Ethics as Politics: On Aristotelian Ethics and its Context
ABSTRACT: This paper argues that the assertion of Nicomachean Ethics I.ii that the art that treats of ethics is politics is to be understood properly not in the sense of politics qua nomothetike but just as politike, i.e., direct, participatory politics as was enjoyed in the Athenian polis and as the formed background to Aristotle’s philosophizing on the nature of ethics. The ethical import of politics can be retrieved from Aristotle’s Ethics (in both versions) and Politics by dwelling on the connection of eudaimonia and humanity’s function as such. Aristotle does not construe this function as contemplation but rather as the practical application of reason-reason leading to action. This, however, is the subject of politics. This specific human function, the function that makes us homo sapiens, can not be displayed in rule-be-ruled institutions such as the oikos (household) since such institutions and their collateral behaviors are predetermined based on rank or role. But achieving the distinctively human telos requires that such rule-be-ruled relations and behaviors be transcended since those relations and behaviors exclude the free exercise of deliberative intelligence.
I begin with a proposition: that ethics (in the classical sense) (1) requires politics as the venue of its implementation; indeed, that ethics in a fundamental sense is politics. Ethics is politics inasmuch as the achievement of human happiness—"the activity of the soul in accordance with excellence, lasting a lifetime"—is public, both in that the achievement requires the presence of co-equals as the condition of its emergence, and in the sense that the excellence achieved (one's character) is publicly recognizable.
I will follow that proposition with a second proposition: that the understanding of ethics as politics was not only the conception that was operative for ancient polis tradition (upon which tradition Aristotle drew in formulating his ethics) but that it is an understanding which is operative here and now in the modern complexly pluralistic, technologically-driven, mega-state known as the American Republic: but this fact is one of which we ("we academics, we intellectuals" in particular) are unaware. In a word, I suggest that increasingly for us (as for republican antiquity) ethics expresses itself as politics, by which I emphatically do not mean "ethics is ideological politics," but ethics increasingly expresses itself for us as direct, participatory politics. (2)
In saying that ethics expresses itself as politics I mean that political activity itself, not the policies or institutions it seeks to implement, functions as ethical ground.
Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics commences with the—for moderns—startling suggestion that the art that treats of ethics is politics. (3) While Aristotle does not immediately make plain the sense in which politics is "authoritative and architectonic" for ethics, he...