Aristotle's Conception of Freedom

By Long, Roderick T. | The Review of Metaphysics, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Aristotle's Conception of Freedom


Long, Roderick T., The Review of Metaphysics


Aristotle for Liberals. In the present struggle between liberals and communitarians,(1) it is most often the communitarians who are seen bearing the standard of Aristotle. Yet liberalism's Aristotelian roots are deep; a continuous line of influence can be traced from Aristotle through the Scholastics to Locke and Jefferson (the natural law strand), and alongside it a parallel line from Aristotle through Polybius to Montesquieu and Madison (the constitutionalist strand).(2) Fred Miller's recent book Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle's Politics(3) is the latest in a growing number of attempts to reclaim the Aristotelian heritage, at least in part, for liberalism. As a fellow laborer in the same field,(4) I very much admire what Miller has accomplished in his book.

In particular, Miller argues persuasively for attributing to Aristotle thee following theses--theses traditionally rejected by communitarians as liberal innovations antithetical to the Aristotelian point of view:(5)

a) individuals have rights;

b) these rights are natural, not merely legal or conventional;

c) these rights forbid any sacrifice of the individual's interests to the interests of the community;

d) the state has an obligation to respect and protect these rights;

e) in order to secure these rights, the state's constitutional structure should be arranged so as to provide checks on governmental power;

f) legitimate political authority rests on the consent of the governed; and

g) a government that fails to respect the rights of its citizens may legitimately be overthrown.

I believe Miller's case for attributing these seven theses to Aristotle is sound, and I shall accept it as my starting point. However, in my opinion Miller does not go far enough; Aristotle's, affinity with modern liberal theory can be made even stronger. In particular, it can be shown that on four points Miller makes unnecessary concessions to the communitarian interpretation of Aristotle:

Concession One: Aristotle, unlike the modern liberal, countenances no

right to do wrong.

Concession Two: Aristotle, unlike most liberal natural-rights theorists,

recognizes no rights existing in a "state of nature."

Concession Three: Aristotle, unlike the modern liberal, regards liberty

as having only an instrumental and peripheral value.

Concession Four: Aristotle, unlike the modern liberal, assigns no

central place to autonomy in his conception of rights.

All four of these concessions can be shown to be mistaken--in part on grounds that Miller himself provides.

No attempt will be made to argue that Aristotle is a liberal. Clearly, he is not. In particular, his attachment to what Miller calls the Principle of Community and the Principle of Rulership must effectively bar him from the liberal ranks.(6) Moreover, Aristotle is willing to place serious restrictions on rights that liberals have traditionally held dear, including freedom of speech,(7) freedom of religion,(8) freedom of exchange,(9) and reproductive freedom.(10)

Aristotle, however, is a complex thinker, and his normative social theory contains both liberal and communitarian tendencies, often closely intertwined. The claim to be defended here is simply that the liberal, individualist strand in Aristotle is still more robust than even Miller is prepared to maintain.

II

Does Aristotle Recognize a Right to Do Wrong? Miller's First Concession is that Aristotle, unlike the modern liberal, countenances no right to do wrong. Is this concession correct?

In the course of arguing for the thesis that Aristotle has a theory of rights--thesis (a)--Miller considers an objection by Terence Irwin.(11) Irwin suggests that if rights are to have any genuine ethical punch--if they are to be "the kind of rights which are morally distinctive in that their possession and exercise cannot be replaced by other people's benevolence or sense of duty to the right-holder"(12)--they must have the following structure:

If X has a right to A, then A is due to X, or X is morally entitled to A,

whether or not we regard A's having X as morally best over all; and

. …

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