"Rights" in Aristotle's Politics and Nicomachean Ethics?

By Brown, Vivienne | The Review of Metaphysics, December 2001 | Go to article overview

"Rights" in Aristotle's Politics and Nicomachean Ethics?


Brown, Vivienne, The Review of Metaphysics


I

RECENT DEBATES HAVE EXAMINED AGAIN whether the concept of individual natural "fights" is significant for Aristotle's political philosophy and ethics. Fred D. Miller's Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle's Politics is the most sustained recent attempt to argue that Aristotle's Politics is centrally concerned with the issue of individual fights based on nature and that no anachronism is involved in arguing this. (1) Aristotle's Politics, it is argued, should thus be seen as the precursor of later theories of individual rights, although it would be a mistake to infer from this that Aristotle employed a specifically liberal understanding of fights even though his work is foundational for those later theories. In a symposium in this Review devoted to discussing Miller's arguments, a number of both supporting and critical responses were published. (2) One result to emerge from this symposium was the fundamental lack of agreement on how to translate key Greek terms such as to dikaion/ta dikaia (literally "the just thing" or "the just things") which Miller argues should sometimes be translated as "just-claim right." (3) This lack of agreement among the most authoritative classical scholars raises important methodological issues concerning the kind of criteria that may be appropriate in such a dispute.

The evidence of the symposium suggests that linguistic arguments are by themselves insufficient in addressing a conceptual dispute of this kind since both the issues at stake and the principles of translation are of a philosophical nature. Indeed, in the course of this symposium, skeptics of Miller's thesis raised a number of methodological queries. Richard Kraut wonders what it means to say that Aristotle employs the concept of "natural rights": even granting the similarity between some of Aristotle's ideas and those of later rights theorists, "the problem, however, is that Aristotle makes so little use of them in his political and moral thinking that it is uncertain what attributing the concept [of natural rights] to him amounts to." (4) Malcolm Schofield offers a related skeptical thought when he argues that, even if a case could be made for sometimes translating to dikaion and its cognates in terms of "(a) right," and he remains unconvinced by most such translations, this would add nothing of explanatory or analytical substance to Aristotle's account which is based on the notion of desert (axia). (5) In addition to these philosophical questions, issues of historicity and anachronism also surfaced in the debate: Schofield raises some historiographic issues concerning interpretation, with Miller defending himself against the charge of anachronism by arguing that "it is reasonable to look for continuity as well as change in the history of political philosophy." (6) Issues of historicity, however, also raise theoretical questions of interpretative principles that cannot be addressed simply by linguistic means.

This paper aims to contribute to this philosophical and methodological debate by pursuing some theoretical issues concerning the conceptions of political rights that are being used. This will involve taking seriously Miller's argument that the Politics includes a developed account of natural rights in a Hohfeldian sense. (7) The paper will also be responding both to Kraut's questions about the nature of the concept of a "right" and his suspicions concerning essentialist approaches to construing the meaning of such a concept, (8) and to Schofield's arguments that translating the Politics in terms of "rights" would add nothing to the fundamentals of Aristotle's analysis and that interpretations of his work should take account of broader historiographic issues. The paper will argue that some definite philosophical implications would follow from the inclusion of such rights in the Politics and Nicomachean Ethics, but that these implications are absent from these texts and, indeed, are inconsistent with key elements of Aristotle's analysis. …

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