Aristotle says that all constitutions are based on a notion of justice; this notion, however, varies between constitutions. Oligarchs, for instance, maintain that it is just to grant benefits in proportion to a person's wealth, while democrats claim that all who are equal in free birth should be granted an equal share in the wealth of the city. This difference in distribution results from differing notions about the end goal of the city. If the end goal of a city were property and wealth, then the wealthiest members would indeed contribute the most to the city, and thus they would deserve the greatest share of benefits. Alternatively, if the end goal of the city were simply life or security, then all would be equal partners in this enterprise, and all would deserve an equal share of benefits. But associations based on wealth and security are not cities. The end goal of a city is life of good quality for its citizens, and thus benefits should be extended to those who do the most to contribute to this end by encouraging civil excellence, regardless of their birth or wealth.
Aristotle examines a number of problems regarding sovereignty. If the governing body is allowed to determine what is just, then democracies, oligarchies, and tyrannies would then be just. And though aristocracies and kingships may rule justly, these systems deprive the rest of the citizens of the honor of holding civic office. Likewise, laws cannot be allowed to determine automatically what is just, since they may be formulated unjustly.
Aristotle believes that a politeia can overcome many of these difficulties. While each individual person may not be particularly commendable, the populace as a whole is less susceptible to error and should share collectively in the judicial and deliberative offices of government. Aristotle answers the objection that government should be left to experts by saying that the collective populace is wiser than any individual expert, and more importantly, a better judge as to whether the people are being governed well. Aristotle concludes nonetheless that well-constituted laws should ultimately be sovereign, and governing bodies should deal only with particular cases not covered by general laws.
Aristotle asserts that justice is the end goal of politics, granting benefits in proportion to merit. Merit is determined by one's contribution to the functioning and well-being of the city, but it is not entirely clear how one can determine who contributes the most toward these ends: separate arguments can be made in favor of the wealthy, the nobly born, the good, and the masses. Aristotle argues on behalf of the masses but suggests that if there is a single individual far superior in all respects to everyone else, he should be made king.
Kingship ranges from being a military commander to being the absolute sovereign in every matter. Aristotle concerns himself particularly with the issues of this latter form, absolute monarchy. A king is more adaptable than laws to particular circumstances, but a single person cannot possibly deal with all the city's affairs. Further, a single individual is more susceptible than a larger body to corruption. Given the vital need for impartiality, Aristotle considers a larger body preferable to a king (even if the king were to subject himself to impartial laws) in the making of day-to-day decisions. Nonetheless, in those rare cases in which one individual clearly outstrips the rest, it may be just to grant that individual absolute kingship.
Aristotle's concept of distributive justice is based on a cold, practical assessment of an individual's value to society. Aristotle believes that since people make unequal contributions to society (and hence are unequal), it is only just to grant them unequal benefits. Modern notions of inherent equality, on the other hand, rebuff this attitude, focusing on the cooperative spirit of society at large. The ##Declaration of Independence##, for example, claims as a "self-evident" truth that "all men are created equal," expressing the belief that everyone deserves the same rights and opportunities.
Distributive justice raises two particular problems that Aristotle addresses in these chapters: first, who is to determine what is just, and second, who makes the most significant contribution to the well-being of the city? All political associations should aim at a kind of justice that will confer benefits according to merit, but this abstract formulation does not tell us how we can determine merit and who should be the last word concerning justice.
The question of sovereignty is a difficult one, as Aristotle acknowledges. No matter who has the last word on what is just, there is the possibility of corruption or unfairness. If we place justice in the hands of the governing body, then even a corrupt or self-interested governing body would be just by definition. In claiming all the wealth for themselves, the rulers of an oligarchy could defend themselves by saying that they are the governing body so their decision is just. And even if we say that the laws set down in the constitution determine justice, there remain two difficulties. First, our definition carries no guarantee that these laws are just: they may have been set down in the interests a self-interested minority. Second, laws can only deal with generalities, and there are many particular cases on which the law is not clear.
Aristotle's solution is to require, first of all, that the governing body include all citizens and that they govern in the common interest; and second, that the laws be well constituted and directed toward the general good. That is, he favors a constitutional government, or politeia, that is subject to a fair and sovereign set of laws. The law, claims Aristotle, should be the absolute sovereign, and the decisions of the government should only be made in those cases where the law is unclear. The government should not have the power to make decisions that go counter to the law. If the law is well constituted, this will ensure that, even if a corrupt government is in power, it cannot do too much damage. While the idea of the sovereignty of the law was not new in Aristotle's time, he was one of the main proponents of this idea in the Greek world, and it has been passed down to us largely thanks to him.
In Aristotle's opinion, then, a sovereign law should confer benefits according to each person's contribution to the city, and deliberative and judicial assemblies that are made up of all citizens should rule in cases where the law is ambiguous. However, the question remains how we should determine who makes the best contribution to the city. If the goal of the city is to ensure the good life for its citizens, it is far from clear how we could fix an objective standard to determine who contributes most to this goal. Aristotle's solution is that, since all citizens take part in deliberative and judicial office, all citizens contribute equally. This solution is trumped in the case of outstanding individuals who clearly make a far more significant contribution than their peers. In Aristotle's opinion, it would be unjust to place such an individual on an equal level as his peers, since he is making an unequal contribution. Though Aristotle is reluctant to endorse kingship for a number of reasons, he ultimately concludes that in some cases it may be the best solution.
Aristotle is not concerned about depriving non-citizens of the opportunity to contribute to government because he does not believe that such contributions could possibly be valuable. According to him, all people are born of a nature that leads them either to lead or to follow. Only freeborn citizens are leaders, and only they would have access to the education and leisure that would make them politically savvy enough to be able to contribute to government. It is worth noting that the audience to whom Aristotle lectured consisted of just such freeborn citizens, whose leisure time allowed them to absorb Aristotle's teachings and reinforce the social hierarchy.
Early in book one, Aristotle states, “for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good.” The wording of “they think” in his statement implies that humankind seeks “good” based on their subjective definition of the term. If humankind seeks what they think is good, it naturally falls that individuals will seek what they believe to be good for themselves, which then seems to lead naturally to the accumulation of coin because of its ability to bring material comforts.
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