RANKING POLITICAL SYSTEMS:
THE ARISTOTELIAN AND AN INSTITUTIONAL VIEW
ARISTOTLE ON LOGIC, LANGUAGE AND SCIENCE
University of Thessaloniki
Webversion of Offprint, p. 136-53
SAKKOULAS PUBLICATIONS Thessaloniki
T H E S S A L O N I K 1 CULTURAL CAPITAL
OF EUROPE 1998
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During the last 5000 years the competition and contest of large,
human communities or political systems, of which modern states are the pressing
example, often was decided by a simple, `evolutionary' mechanism: war and
force. However, the increasing destructive power of artifacts which are
developed with the help of scientific knowledge seems to diminish the
importance of this device - at least among communities with a somewhat rational
leadership. For the mere use of modern techniques increases the risk of self-destruction
even for that party which otherwise would be said to have won the 'contest'. In
this situation it would be desirable to have other, less violent criteria to
check whether some political system is better than another one. If we could
compare the quality of political systems in a purely conceptual way the
practical competition among systems could be reduced to attempts at
enlightening the citizens of the respective other system.
There is a well known objection to this idea, saying that a purely
descriptive comparison of political systems cannot lead to any ranking because
ranking presupposes values. In general, it is held, there are no neutral values
that could be used for the ranking and would make it acceptable to both sides.
In other words, of two political systems P and P' ;
may come out as better than P' with respect to one set of values V, while under
another set V' of values, P' turns out to be better than P. If
V and V' are the
values prevailing in P and P ; respectively, then
citizens of P will rank their own system higher than the other one, and the
citizens of P' will do the same.
To this objection there are two answers. First, those who refer to
given values hold that, ultimately, values or systems of such must be taken as
given because there is a point beyond which no arguments can induce two
proponents of two different political systems to change their rankings of these
systems. But in reality, relativity of values comes in degrees. The rise of the
principle of universalizability in ethics, the focus on discussions of human
rights in practical contexts, the philosophical approach of basing truth on
discourse free of dominion' (1), as well as philosophical arguments undermining the distinction between descriptive
and normative sentences (2) indicate that there is more room to oppose
value-relativism than one would think when first confronted with this view.
Second, even if differences in basic values are admitted this does
not rule out the possibility of analytic comparison. The analytic comparison of
complex, conceptual systems has made some progress in the last two decades,
notably in the area of comparing scientific theories
(3). In the domain
of scientific theories, there was a similar `relativist', though less basic
challenge to the possibility of comparison in the form of Feyerabend's and
Kuhn's theses of incommensurability. On closer inspection it turned out however
that incommensurable theories cannot only be compared
with each other but even can be ranked. Theories T and T' may be incommensurable
and nevertheless there may be good reasons to say that T is better than T'.
A priori the same could happen with political systems and their value systems.
Why shouldn't it be possible to compare systems of values in a way analogous to
scientific theories? This has not been done, sure. But the reasons why systems
of values have not been compared do not indicate that it is not possible. Such
comparisons have not been made simply because up to now systems of values have
not been made precise in the way this was done with scientific theories
long as systems of values are formulated informally and vaguely the
sophisticated methods provided by the formal sciences simply cannot be applied.
Finally, it should be mentioned that there is one clear cut case in which a
comparison is possible, namely when the values in both systems are the same.
For these reasons I am not convinced that the difficulties with
values can block the comparison and ranking of political systems, and I think
one should not accept that political systems can be compared only on the
assumption of an antecedently given normative standpoint. In fact, there is a
whole `comparative' branch of political science in which political systems and
constitutions are described and classified, and in this sense compared. These
studies, however, have not been extended into full fledged comparisons,
comparable to the comparisons of theories as we know them from the philosophy
of science. I do not want to analyze the reason for this neglect but rather
want to contribute to the enterprise of comparison an(
ranking in a more constructive way. To this end I will take up two ways of
compar ing political systems, outline the basic ideas
and try to say something about thei relative merits.
The first approach I consider is Aristotle's comprehensive work on
this issue as we know it from his books on politics (Politica, 195?) and ethics
(especially in the (Ethica Nicomachea, 1957). In this unsurpassable
works the analysis and comparison of political systems is based on relatively
simple and perspicuous principles which still may serve as a standard of
inspiration and comparison for attempts using modern formal means not available
to Aristotle. I will contrast this with an approach based on a theory of social
institutions which I have proposed
(5) and on more formal explications of basic
notions which are presently used in order to evaluate political systems.
Finally I will make some remarks on the distinctions between the two approaches
and on their relative merits.
1. The Aristotelian Approach
A state is defined by Aristotle as a community (koinonia) of
families and villages (kome) being conjoined to the end of a perfect and
self-supporting life (autarkeia) (Pol. 1281, 85). The order (taxis) of a
state with respect to the stateoffices (arche) is called its
constitution (politeia) (Pol. 1278, 78), so different states with
different such order have a different constitution. In this paper, I will use
the term `political system' in a very restricted way such that political
systems are identified by their constitutions. Thus the ranking and comparison
of political systems comes down to that of different constitutions.
The aim of a state is identified as consisting in the perfect and
self-supporting life of its citizens (Pol. 1281, 85; 1332, 236, NE 1098, 11;
1101, 18). The perfect and self-supporting life is that which is good and
happy (realizes eudemonia). As a result of the considerations in the Nicomachean
Ethics the good and happy life consists in the perfect realization (energeia)
and application of virtue (arete) during a full life-span, being
provided for that with the necessary external goods. Thus the aim of a state
basically is defined in terms of virtue.
Virtue in turn is defined as a habit in acts of choice, which
keeps a humanly determined middle and is led by reason in the way of a clever
man (NE 1107, 33). There are two kinds of virtues: virtues of reason and
practical virtues. Some important examples of practical virtues are courage (NE
1115-7, 53ff.), temperance (NE
1117-9, 60ff), generosity (NE 1119-22, 64ff), gentleness (NE 1225-6,
77ff ), veracity (NE 1127, 84ff), justice (NE
1129-38, 88ff.). All these are characterized and discussed in great detail.
The aim of a state then is reached when its citizens have acquired
habits of choosing which lead to some equilibrium in the different `dimensions'
of courage, temperance, generosity and so on. Usually, this aim will be reached
only to some extent. In one system it may be realized to a larger
extent than in another system. Therefore, a direct connection can be
established between the general aim of the state and the ranking of
constitutions. Constitution C is better than C' if and only if the aim of the
state is realized in C to a larger extent than in C'.
At the end of the third book of Politics (Pol. 1288, 107-8)
Aristotle arrives at the result that the best constitution exists where the
state is governed by the best citizens
(7), i.e. where the best citizens occupy
the state-offices. The best citizens are those who excel all other in terms of
virtue (arete). Yet this characterization of the best state does not hold
unrestrictedly. It is relativized to hold only in situations in which the
virtuous are willing to rule in a way so as to ftuther the aim of the state, and where the others are willing to let themselves be
On the basis of these results, definitions and of his empirical
material, Aristotle draws a threefold classification of natural, good or `right'
constitutions. The first kind of constitution obtains where one citizen exceeds
all others in terms of virtue and in addition has all the supreme power (kyrion
tes poleos). The resulting constitution is called kingdom (basileia,
Pol. 1285-8, 100 ff.). In the second category, called aristocracy (Pol.
1293, 123 ff.), a minority of persons is more virtuous than the rest, and rules.
The third system is called politeia (`republic') and obtains when the virtuous
persons are in the majority (Pol. 1279, 79 ff.).(8)
It does not become entirely clear whether the ruling persons'
virtue by itself guarantees that these persons when ruling will pursue the aim
of the state or whether this has to be required as an extra condition. .Anyway,
the classification relies on this precondition, i.e. these constitutions obtain
only if the ruling persons pursue the aim of the state. When this condition is
not satisfied, Aristotle distinguishes
three further varieties which are inferior to the first three. In
the following three cases the ruling persons do not primarily pursue the aim of
the state. I will assume that this is due to their not being of excellent
virtue.(9)' A fourth constitution, called democracy, obtains when the poor
citizens have or represent the supreme power, a fifth constitution is
characterized by the rich holding or representing the power (oligarchy, Pol.
1279-880, 82), and a final constitution (tyranny) by one person holding the
supreme power. Usually, the poor people form the majority, and the rich people, are a minority, and therefore the labels are justified.
Of course, these categories are `ideal types'; Aristotle discusses various less
ideal, and mixed types. Moreover, the ideal forms may
be at odds with what is realized in concrete systems. For instance, if in
democracy all citizens have the right of voting then the rich are included in the set of those holding or representing the
supreme power, and the set of those who are ruled is empty. In order to deal
with such cases more appropriately, the classification would have to be
extended such as to include explicit forms of representation.
With respect to the three inferior types of constitutions he
offers a straightforward ranking (Pol. 1289 109-110). Writing X <_ Y
to express that constitution Y is at least as good as constitution X he states the following order:
tyranny <_ oligarchy <_ democracy.
Moreover, according to the same passage, all the right types are better
than each of the inferior types.
With respect to the three right types of constitutions ranking is
difficult. Each type depends on presuppositions of the distribution of virtue
among the citizens which by definition do not hold for the other types, so a
ranking of these constitutions would require some ranking of distributions of
virtue. For example, to say that kingdom is better than aristocracy amounts to
saying that a state in which one person is distinguished by virtue is better
than a state in which a minority of several persons has more virtue than the
rest. Such a statement is normative, and is not in the descriptive spirit of
Aristotle's work. No wonder that Aristotle does not clearly state any definite
ranking here, even though (Pol. 1289, 111) seems to indicate that kingdom is ranked
above aristocracy, and aristocracy above politeia. I will not attempt at
arguing for a definite ranking implied by the texts. Rather, I will treat the
three right kinds of constitutions on a par. Let me write X- Yto express that
constitutions X and Y are equally good. We thus obtain the full ordering of the
six types as
tyranny <_ oligarchy <_ democracy <_
politeia ~ aristocracy ~ kingdom.
It should be mentioned that Aristotle deals with ranking at three
different levels. At a first level, constitutions are compared by their type,
as described above. At a second level, he compares constitutions within the
range of possibilities that exist for one given, concrete polis, and at the
third level he compares different `realizations' of a given, concrete
The justification of this ordering is not as explicit in Aristotle as we
would want it to be, but it seems plausible enough. The inferior types
of constitutions are inferior to the right types because those being in power
in the former are not primarily guided by virtue and thus do not primarily
pursue the aim of the state. Assuming that virtuous rulers do pursue the aim of
the state, this aim in any of the right constitutions will be realized to a
greater extent than in any of the inferior ones. But this was exactly the
criterion of one constitution's being better than another.
The ranking of the inferior types may be justified by referring to the
following principle: the more persons involved in a deliberation or a decision,
the better the result from the perspective of the common good. As we are
dealing here with a situation in which decisions concerning common matters are
made by persons which possibly are not virtuous, there is the danger that one
person takes a decision that will further her personal interests but will have
a bad result for others. If more persons must agree on such a decision this
danger decreases. Therefore, if more persons are involved in deliberating and
deciding it becomes more likely that the resulting decision is better for the
aim of the state. Even though this argument is not stated in book three of Politics
in order to justify the ranking of the inferior types I think it can be
transferred from other passages to its present use.
As far as the ranking of the right constitutions is concerned it is
difficult to find a dominating justification in the texts, as already noted. On
the one hand, ranking them as equivalent seems to be justified by pointing to
the fact that in each of them the rulers are led by virtue and thus their
decision will pursue the aim of the state (even if this is not explicitly
implied by the definitions involved). On the other hand, an argument from the
number of decision makers similar to that stated above might be applied. Even
if all persons involved in deliberation or decision pursue the aim of the
state, such deliberation or decision may be eased by reducing the number of
persons participating. A single person may come to a decision more easily than
a group of persons in which agreement must be reached. From this perspective
the definite ordering mentioned above (politeia <_ aristocracy <_
kingdom) might be justified. However, Aristotle's many qualifications in the
discussion of kingdom should make us cautious. The `price' of ranking the three
right kinds on
a par is of course that in some cases we may not come to a
definite ordering. For instance, if one system is a kingdom and another system
is an aristocracy we cannot say that one of them is definitely better than the
For the present purpose it is salient that the definitions of the
first three, right constitutions are formulated such that each constitution is
fully determined by the way virtue is distributed among the citizens. If we
know which citizens are virtuous and to what degree, we know the right
constitution for that state. In the same vein, the three inferior varieties are
determined - in the absence of virtue - by the wealth of those who have the
supreme power. If we know their number and wealth and if we know that they are
not of excellent virtue, we know the kind of constitution of that state. In
general, in order to find out whether the constitution of one given system is
better than of another one we have to perform two steps. First, we have to
determine the number of ruling citizens, whether they are virtuous, and, if
not, whether they are rich or poor. These data determine the type of
constitution which is realized in the two systems. When the constitutions are
determined in this way we simply have to look at the above ordering, and see
how they are ranked in that ordering.
2. An Institutional Approach to Ranking
Recent views of the quality of political systems do not use notion
of virtue. The prevailing approach is to look at properties like freedom,
equality, solidarity and welfare. Freedom and equality became basic values
after the French revolution. Today they prevail in the discussions about human
rights and basic rights. A human right clearly comprises the two aspects of
freedom and equality. On the one hand, the right guarantees a certain - passive
or active - minimal space of actions for the individual and therefore a certain
degree of freedom from interference by other individuals or institutions. On
the other hand, such a right is granted equally to every individual. A
second feature deeply entrenched in present day political discussion is welfare.
It is felt that freedom and equality would not suffice to attach high quality to
a political system if the individuals did not have a certain standard of living:
material means and social security.(10)
Finally, the issue of solidarity has again come into focus due to the present
tendencies of reducing all kinds of activities of the state to a minimum.
However, these items are not uniform in their influences on the
ranking of systems. At least in contemporary ideological discussion and
political fight freedom and equality are mostly represented as opposing each
other."(11) A similar opposition is seen between equality and welfare. The political folk
doctrine after the breakdown of the
USSR seems to hold that an equality which can only be implemented
by means of state interference leads to a low level of welfare. Attempts to
reduce `the state' and to `free' citizens from state interference are blamed to
lead to the destruction of solidarity, so freedom seems to clash with
solidarity. I don't think these propositions are true,
I just want to point to the low level of sophistication at which these central
issues are treated in the public.
At -present, there is no commonly accepted,
comprehensive account of ranking political systems comparable to Aristotle's. In
fact, it seems not unfair to say that what modern political science has to offer
in this respect is not a great improvement of Aristotle's approach. There are
comparative branches of political science in which the different constitutions
are systematically described and classified but these attempts stop short of
ranking. Even the theme of comparison of theories is not much developed in
political science. (12)
As I cannot possibly give a survey of the
present state of the art in a short paper I will pick out my favorite approach
to the ranking of political systems and contrast it with Aristotle's. This
approach consists of a combination of a power centered view of social affairs
in the spirit of, say, Machiavelli, and a systemic, formal model of such
affairs, and yields a comprehensive theory of social institutions capturing
political systems like states - among other things."(13) According to this
theory a social institution is given by four parts: a micro-system of
individuals and their actions and social relations, a macro-system of social
groups and their properties and relations, and two `images' of these two
systems: a set of 'microimages', images of the micro-system which are
internalized by the institution's members, and a 'macro-image' in which the
macro-system is represented in some more objective way, for instance by written
laws, norms, myths, poems, pictures and the like."(14) Concentrating on the
macro - and micro - systems, one basic feature of this theory is that
individuals are engaged in power relations. Each individual
tries to exert power (or to influence, in a more
neutral terminology) over other individuals. An individual power relation in
which this happens is constituted by the two individuals involved plus one action
performed by each of them. For instance, Peter may exert power over John by
uttering the command `Go and get me some cigarettes' and by John's getting the
cigarettes, where Peter's action is the utterance and John's action is to get
the cigarettes. A second basic feature is that individual power relations can
be used to characterize groups and a status relation among groups. Roughly, a
group y has lower status than another group y' if many members of y ' exert
power over many members of y but not vice versa. Inside one group, on the other
hand, the exertions of power are in equilibrium. The third important feature is
that in a social institution the groups are ordered by the status relation such
that they form a connected, transitive graph with a unique top-element. This
top-element is the 'top-group', a group which has highest status and whose
members therefore exert power over most members of the other groups.
A model of this theory contains the stuff needed to discuss freedom,
equality and solidarity, and it forms a natural basis on which some notion of
welfare may be introduced. This can be elaborated in three steps. First, the
model contains representations of the supreme power. The supreme power is
represented by the persons occupying the central positions, by their
role-behavior when they act as occupants of those positions, and by the norms
regulating such behavior. These items are captured by the model.
Second, freedom and equality can be defined in terms of individual power
relations. Let me briefly indicate how to do this. At the micro level there are
four kinds of objects: persons i, j, actions a, b, and points of
time t, t'. Persons perform actions and exert power over each other.
Moreover, they have intentions and causal beliefs. We use the expressions that
person i at time t performs action a, that i by
doing a exerts power over j so that j does b in the
internal from t' to t, that at time t, i intends that j
should do a, and that, at t, i believes that action a partially
action b. With these expressions we can
define the action space AS (i, t) of person i at time t
to consist of all actions which are possible for i at t.'
We say that j 's action b at t is the
aim of an exertion of power if there is some person i, some
earlier instant t' and some action a such that i by doing a
exerts power over j so that j does b in the interval (t, t).
With these two auxiliary definitions we can define that person j is
free at t if no action b in j 's
action space at t is the aim of an exertion of power. That is, no action
b in j 's action space is induced by
some other person's exerting power on j and influencing j to do b.
Actually, in the present context the restriction to actions from j
's action space makes no difference. We might as well consider arbitrary actions (see Lemma 2 in the appendix).
This definition of freedom exclusively in terms of individual
exertions of power
apparently is exposed to a well known criticism of
behaviorist approaches to power
(16). It seems that important ways of
exerting power in a less direct, `structural' way are not covered, like for
instance excluding an issue from the agenda, or hiding an exertion of power
behind the obligations of one's own social position. Yet this impression is
misleading. First, in the present account, the notion of action is not
understood in the naive way of positively doing something. Actions form a
`space' of actions in which there is room fore neutral behavior (doing nothing)
and also for negative behavior (expressed by a negated proposition) to count
as, an action." (17) Second, in the context of a social institution, each
exertion of power is directly linked to mental predicates of intention and
causal beliefs, and indirectly linked to macro-features like social positions
and norms. I cannot describe the details here but just note that in an
institutional embedding an exertion of power - though at the surface described
by a relation among actors and actions - may acquire the full status of social
or institutional power which is required for a proper understanding of
domination." (18) When embedded in a social institution, the present definition
of freedom expresses much more that the merely behaviorist absence of tokens of
Of the two basic versions of freedom: freedom `from' influence and
freedom `to do' what one wants, the above definition covers the first notion.
It is difficult to relate these two notions in precise terms because the domain
of humans wants is so fuzzy. If we could distinguish, in a given state, the
domain of materially possible actions which j could perform if nobody
would exert power over him and the domain of actually possible actions
obtained by removing from the first domain all those actions which are made
impossible by other persons' exerting power over j, we might say that `freedom
to do' is constrained in two ways. First, it is constrained by the domain of
materially possible actions. A person cannot perform materially impossible
actions, whether she wants to do so or not. Additional to this first constraint,
`freedom to do' is further narrowed down by other persons' influences making
materially possible actions impossible. Under this perspective, if the domains
of material possibility depend on the level of welfare then the level of
`materially possible' freedom, i.e. freedom that would prevail in the presence
of freedom from influence, is higher in states with a higher level of welfare.
However, this distinction does not seem to be fruitful for in reality the `material'
level and the level of influence are heavily dependent on each other. For
instance, a rise of the level of welfare usually is accompanied by increased
suffering of exertions of power so that the overall freedom `to do' of a person
does not increase (or even decreases) when welfare does. Moreover, freedom `to
do' allows for ideal, individualistic realization of freedom: I simply cut down
my wants in order to become completely free. This shows that freedom `to do' is
not well suited for discussions of essentially social matters like the ranking
of constitutions, and that freedom `from' is the right notion to be used here.
Equality can be defined by distinguishing external and internal
equality. We say that two persons i, j at t are externally equal if
they exert `the same' power over third persons k; and are affected by
third persons exerting power over them in `the same' way. Clearly, `the same'
here must be interpreted somewhat liberally. I take it to mean that whenever i
exerts power over some k by means of some action a then there is an
action a' by which j exerts power over k
(19), and vice
versa (see D3, Appendix) with i and j interchanged, and that
whenever some k exerts power over i by means of some action a then
the same k also exerts power over j by some a' and vice
versa with i and j interchanged, i and j are internally
equal at t if each exertion of power of i over j is matched
by one of j over i and vice versa. Finally, we can say that i and
j are equal (at t) if i and j are
externally and internally equal at t. Note that this definition captures
social equality as contrasted to physiological or other kinds of `non-social'
equality. Two persons may be equal in the sense defined but still widely
differ, say, in strength, intelligence or wealth.
It is easily seen by counterexamples that one person may be free
but not equal to another one, or may be equal to another one but not free.
Also, it can be shown by way of example that even complete equality of all
citizens may go together with the absence of freedom (Theorem 2 of the
appendix). In the reverse direction there is a positive result. If all citizens
are free they are equal (Theorem 1), or, more briefly: total freedom implies
equality. This result holds for the notion of `freedom from', and may be
expressed in still other terms as saying that equality is a necessary condition
for freedom (`freedom from) (20)
Third, the notion of welfare may be added to the notions
introduced so far without problem. Welfare may be represented in two ways. It
can be represented in 'material' terms by specifying the citizens' endowments
with commodities, but also it can be represented more subjectively in terms of
the citizens' utilities which they derive from their endowments. In the
subjective version the well known problem for comparison is that the specific
numerical utility values have no empirical meaning, nor has their comparison for
different persons, or their addition. Up to now there is no accepted criterion
for aggregating individual utilities into one `social' utility function. The
`material' approach also faces such a difficulty, but a less severe one.
Following the standard development of utilitarianism philosophers are not
satisfied with giving equal weights to all citizens. In the present case this
means that the same amount of a good possessed by two different persons must not
be treated as the same when these possessions enter into a systemic comparison.
The ranking of two political systems according to these notions will naturally
refer to a comparison of `total' freedom, equality, solidarity and welfare. If
constitution C provides more freedom and more equality
and more solidarity and more welfare than constitution C' then C is
better than C'. Comparison along these lines is unproblematic at least in the
special case mentioned where all four notions are ordered in the same way. In
mixed cases, like that of increase of welfare together with a decrease of
freedom, no way is known of how to combine the different criteria in order to
obtain a definite result.
Note that the condition of `more freedom'
is directly linked to the presence or absence of power relations. An increase of
freedom by the above definition implies that less exertions of power are made:
`more freedom implies less exertion of pow er'. On the other hand, equality may
vary without any change in the numbers of exertions of power, for instance, by
mere `redistribution' of such exertions in the population. `More welfare' in
first approximation may be expressed in terms of the individuals' endowments:
`more welfare' means `greater mean endowment'.
Note further, that the four different dimensions of freedom, equality, welfare
and solidarity are largely independent of each other. This can be shown by
logical comparison, and by showing that under fixed, hypothetical conditions, a
variation in one dimension is compatible with no variation in the other
dimensions. For instance, if freedom increases the other three `variables': the
degree of equality, of welfare and of solidarity, may remain unchanged. In
particular this shows that freedom and equality - even if both are defined in
terms of power-yield different criteria for the ranking of political systems.
The fact that we can define both these notions in terms of power does not imply
that the comparison of political systems in these two dimensions can be
`reduced' to one, more basic criterion formulated in terms of exertions of
When confronting the two approaches to the ranking of political
systems with each other the following features seem to be salient.
First, Aristotle's approach is empiral in spirit. In order to
determine a constitution one has to look at the virtues or the wealth of those
who hold the supreme power. Though virtues are of dispositional nature, the
approach is in principle operational, for these dispositions show up in
concrete actions. In order to determine a constitution one has to look at the
actions and the wealth of the powerful. The institutional approach also refers
to actions (through performance and power relations), but in addition is based
on `internalistic' notions like belief and intention. It has to be stressed
that we are not concerned with people actually choosing one preferred
constitution (say, by voting for it) but rather with a scientific determination
according to Aristotle's scheme. Whereas in an actual vote for a political
system propaganda and misperception may play a decisive role, this should not
be the case in a scientific ranking.
Second, Aristotle's account is definitely descriptive. He takes
inequalities not only for granted but treats them as natural. Individuals are
different, so it would be unjust to treat them alike in all respects.
Aristotle's principle of distributive justice accordingly says that the same
goods should be given to persons of the same rank but different amounts to
persons of different rank. Moreover, the ruling citizens play a distinguished
role, and in most of his constitutions minorities (whether in terms of virtue
or of wealth) are decisive. Modern views by contrast are committed to the equality
of all citizens in constitutional matters. Wealth, virtues, beliefs and
intentions should not make a difference for a citizen's rights, roles and
duties. It seems to me that this modern insistence on constitutional equality
is to a large extent normative and also counterfactual. Though practically all
modern constitutions guarantee equality of all citizens in several respects, de
facto there are differences in the treatment and possible activities of
different citizens. In this respect, Aristotle reminds us of the factual side
of constitutions which seems to be underrepresented in philosophical
discussions of constitutional matters.
Third, there is a similarity between Aristotle's approach to the
`natural' constitutions (kingdom, aristocracy, politeia)
and the institutional approach in that both are based on individualist notions:
virtues in one case, intentions and causal beliefs in the other. Both these
accounts are `relational' or `structural' insofar as constitutions are
characterized in terms of their citizens' properties and relations. On the
other hand, Aristotle's 'variety'-constitutions (tyranny, oligarchy, democracy)
are not of that kind. Their characterization refers to the wealth of some
persons, which is an `external' feature. Today one would say that the wealth of
a person is something that should be irrelevant for the constitution of the state
to which the person belongs. Relative to a constitution, wealth today is
seen as accidental and contingent. A constitution must not change, when the
wealth of some persons is transferred to other persons. But this may happen
with Aristotle's varieties.
Fourth, as already indicated, the institutional approach refers to
several different criteria or dimensions of comparison which in general do not
vary uniformly."(21) It is not clear whether this should count as an advantage
or not. In a positive vein, one would say that constitutions, like matters of
law, have multiple, and incompatible dimensions which have to be weighed
against each other in each practical case. Negatively, one could point out that
Aristotle succeeded in formulating a `one-dimensional'
account already more than 2000 years ago.
At least three conclusions may be drawn from the present comparison.
First, in spite of the unsatisfactory modern state of the art of ranking we may
draw the lesson from Aristotle that ranking is possible. This seems trivial to
philosophers who of course know and esteem Aristotle's achievements, but the
conclusion aims at political science and is intended as a contribution to the
advancement of modern attempts at ranking.
The second lesson from Aristotle is that ranking may be achieved by using
a unifying criterion. This is a criterion in which different and
possibly competing dimensions of action are bound together such that individual
action is led by, and reflects, the structure (`constitution') of the society
in which an actor lives. Modern approaches based on utility lack such a
criterion, though the formalism available would allow its incorporation.
Aristotle demonstrated the fruitfulness and the applicability of such a
unifying criterion. In his approach the notion of virtue plays the crucial,
double-seeded role required. On the individual level, virtues are the guide for
individual behavior, but at the same time the notion reflects the situation of
A third conclusion resulting from the investigation of freedom and
equality is that the relation between the central dimensions of modern ways of
ranking may be more harmonious than expected. When embedded in a more
comprehensive social model, and when explicated in precise terms, new and
unexpected relations turn up (like the implication of ideal equality by ideal
This brings me to a last point. It seems to me that Aristotle's system of
virtues has not received sufficient attention by modern linguists. As linguists
get increasingly interested in systems of verbal
phrases"(22) there is increasing demand for various classification systems by
which groups of verbal phrases can be structured. It seems to me that
Aristotle's different virtues may function just in this way. They can help to
structure the bewildering multiplicity of individual kinds of actions and to
build up spaces of possible behavior and action which are needed for social,
political and ethical theorizing.
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Aristoteles, 1985. Nikomachische Ethik (editor:
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Aristoteles, 1994. Politik (editor: U. Wolf),
Ballmer T. & Brennenstuhl W., 1981. Speech
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