Aristotle and Justice

What Aristotle contributes to modern political debates on Justice:

Michael Sandel: I would put it this way: the third approach, this Aristotelian idea, is indispensable. We can’t make sense of our debates about justice without drawing, to some degree, on this third, Aristotelian tradition. And the reason I think this is important and worth emphasising is that most of our debates today involve contests between the first two approaches: the utilitarian idea and the rights idea. For example, debates about torture.

There are those who say yes you should torture a terror suspect to find the ticking bomb. That’s a utilitarian idea—numbers count, consequences count. As against Kantians who would say ‘No there are certain universal human rights and certain things are just wrong—torture is one of them, regardless of the consequences.’ So we’re very familiar with the debate between utilitarian and rights-oriented views. I think what we neglect often is the Aristotelian strand.

Take the torture debate. Some would say on utilitarian grounds that you should torture the terrorist suspect if you need the information desperately and you can’t get it any other way and many lives are at stake. But then put to the utilitarian this question: suppose the only way to get the information from the terrorist suspect is not to torture him but to torture his innocent 14 year old daughter. Would you do it? Even most utilitarians would hesitate. Why? Not because they don’t care about numbers, but because there’s a deep moral intuition that the girl is innocent, she doesn’t deserve to be tortured. Whereas a lot of people who would say torture in the original ticking time bomb situation is justified—many of them are resting that thought on the idea that ‘Well he’s a pretty bad guy anyhow, he deserves rough treatment, he’s a terrorist.’ So this idea of who deserves what and why, and what does this have to do with the virtue of persons is at play often without our realising it, in many of the arguments we have. So what I’m trying to do is to show that in many of the debates we have about justice, not only utility and rights but also questions of desert, virtue and the common good as Aristotle understood them, are in play and indispensable today.


Alec Lindsay said…
I'm not keeping up. You've written a lot I wanted to respond to but it's taking me a long time to order my thoughts at the moment. On this current short piece I would just suggest that the debate might not be as clearcut as Sandel might be suggesting. There is a utilitarian view that might say that torture is not 'useful' because it is behaviour which is antisociety and tends to undermine the utilitarian ethos of society, which would be of detriment to the individuals within it. Utilitarians might say that for all our sakes we should eschew all things which contribute to instability.
I will try to catch up elsewhere. There's been lots of good stuff, mostly beyond me, but I'm struggling on! xx
Komal said…
Isn't this what I've been saying for ages? ;)