

Furthermore, among the things we need to live well is to live in association with others. This is where the obligations of the state—what we have a right to expect—comes into play. Bad societies fail to help or actively hinder people’s abilities to live well; good societies do the reverse. Just as a family is bad to the extent it did not have concern for its children’s health; a society is bad to that extent for similar reasons. In both cases the institutions are not doing what we have a right to expect from them.

Thus some societies are better than others to the extent that they provide the condition in which their citizens to flourish. As the point of an individual life is to live well; the point of civilization is to provide the conditions where all individuals have the opportunity to flourish. While Aristotle thought government necessary and good—since humans have a difficult time living together peacefully—some governments are better than others.

To determine whether a government is good or bad Aristotle asked three basic questions: 1) Does the government serve the common good or does it serve the selfish interests of those with power? 2) Does the government rest on the power at the ruler’s disposal or does it rest on laws that have been made in such a way that the ruled have agreed to them and have had a part in making? And 3) If the government is constitutional, is that constitution just and are the laws made by that government just?

The best government is not tyrannical or despotic, and has a just constitution and just laws. Constitutional government is one of free men and equals; whereas those ruled by a despot are subjects not citizens, and those ruled by tyrants are no better off than slaves. In short, we have a right to expect to be ruled as citizens under a government to which we have given our consent and which allows us to have a voice in that government.

But even more so, we have a right to expect that the state do everything in its power to promote human flourishing, to provide the conditions under which all individuals have the opportunity to live well. While achieving moral virtue or knowledge may be largely within our power, other goods like wealth or health may be largely determined by fortune. While a good government cannot guarantee that citizens will attain moral virtue or have good lives, it can provide the condition under which this is possible, and it can help alleviate much of the injustice caused by misfortune.

Summary –  If justice prevails, we will receive what we should expect from others and they will receive what they should expect from us. And if our civilization also provides the conditions under which we can flourish, then we have an excellent chance to not only live … but live well.

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