Reading Notes Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (part 6, Aristotle)

Aristotelean justice requires the polis and a citizenry educated in virtue. The Aristotelean project is a search for absolute justice embodied in the ideal polis, and progress toward this ideal is made in particular polises with their relative standards of justice.

Given the importance of a citizenry educated in virtue in the just ordering of society it isn’t surprising that Aristotle believes that the best form of government is an aristocracy, which is rule by the best. He contrasts this with democracy – which is too indiscriminate in admitting everyone (including the vicious) to citizenship – and oligarchy – which grants citizenship to the powerful irrespective of virtue.

As an excursus, it’s important to note that Aristotle thought that some people were by nature incapable of ruling themselves: namely women and slaves. By definition they were ineducable in virtue and so could never be extended the right to rule. Aristotle’s fallacy is that of irrational domination whereby the premise that some people are “naturally unfit” tends to become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy where those social groups excluded from power are socialized in such a way that they truly aren’t fit for power. The stereotypes become reinforcing and so they tend to look true.

Virtue consists in knowing what are the goods that the polis should aim for and ordering the life of the polis in such a way that those goods are attained. There is no conflict between individual goods and the goods of the polis, because goods can only be determined by the polis itself and so individuals participate in the pursuit of the goods of the polis by fulfilling their particular role in the social order. There is no such thing for Aristotle as an individual good that is in conflict with the goods of the polis. The polis isn’t a marketplace of competing individual interests – as in a society governed by the goods of effectiveness – but instead a cooperative exercise in pursuing the common good. A society that pursues the goods of excellence requires virtues to create justice, in a society governed by the goods of effectiveness it is rational self-interest that creates justice.

For Aristotle there is no justice without virtue and no rationality without justice. Therefore, in order to act justly one must be educated in virtue. The virtues are dispositions to act in specific ways for specific reasons. Education in the virtues is the mastery, discipling, and transformations of ones desires so that one doesn’t just act virtuously but pursuit of the good becomes naturally what one wants.

Virtue is a kind of training in character formation. This is just like learning a sport. It requires instruction and moving from the simple to the more difficult and complex. In order to learn to play basketball you need to learn to dribble and shoot layups before you can work on spin moves, crossovers, three-pointers, reverse alley-oops, a flex offense, or a match-up zone defense. Virtue requires a similar education.

Those who lack this education by definition cannot act virtuously because they don’t fully understand the good and the just and why they ought to pursue it. Thus education in virtue is about getting someone to act justly before they have any rational justification for doing so. Learning to act justly is like learning the alphabet, you’re instructed in it even before you can rationally understand that letters make up words which make up the basic building blocks of communication.

For Aristotle justice is the distribution of the goods of the polis in such a way that will bring about the closest approximation of the ideal polis. Injustice is either getting more of the goods than you deserve or less. This is difficult for those of us reared in a free-market capitalist system to understand. For us more is always better, particularly when it comes to material wealth. But in the Aristotelean polis acquisitiveness is injustice, no one should have more resources than they need for the good of the whole.

How do the citizens of a polis decide what the greatest and highest goods are? Through the dynamic interaction of a kind of common sense based in experience and a inductive logic based on those experiences. Without experience there can be no induction, but without induction there can be no general rules to how one is supposed to act in future experiences. Justice is a matter of doing what is right in a given circumstance, this requires “practical knowledge” – what I call common sense – that precedes laws that govern behavior in circumstances. Practical knowledges precedes and informs the law. The reason that our common sense is trustworthy in forming laws is that human beings are rational creatures, so it is our tendency to act in ways that pursue the good as we understand it.

For Aristotle, justice only governs the interactions between free citizens in a single polis. Justice is different in Sparta and Athens, and one might be better than the other, but the Athenian isn’t required to act toward the Spartan according to the Athenian understanding of the demands of justice.

If justice requires education in virtue, and thus teachers who can teach these virtues, the natural question is to ask where did the original understanding of the virtues and their proper ordering come from? Who taught the first teachers? The answer to this question seems to be that a collective understanding of virtue naturally arises with the polis, people who commit to living and working together within a polity are also committing themselves to the pursuit of common goods however partially or ill-defined they might be. As soon as one commits oneself to life within a political community their naturally arises a kind of collective “practical knowledge” that is the nascent form of justice for that community.

Justice also requires not only doing the right thing, but understanding why it was the right thing to do. As stated earlier, practical rationality requires justice, but justice also requires practical rationality.


Practical rationality requires justice, because one can’t rationally understand what one is supposed to do in a given situation if they don’t know what justice requires. Rationality follows justice. There are several reasons why people fail in their practical reasoning to act justly. One is ignorance, they simply don’t know what justice requires. The second is immaturity, they might know what justice requires but their behavior is governed by passion instead of reason. The third is a lack of education, they might still be in the process of learning and developing their understanding of justice.

Since rationality requires justice and justice requires education and education presupposes the rational nature of human beings, one of the most important tasks of the polis is educating the young in virtue.

But what then is practical rationality? MacIntyre argues that it consists of the “practical syllogism” with a major premise (what is the good at stake in this situation?) and a minor premise (given the goods at stake and the situation itself, how must I act?). But where does this practical syllogism come from? Aristotle states that it arises naturally from a 1) desire plus a 2) situation. This process MacIntyre calls “deliberation.” It is this naturally occurring circumstance that generates the syllogism which is the basis of practical knowledge and then the further basis for inductive reasoning.

This conception of rational action is very different from our modern one. First of all, it seems very cognitively focused. Do we really need to do all this thinking to be rational? Second, is there really one Good toward which the demands of justice and practical reason lead us? We’re more apt to think of adjudicating between multiple goods in a given situation and that we could pursue one good at the expense of the other. And we’re also apt to think that rationality doesn’t compel action. I can know that something is the right thing to do and not do it and still be rational. This doesn’t mean we’re right and Aristotle is wrong, but just that Aristotle would tell us that we need to think harder if we really think that we can rationally pit one good against another.

MacIntyre offers hockey as an illustration of Aristotelean logic at work. In the closing seconds of a hockey game you notice your teammate open in front of the net. What must you do? You must immediately pass because your individual interest is the same as your team interest: bringing about the scoring of a goal to win the game. Practical rationality demands that one act from within their particular social role in a certain way in pursuit of a clearly identifiable common good. To fail to act in this way is to either misunderstand the situation or to act anti-socially. One is primarily a failure of rationality the other is a failure of justice.

Is Aristotle’s understanding of justice and rationality compelling? Clearly not universally so. However, it all depends on one’s point of view.

Leave a Reply