28 October 2006

The Community of Free and Equal Persons

Although an important premise of John Rawls' philosophy is "the fact of ineliminable pluralism" (which implies that the citizens of a truly free society will never coincide on fundamental philosophical beliefs), it is remarkable how frequently disciples of Rawls discover that some major philosopher, ostensibly very different in outlook from Rawls, is in fact a Rawlsian. Dissertations have been written showing that Aquinas was a Rawlsian, or Hobbes. And now Charles Young, apparently, argues that Aristotle too was a Rawlsian.

As Richard Kraut says in the introductory essay to his anthology, "Charles Young ... proposes ... that we can find some striking similarities between Aristotelian justice as equality and some familiar ideas of contemporary political philosophy. There is, he argues, a notion of impartiality built into Aristotle's conception of justice. It 'invites us, in conducting our relations with others, to assume a perspective from which we view ourselves and ... others as members of a community of free and equal human beings, and to decide what to do from that perspective" (7).

Young seems to have two arguments. The first, which is implicit, is this: Aristotle speaks of justice as between free and equal persons (1134a24-30); Rawls speaks of justice as between free and equal persons; thus Aristotle and Rawls have the same view.

We need only state that argument to refute it.

Young's second argument involves reflection on a particular case of reasoning involving justice, "an example that illustrates what Aristotle may have in mind" when Aristotle says that a judge is a kind of intermediary. I quote it in full:

I back my car out of my driveway, destroying your bicycle, which you have left there. A predicable dispute arises. We agree that I owe you compensation to the degree that I was negligent in not looking before backing my car out and to the degree that you were negligent in leaving your bicycle in my driveway. But we disagree about which of us was the more negligent. You stress my error in not looking before backing out my car. If you are rude, you note that it might have been a child, not just a bicycle, that I ran over. I stress your error in leaving your bicycle where you did. If I am rude, I express the hope that you take better care of your child than you do of your bicycle.

To settle our dispute we might take it to a third party for adjudication. Each of us would expect the arbiter to decide the case from a disinterested perspective. The arbiter will treat each of us, and our respective claims, equally. She will look only at the fact that a bicycle left in a driveway by one person was destroyed by a second person who backed over it, and not care which of us owned the bicycle and which the car. And she will fix responsibility as the facts and the relevant principles demand.

The arbiter's decision helps us to see what justice requires of each of us in the original case. The arbiter assumes a disinterested perspective on the matter, seeing us only as two members of a community of free and equal persons, each with our own needs and interests. She is made aware of the facts of the case, and she is asked to fix responsibility as the facts and principles require. But this is a perspective that is open to each of us, independently of our actually submitting our case to a third party. Each of us can look at the situation from the arbiter's point of view without actually submitting the case to an arbiter. I can base my claims on a view of the appropriate degree of responsibility attaching to someone who, in such circumstances, ran over some else's [sic] bicycle that brackets the fact that the responsibility is mine. You can do the same, mutatis mutandis. To the extent that we have achieved Aristotelian justice, I am suggesting, this is what we will be disposed to do.
And I give his conclusion in full:
...Aristotelian particular justice invites us, in conducting our relations with others, to assume a perspective from which we view ourselves and those others as members of a community of free and equal human beings, and to decide what to do from that perspective. If we are able to achieve that perspective, and to embody it in our thoughts, feelings, desires, and choices, we will have achived Aristotelian particular justice. When we act from that perspective, we will express a conception of ourselves as free and equal members of a poltical community: as citizens.