Post No.: 0900
Different individuals or groups experience different fortunes and misfortunes in their lives through no credit or fault of their own, like being born into wealth or poverty due to one’s ancestors being the slave traders or the slaves.
‘Affirmative action’ or positive discrimination, via ‘distributive justice’ or a fairer (re)allocation of resources and opportunities in society, may contestably compensate for such past injustices and correct for inequalities in one’s individual upbringing or background.
But how would we precisely calculate the link between a past injustice and its effect on an individual today? And isn’t simplifying the process by judging people merely by their race too crude even if it is positive discrimination?
A stronger argument for affirmative action could be to promote diversity, such as a university inviting a diverse range of law students, which will stimulate better discussions and prepare them to become better lawyers, politicians, etc..
But against affirmative action, at least based on race – no one chooses their own race whether it works for or against an individual, and no one today should pay for what their ancestors did, even their direct ancestors. Such arguments concern violating individual rights and not using individuals for the common good.
A related issue is whether individual human rights take priority over an organisation’s rights e.g. the rights of a university applicant (regardless of their ethnicity) versus the rights of the university that wishes to specify its own admissions criteria (and so if the institution wishes to discriminate then it should be allowed to).
This highlights how a free market can run roughshod over individual rights and freedoms e.g. if the market doesn’t employ many black lawyers then a law course may decide not to award many places to black people regardless of their individual merits.
Libertarians might contest that governments shouldn’t enforce the individual’s freedom but the organisation’s freedom to do whatever it wishes to do with its own property. This presents the conundrum of whether an organisation can do whatever it wants even if this counters people’s individual liberties? Whose liberties shall take priority?
The question of whether we can/should or can’t/shouldn’t place distributive justice according to deservedness, and whether it is desirable to, is a major one. Most rights-oriented thinkers, from egalitarians to libertarians, think that distributive justice cannot be or isn’t tied to moral desert or virtue because no one morally deserves what they have or get, although they may be entitled to it according to the predetermined rules set in place by society, or justice isn’t about rewarding or honouring moral desert or virtue but about respecting rights, respectively. (Post No.: 0540 questioned whether we deserved our own natural talents.) John Rawls, Robert Nozick and Immanuel Kant all believed that tying justice to moral merit or virtue is going to lead away from freedom and the respect for persons as free beings. Moral desert is thus irrelevant when it comes to a just distribution of goods.
Aristotelians, however, reject these beliefs and believe that justice is indeed a matter of giving people what they deserve – a matter of figuring out the proper fit between persons with their virtues and appropriate social roles. Aristotle believed that a just society is one that enables human beings to realise their highest nature and to live the ‘good life’. He argued that what separates human beings from the other animals is human reason – thus the good life for him is one in which a person fosters and exercises his/her rational faculties by engaging in political, philosophical, artistic and scientific discussions and the like. Political activity isn’t merely a way to pursue our interests but is an essential part of the good life.
But what are the grounds for merit or desert? People who are equal should have equal things assigned to them, which sounds intuitive – but ‘equal’ in what respect? Aristotle said it depends on what’s being distributed e.g. the ‘best’ flute players should get the best flutes. Aristotle would be interested in honouring the excellence of a person’s flute playing – their fit as ‘the most virtuous flute player’ – by giving them the best flute, as they’ll make the best use of it. It’s therefore fine to discriminate – all justice involves discrimination he said.
What matters is that the discrimination be according to the relevant virtue appropriate to playing flutes i.e. playing them well – so it’d be unjust to discriminate on some other basis, like distributing the best flutes according to those with the most money, the inheritance of a flute, one’s beauty, how much one will enjoy or most need to play a flute, or even chance/a lottery, for example.
The highest honours are reserved for those who are most ‘fit’ for those particular honours. But in practical terms, how do we define what ‘best’, ‘virtue’ or ‘fit’ means? According to Aristotle, ‘the best flute player’ doesn’t even necessarily mean someone who’ll generate the most joy to listeners!
If it’s based on past track record then how do people with no track record but many ideas get the funding to test their ideas? If merit is based on hindsight then many opportunities may be missed. If it’s based on attempted foresight then no one is so prescient. One could also link any two events together indirectly with x number of degrees of separation to justify a teleological purpose.
If Aristotle says that the best flutes should go to the best flute players, not who’ll enjoy the music the most – then we can ask why? For which the answer may be because it’ll produce the best music – but for what end? Because the best music will create the greatest joy to the listener – i.e. one can contend that it’s all ultimately teleologically about the enjoyment after all(!)
And how would we practically redistribute all the ‘flutes’ in the world today on this principle? Morality and practicality often clash. However, some thinkers contend that philosophy and justice isn’t so much about pragmatism but is about a kind of ideal that we should measure our reality against to see if we’re on the right track, regardless of whether we ever reach that ideal.
So Aristotle didn’t believe that a distribution was just if an equity of opportunity was realised or if everyone received an equal share of something. What the government is allowed to do is determined by its purpose or telos, which, according to Aristotle, is to form ‘good character’ or to cultivate the virtue of citizens and realise the good life. He wasn’t a utilitarian though so it’s not about the outcomes for society – he argued that the best flutes should go to the best players simply because that’s what flutes are for.
But ‘what things are for’ is arbitrary e.g. is a car for bringing home the shopping or for ram-raiding a shop for a heist?! Are clothes for keeping people warm or for looking good in? What’s ‘use’ or ‘misuse’ but a matter of perspective? And who or what determines what music or art is better than another for instance?
Although both Jeremy Bentham and Aristotle believed that the good is prior to the right, Bentham might say, regarding dog fighting, that to inflict pain upon animals might be justified if the audience takes greater pleasure in it (the sum total of pleasure minus the sum total of pain, full stop), whereas Aristotle might say that to engage in vice instead of virtue is wrong for whatever pleasure it may bring. The good isn’t reducible to pleasure. Yet who decides what’s virtuous? (I would firmly agree that it isn’t virtuous to torture animals though – woof woof!)
Both utilitarians and Aristotelians start by asking what things are good, then argue that the government should intervene to advance that good. But Aristotelian philosophy is consequentialist regarding how it maximises some goal/purpose in itself e.g. what’s the goal/purpose of a university education? Is it to offer a diverse view of the world to better equip graduates for the outside world? If so, would this mean that affirmative action regarding accommodating more ethnic minorities is just? The telos of something and maximising that telos is what justice should be about according to Aristotle (teleological reasoning or reasoning from the goal) – that’s how to define a just allocation or discrimination.
Of course, whenever we study a historical person and his/her thoughts, we must always remember to consider the context in which those thoughts were formulated. And in Aristotle’s time, people generally believed that nature and the universe had some higher teleological purpose – as if nature had some meaningful designed order and we should all therefore be placed according to our own purpose within this whole. This is questionable under modern science and thinking – yet is there still something in thinking about justice and affirmative action in a teleological way?
Yet still, who or what decides the teleological purpose of things? Even if we argue that an intelligent Creator designed everything with objective teleological purposes, we seem to actually be the ones arbitrarily attributing purposes to things e.g. our foreheads were designed for the purpose of slapping. Doh! Science cannot objectively answer questions of purpose either.
Everyone looks to give equal things to equal persons – but the big question in any debate about distributive justice is ‘equal in what respect?’ This debate is also not just about distributive justice but about what qualities or excellences should be honoured. Modern debates about distributive justice circle mainly around the distribution of income, wealth and opportunity – but Aristotle took distributive justice to mean not just these things but mainly the distribution of offices/positions and honours e.g. to know how political authority should be distributed, one must inquire into the purpose of politics, which, for him, was to shape the moral character of citizens and realise the good life hence these positions should be allocated to the most virtuous citizens as a way of honouring their virtuousness as citizens. This is in contrast to most modern views, which aren’t primarily about making us good people but about respecting our freedoms of life, liberty and property.
Virtuous members of society are more important than productive members. We’re social beings hence are meant to live in a polis (political community), and only in this kind of society can we properly deliberate about right and wrong and co-exist together. Thus, according to Aristotle, no one can learn virtue by him/herself – only by participating in politics (broadly conceived as the practice of deliberation) do we acquire the virtues necessary to make good choices. This is what Aristotle meant when he said that the polis exists by nature and is prior to the individual. And insofar as the primary purpose of the polis is the cultivation of virtue in citizens – the purpose of the law is, correspondingly, to help realise the primary purpose of the polis hence it should enforce any conception of the good through law.
Morality and fostering a virtuous citizenry is the primary purpose of the State, yet we cannot leave politics to only a pawful of people since they may be corrupt and fail to recognise what is good. He adds that happiness isn’t just about balancing pleasure over pain but about the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue; and shaping the soul is one of the objectives of legislation in a good society. And virtue can only be learnt by practising it – not by merely reading about it.
We should all therefore practise virtue by practising, or getting involved in, politics. Via the Twitter comment button below, you can share what you think about this?
Woof. In order to decide between the two broad traditions – of whether Aristotle is right or whether the likes of Rawls, Nozick and Kant are right – we need to investigate whether the good is prior to the right, and we need to investigate what it means to be a free person/a morally free agent?