24 May 2005

Rawls and Aristotle

I'm traveling again today, this time to Long Island, to buy a replacement vehicle (found on the internet) for the family's '98 Astrovan, which at 180K miles has finally bit the dust. But before I leave, I thought that I'd post these passages from my SFU lecture on religion in a liberal democracy, where I draw comparisons between Rawls and Aristotle:

(I can't seem to get formatting to work on Blogger, so these paragraphs which follow, although quotations, will not be indented or preserve italics, etc.)
The basics of Rawls’ view are easy to state, and, in a sense, the basic ideas are all that concern us, since these are what even more advanced students will typically carry with them into practical life. In essence, Rawls is concerned with two ideas: political society, as a distinct form of association; and civic friendship, as a distinct form of resolving disagreements. Rawls’ philosophy is largely an attempt to get clear about these two things.

Let’s return to the notions of political society and civic friendship. First, political society. By ‘political society’ I mean basically what Aristotle meant by koinonia politike—that there is a mode of association (a koinonia), distinct from relationships within a family, or clans, business partnerships, voluntary associations, and religious groups, which is a ‘complete association’, in which we relate to one another as distinct persons who are free and equal. (It is complete because it provides the ‘basic structure’ for human life, as Rawls puts it.)...

If you have read Aristotle’s Politics, you may remember that he complains that Plato made the mistake of treating all associations as if they were the same in kind, differing only in degree—that being a king was just the same as being a father, except the former involved more subjects. Aristotle also objects that Plato takes the relationship between the best of friends, for whom ‘all things are in common’, as a paradigm of the sort of unity that would prevail in an ideal state. But that sort of closeness, Aristotle says, would effectively destroy the state, because a state is essentially composed of diverse elements. Distinctively political association is destroyed if the state is analogized to a single organism.

Rawls’ philosophical career began with his putting forward a similar objection to utilitarianism. At that time, in the 1960s, utilitarianism held sway as a theory of both personal action and public policy. As Charles Taylor has pointed out, utilitarianism was the dominant view because of its apparent rigor: it seemed to be the only ‘scientific’ theory of ethics which employed methods similar to those of the natural sciences. Rawls’ objection, in effect, was that, whatever the merits of utilitarianism as a theory for personal action, it failed as an account of deliberation in a liberal society, because, as he put it, utilitarianism ‘denies the distinctness of persons’. In aggregating, for purposes of calculation, the weal and woe of distinct members of society, and particularly in allowing the weal of one person to compensate for the woe suffered by another, utilitarianism treats those persons as if they were parts of a single body.


Anonymous said...

Sounds close to M. Nussbaum
Shame, separateness and political unity: Aristotle's criticism of Plato, which also has a chapter dedicated to Rawls. Did you use it?

Michael Pakaluk said...

I actually don't know that, but I should. Thanks for the reference.