On Aristotle’s Wide Applicability


Aristotelian virtue ethics has very little to say about what is a good political structure or economic system.

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I thank David Schaengold for his response to my First Things article on Alasdair MacIntyre’s views on capitalism, and I particularly appreciate his focusing on what I agree is the most philosophically important issue involved—the supposed incompatibility between a virtue-theoretic, Aristotelian moral philosophy and a capitalist economic system.

As a preliminary matter, I note that, unlike MacIntyre, virtue theorists generally have not rejected capitalism. Indeed, even the specifically Roman Catholic tradition of the virtues to which MacIntyre subscribes does not teach that capitalism is immoral. For example, in Rerum Novarum Leo XIII reaffirmed the Catholic teaching on the legitimacy of private property, including private ownership of the means of production, and this position has remained an important part of Catholic social teaching to this day. That others who draw on the tradition of virtue ethics have not detected the incompatibility that MacIntyre finds should raise doubts about whether such an incompatibility really exists.

One argument for that supposed incompatibility is that, according to MacIntyre, capitalism systematically teaches people to regard as a virtue the vice of greed. Now, this argument can be viewed in two ways: either empirically, in which case it means that, in fact, people living in capitalist societies are greedier than other people, or conceptually, in which case it means that capitalism includes a norm in favor of the unreasonable acquisition of wealth.

This latter strikes me as the more interesting form of the argument, and I discussed it in the First Things article, but Schaengold takes up the empirical version, arguing that “under capitalism, people who structure their lives around the pursuit of wealth are frequently richly rewarded, both with riches and with the praise and respect of their fellow citizens.” This is true, of course, but, as I explained at length in First Things, such things can be said about people in any society, whether capitalist or otherwise. Greed is a universal human failing, and moralists have decried it cross-culturally down the ages. That capitalist societies include some greedy people, or even many greedy people, does nothing to prove that capitalism encourages greed.

To make the empirical charge stick, MacIntyre and Schaengold have to show not that people in capitalist societies are greedy but that they are significantly greedier than people in non-capitalist societies. If we could measure greed statistically, compare the levels of greed across societies, and control for other relevant variables, such an argument might get off the ground, but I rather doubt that this is possible. It is certainly not possible with respect to societies from the distant past, and so reliable historical comparisons are probably forever beyond our reach. This leaves MacIntyre and Schaengold with their vague impressions of what life was like at different times and places, but such impressions are not serious evidence that people in contemporary capitalist societies are greedier than others. O tempora, O mores! Indeed, for any impressionistic comparison cutting in one direction, there will be another cutting in the opposite direction. For example, Schaengold points to medieval usury laws as proof that medieval societies suppressed greed, but as checks on the accumulation of wealth these are nothing compared to the progressive income tax, the estate tax, the labor laws, consumer protection statutes, the social security system, welfare, public housing, and the vast array of wealth-redistribution programs characteristic of advanced capitalist societies. To judge by legal structures, it seems clear that capitalist societies are less greedy than medieval societies, not more so.

Schaengold next says that, for Aristotle, the function of the state is to promote comprehensive human flourishing—in Aristotle’s words, “what is advantageous for life as a whole” and in Schaengold’s words, “the flourishing of each of its members in sufficiency.” Schaengold says—quite rightly, I admit—that the liberal state does not see itself as having such a function. Therefore, Schaengold concludes, the liberal state and the Aristotelian one are importantly different.

The first point here is that, in my First Things article, I was not talking about the liberal state. I was talking about capitalism, which is a set of economic arrangements (e.g., strong property rights, freedom of contract, minimal governmental interference in market transactions), not political ones. Although often combined, capitalist economics and liberal politics are conceptually distinct and practically separable. Witness Singapore, which has a fiercely capitalist economy but surely not a liberal political regime. So Schaengold’s argument is basically misdirected here: I said that Aristotelianism is compatible with capitalist economic arrangements, but Schaengold replies that Aristotelianism is not compatible with liberal political arrangements.

Still, capitalism and political liberalism sit easily together, and so I am happy to take up Schaengold’s argument. In my view, the key point is that, whatever it means to say that an Aristotelian state aims at the comprehensive flourishing of its citizens, it does not mean what it sounds like—i.e., a totalitarian state seeking to control all aspects of life. Aristotle thinks, and I think, that there are some things that the state can do much better than other organizations and so are the special province of the state—for example, providing for the national defense, making and enforcing a criminal code, maintaining courts for the settlement of civil disputes, and so on. Of course, the modern liberal state does all these things and vastly more besides, including many things no doubt best left undone.

So the question becomes what, in Schaengold’s view, the state ought to do that a liberal state does not do, and to this question I think there is no plausible answer. Certainly Schaengold provides no examples in his essay. For my part, if I ask myself what else the state might do to help me live a good life, all that comes to mind is the famous declaration of Ronald Reagan: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”

More generally, human beings need certain things in order to live good lives, including some things that are best provided by the state (e.g., physical security), some things that are best provided by the market (e.g., most goods and services), and some things that are best provided by non-market voluntary associations (e.g., family life). To insist that the state be concerned with comprehensive human flourishing while conceding that so many aspects of that flourishing should be provided by other organizations not under state control strikes me as an idle quibble. Aristotelian premises require that the state help its citizens flourish by doing those things necessary for human flourishing that other organizations cannot do or cannot do nearly as well. More than that is not required. I do not think this involves me in contradicting the historical Aristotle, but if it does, all the worse for Aristotle. He was wrong about other things, too.

Finally, some perspective is in order here. I regard Aristotelian virtue ethics as the true moral philosophy, the correct account of the human good and of the moral right and wrong applicable to human beings always and everywhere. It achieves such generality because it is based on universal human nature shared by all human beings, wherever and whenever they may be found. This generality comes at a cost, however. The list of actions absolutely incompatible with the human good—things like the intentional taking of innocent human life—is short. For all other actions, whether in particular cases they are right or wrong, whether they appropriately conduce to the human good or detract from it, depends on the totality of the circumstances.

The true moral philosophy thus entails precious few definite requirements about political or economic arrangements. For example, human flourishing does not absolutely require a democratic form of government, and so in some times and places, democracy is not morally required. Rather, many different forms of government are in principle morally permissible, and which is best for a given society at a given time depends on that society’s particular circumstances. Similarly for economic arrangements. Capitalism is not absolutely required for human flourishing, but neither is it absolutely prohibited; rather, many different kinds of economic arrangements are, in principle, morally permissible, and which is best in any particular case varies with the circumstances. To be sure, human beings need to flourish comprehensively, but there is no single set of political or economic arrangements, applicable in all times and places, necessary to achieve such comprehensive flourishing. In particular, there is no necessary connection, either positive or negative, between human flourishing and capitalism. For people like us in a society like ours, liberal democratic capitalism seems obviously to offer the best prospects of creating the conditions under which individual human beings can lead good lives. That is why I favor our system.

Robert T. Miller is an associate professor of law at Villanova University School of Law.

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