Argue for or against Aristotle’s claim that the public good must be based on good legislation.

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Any discussion of Aristotle and his Nicomachean Ethics needs to be acknowledged as occurring within a particular legal and social framework within which his essentially democratic thoughts are comfortably placed.  Such is the case in contemporary democratic societies, but should not be presumed to be viewed similarly in all cultures and in all societies functioning in nondemocratic systems.  Within the context of a system of government that is truly representative of the populace over which it seeks to govern, Aristotle’s views on the relationship of government to people and his emphasis on the role of legislators in the codification of morality can be entirely appropriate.  What the 14th Century theologian John Wycliffe termed government “of the people, for the people, and by the people” – a phrase brilliantly adopted by President Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address – is the setting in which legislators can legitimately determine what is moral and what is not moral, or what is legal and what is illegal.  In Book II of his essay on ethics, Aristotle suggests that morality is a product of the habits we incur, and that government plays an important role in determining the nature of those habits:

“. . .moral virtue comes about as a result of habit . . .From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. . .”

From this, is follows, that the role of legislators is to determine what those habits will be in accordance with accepted notions of what constitutes proper versus improper behavior.  To wit,

“. . .for legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in them, and this is the wish of every legislator, and those who do not effect it miss their mark, and it is in this that a good constitution differs from a bad one.”

Aristotle’s arguments are certainly valid; what is moral is a reflection of societal perceptions of what is best for the individual and the community.  When the two are in conflict, the good of the community must take precedence.  The flaw, however, resides in the assumption of universal good among legislators – an assumption that human history dictates cannot reasonably provide the basis for discussions of morality.  In an autocratic society, the legislators exist primarily to formally codify the dictates of the chief executive.  In a democratic society, the legislators exist to represent the interests of the people who elected them to office.  Those legislators, however, must act with a clear perception of the common interest, and it is here that Aristotelian logic begins to fall apart. 

The suggestion that the public good must be defined by or based upon “good legislation” is a notion worth defending.  In fact, it is not hard to defend such a suggestion, as legislation that emerges from a democratic process is, by definition, legitimate.  It cannot, however, be assumed that there is universal acknowledgement of what constitutes “good legislation.”  “Good” to some might include inherently racist policies supportive of segregation, while “good” to others is legislation that precludes such discriminatory practices.  There is a reason that, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks were still struggling for civil rights: definitions of “good” differed greatly across the expanse of American politics.

In an ideal society, good legislation is that which serves to restrain the more nefarious thoughts that motivate illegitimate behavior.  Aristotle wrote that “. . .wickedness is voluntary.”  The problem is that not all wickedness is voluntary.  The entire basis of the “not guilty by reason of insanity” defense is that individuals are not always acting voluntarily and do not always recognize the consequences of their actions.  To conclude, then, arguing in support of the stated proposition is doable, but only within very heavily-qualified parameters.  There are simply too many variables involved, both among those who commit “immoral” acts, and among those who seek to legislate. 

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