Aristotelian political theory posits that the role of government is to foster human flourishing. The concept of human flourishing depends on central aspects of Aristotelian metaphysics and ethics. Metaphysically, the decisive thing is the concept of form. Ethically, the decisive thing is virtue.
Form may briefly be described as what makes a thing what it is, and may be contrasted with attributes. Attributes are aspects of a thing that the thing may have or not have, but which don’t change what the thing is. The color of one’s skin, for example, does not change whether or not one is a human being. Being dead would change whether or not one is considered human, and so life must belong to the human form.
Aristotle’s ethics can be understood as the description of the human form, and the practical ways in which one can most exhibit the human form. The goal of Aristotle’s ethical inquiry is simply the practical question of how one may best manifest what it means to be human (which is just “form” said another way).
The details concerning the nature of form and the specifics of the human form do not need to be dealt with here. However, one must grasp that the ethical life is the life that best shows what it means to be a human being, and that some humans conform to this more than others.
We might use an example from sports to make this clear. When an athlete puts on a great performance we say: that’s what this game is all about. An athlete’s great performance shows the nature of the sport in a more complete way than an ordinary performance.
When Aristotle speaks of virtue, he means human excellence. This includes the cultivation both of the soul in education and of the body in exercise. The above example of the athlete is not a metaphor for virtue, it is an example of virtue in its physical aspect.
The ethical person draws together excellence in all spheres of human life (the sphere of the mind, the body, the social, the religious, and so on), uniting these excellence through the course of his life and manifesting them within a political community. This is the context within which Aristotle situates his political thought.
Aristotle characterizes the purpose of government as maintaining a virtuous citizenry. Thus, the government acts rightly by placing limits on the behavior of citizens, and not only in the public realm. The habits developed in what we would think of as the private sphere are essential to developing virtue.
A good government limits the bad behavior of its citizens, often with punishment, and rewards good behavior with an eye particularly to fostering excellence. For this reason in ancient Greece, perfecting one’s body through public exercise and one’s mind through learning were not a private matter, to be done if one wished or abstained from as one pleased, but a public duty.
Rights do not limit the government’s actions, but practical concerns do. Society may wish to enjoin all to deeply expound on classic works of literature and run marathons, but practical concerns militate otherwise. Such policies may simply be unfeasible, they may cause unintended effect, or they may even have the opposite effect. Thus, we may formulate the purpose of government as creating virtuous citizens so far as is practical.
Where do rights fit in? Absolute rights, the kind of rights a person possesses without restriction, are necessarily excluded. The end of government must limit any rights. However, the right to farm on a piece of property, so long as one uses it well, fits in with the purpose of government both because farming is a virtuous activity and because in order for citizens to be virtuous they will have to be fed. The “rights” in Aristotelian political theory are always dependent on proper use of that right.
What would this look like today? What if, instead of arguing about one’s right to health care, or one’s right not to be taxed to pay for the health care of others, we asked what health care policy most engenders virtue? What if, instead of arguing about what economic policy will lead to maximal growth and efficiency, we asked what sort of economy brings out the best in human nature? (And shouldn’t we be appalled by Adam Smith’s suggestion that to act selfishly in a free economy would be identical to acting beneficently? ) What would the national security debate look like?
Most importantly, for Christians at least, we should ask which sort of political theory best comports with Christian theology and practice: that of virtue or that of right? Or is there a third possibility?