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On #Aristotle, #society, & #technology: an unlimited supply of happiness and virtue.

posted Nov 9, 2013, 6:05 PM by Peter Joseph Moons
On Aristotle, Society, and Technology: An Unlimited Supply of Happiness and Virtue.


By Peter Joseph Moons

    In Aristotelian politics, the result of a just political order is one where the people in the city are happy, which creates a good life.  Aristotle says that “justice is a thing belonging to the city” (1253a38), so if the city is just, so are the people who comprise the political structure.  The city is a good place if the people are happy, and their happiness exists because they are living virtuously.  Aristotle notes, however, that people are not the same in terms of capacity of virtue, just as some play sports or make music better than others.  The optimal political order, then, is one in which the most virtuous are chosen to lead the city and its people. (1283a10-23)  Therefore, if those of the highest civic virtue lead the political order, the city will be happiest.  The civic leaders would rule and make laws with the common good in mind, while promoting virtue, which is unlimited and learnable by citizens.  Also, people in the city live under the same law, which applies equally to all, thereby sustaining a just order.   Lastly, as a contrast, the worst political order would be one where injustice is imposed by force. (1253a33-34)  If this were the case, then the people and the city would suffer as well as be unhappy and not lead good lives.

    On revolution as a correction measure to restore a city to a just political rule from tyranny, there is never an excuse for tyranny.  That thinking is in line with the Aristotelian idea that the best citizens should rule a city and do so with the utmost virtue.  If that were done, there would never be, in the Greek city-states of the epoch, a need to ameliorate a democracy gone awry.  The rulers’ would be both moral and ethical, promote the common good, and pass laws that were just and promoted virtue.  The citizens, who are spending their leisure time engaging in political philosophy, would become aware at the slightest deviation from democratic rule and would correct the rulers accordingly, thus preventing tyranny and any subsequent need to revolt against tyranny.

    The connection between economics and the political order is vital for ensuring a sustainable level of happiness within a ‘city.’  So, economically, the idea that a monopoly of anything can lead to goodness in a just society seems…disconcerting.  Along the lines of a flute-hoarder, two things are noteworthy, yet contradictory.  First, if the flute buyer acquires all the best flutes, he will be happy, but this is unsustainable, as his happiness would lead to others becoming disgruntled.  Thus, secondly, the flute-hoarder’s monopoly would be a subversion of one thing that Aristotle consistently promoted: the common good.  The individual’s gain cannot result in a generalized degradation of society.  In this case, the flute aficionado’s selfishness produces a dearth of quality flutes for the skilled flautists to play.  Therefore, there is a linkage between a just economic order and the virtuous polity that the economic activity supports.

    Technology in general has a democratizing effect on societies and would in theory contribute to a happier and virtuous Aristotelian political order…if the pesky aspect of economic inequality did not get in the way.  Of course, technological improvement commonly decreases requirements on human labor, particularly the dirty, difficult, and dangerous jobs in a society, which would allow citizens to spend more leisure time engaging in discussions of political philosophy.  On a larger scale, technology improves the functioning of governments: for example, more data means a better understanding of the citizens’ needs and how to ‘nudge’ them into making better individual choices.  Conversely, there are drawbacks to the political order if technological improvements benefit the few and not the many, or if technology is monopolized by the few.  In the latter, the leaders of a democratic polis may sense they know more than the multitude owing to their access to knowledge provided by technology.  An ancient example of this was the Oracle at Delphi: access was tightly controlled and the insights from the sacred site were available to a limited number of people.  Thus, if technology permits the rulers of a city to feel godly in their power, then such an orientation will have deleterious effects on the political order and the populace.

    Aristotle may have bifurcated what he saw as things that are “useful:” there are physical objects and the non-physical.  The latter are a diverse group and can include self-love, pride, or even love of learning.  Aristotle stated, “External things, like any instrument, have a limit: everything useful belongs among those things an excess of which must necessarily be either harmful or not beneficial to those who have them” (1323b8-10).  This quotation can be interpreted as ‘too much of a good thing is bad.’  Aristotle later talks about intangibles and one of those is “courage.” (1323b24)  To apply his paradigm, too much courage can lead to foolhardiness, or too much technology can also be bad for the political order of the city.  This ‘thought rabbit hole’ leads to a new question: If happiness is the goal in the Aristotelian virtuous city, does the possibility exist that there can be too much happiness?  Or conversely, is happiness an infinite good?  The Hindus would appreciate this ever-increasing state of nirvana, but other cultures may not.  For Aristotle, though, there was no plateau of happiness and everyone could have as much as they wanted.

*Inline quotes from Aristotle, The Politics, 2nd ed., Carnes Lord, trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984)

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