Philosophical Interventions: Book Reviews, 1986-2011

By Martha C. Nussbaum | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
Recoiling from Reason

ALASDAIR MACINTYRE (1989), Whose Justice? Which Rationality?

In the second book of the Politics, Aristotle asks whether it is a good thing to encourage changes in society. Should people be offered rewards for inventing some change in the traditional laws? No, he writes, because this would lead to instability and unnecessary tampering with what is working well. Should we, on the other hand, listen to those who wish to keep ancestral traditions fixed and immune from criticism? No again—for if we reason well we can make progress in lawmaking, just as we do in other arts and sciences. Aristotle illustrates his point with examples drawn both from his own society and from the city of Cyme, in Asia Minor:

The customs of former times might be said to be too simple and barbaric.
For Greeks used to go around armed with swords; and they used to buy
wives from one another; and there are surely other ancient customs
that are extremely stupid. (For example, in Cyme there is a law about
homicide, that if a man prosecuting a charge can produce a certain number
of witnesses from among his own relations, the defendant will automati-
cally be convicted of murder.) In general, all human beings seek not the
way of their ancestors, but the good.

Aristotle’s conclusion, here and elsewhere, is that change should not be too easy. Traditions embody many years of many people’s effort and thought; and it is likely that no deeply held view will have failed to get something right. Traditions (both popular and philosophical) should, he believed, be the philosopher’s starting point, and should be sensitively examined as guides to ethical truth.

On the other hand, law should also allow some latitude for people to criticize and make changes when they decide on reflection that change is

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