thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Michael Sandel on Justice #5

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So I don’t see the gap Michael Sandel sees in John Rawls’s liberal egalitarianism. So I don’t see the need to bring Aristotle into it. And I don’t think Aristotle makes the ground any firmer anyway.



This is the fifth part of a series on Michael J Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? which started with Michael Sandel on Justice #1.

Aristotle’s reasoning – in science as well as ethics and politics – was teleological. ‘Teleological’ comes from the Greek telos (τέλοϛ) which means ‘end’ or ‘purpose’.

Sandel explains that for Aristotle justice is teleological:

Defining rights requires us to figure out the telos … of the social practice in question.

Justice is also honorific for Aristotle:

To reason about the telos of a practice—or to argue about it—is, at least in part, to reason or argue about what virtues it should honor and reward.

If we are distributing flutes, then the best flutes should go to the best flute-players, because what flutes are for is to be played well.

Flute player

Flute player

All well and good, but for Aristotle telos also applies to natural objects (stones, plants, animals, fire), not just artefacts deliberately made by people to fulfil a purpose. Which, for me, is where things go awry. Today, Sandel admits,

no scientist reads Aristotle’s works on biology or physics and takes them seriously. But students of ethics and politics continue to read and ponder Aristotle’s moral and political philosophy.

Within the realm of ethics and politics, a social institution like a school can have a telos. And so can a political community, or polis (πόλις). But a polis doesn’t just have a telos because the people who created it gave it a telos. The telos of a polis is also related to the telos of the people themselves:

Only by living in a polis and participating in politics do we fully realize our nature as human beings. … Nature makes nothing in vain, and human beings, unlike other animals, are furnished with the faculty of language… [which] isn’t just for registering pleasure and pain. It’s about declaring what is just and what is unjust, and distinguishing right from wrong.

…Only in political association, Aristotle claims, can we exercise our distinctly human capacity for language, for only in a polis do we deliberate with others about justice and injustice and the nature of the good life.

This is all teleological language. And at least in this context Aristotle’s supposedly sound moral and political philosophy is based fairly and squarely on his teleological biology, which Sandel has said no modern scientist takes seriously.

To be continued

© Chris Lawrence 2011.


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