Reading Notes on Whose Justice? Which Rationality? by Alasdair MacIntyre (part 3)

Athens is the arena to which MacIntyre turns to examine the conflict between the competing justices and rationalities of excellence and effectiveness.

Homer couldn’t imagine that there would ever be a conflict between the two, the Athenians proved otherwise.

Athens held itself as a model of democracy, all Athenian citizens were treated equally, life within the city and between citizens was governed by the good of legal equality between all. The behavior of Athens towards its neighboring city-states – particularly surrounding the Peloponnesian War – was marked by a good-old-fashioned might makes right conception of justice. Toward these sometimes allies, sometimes rivals Athens, applied the rule that those who are stronger may and always will impose their will upon the weaker.

Athenian notions of justice were thus divided between an excellence-oriented justice within its internal life and an effective-oriented justice toward others. Pericles was the great champion of Athens who failed to recognize the inherent contradiction between Athens internal and external behavior. How was this conflict to be resolved?

Since they rest on irreconcilable premises the appeal for one kind of justice over the other cannot rest on rational appeal. Pericles was a master rhetorician who recognized that without shared premises regarding telos there could be no shared rational appeal. Thus, he was the master at appealing to his audiences emotions. When they were overconfident he scared them, when they were anxious he built up there courage.

But was this right? Was there any other way to reconcile excellence and effectiveness if there is no shared practical reasoning between them? Does the answer then lies somewhere else? For Sophocles it required a deus ex machina, a god appears on the scene an adjudicates what justice demands in a given situation. For Sophocles properly understanding what is just requires a theological framework.

For Thucydides there is no deus ex machina, all heroes eventually fall no matter how stridently they pursue the Good. Effectiveness always trumps excellence, and so for Thucydides there is no justice beyond the strong over the weak and doing what is best for oneself given the reality of that framework.

It is against this Thucydidean vision of effective justice that Plato argues and to which MacIntyre will next turn his attention.

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