Aristotle, Law, Ethics, and Politics

Ethics and politics were very essential components of Greek philosophy. Aristotle, too, founded his approach to philosophy on the basis of ethics and politics. Despite being described as two different things, ethics and politics share numerous elements and together help the society shape the law. Aristotle, in his analysis on ethics and politics tried to find answers to very fundamental questions, such as: What is happiness? What is good and what is evil? What is the most appropriate life style for a human being? These questions are closely connected with the objectives of the law. The lawmaker must know, or somehow discover, or define what an evil action is and what actions should be allowed or tolerated by the society. In Aristotle’s philosophy, we can easily see this close connection between the law, ethics, and politics, and accordingly, between the social life, government, and human as a social being. Aristotle argues that the common purpose of all these different elements is to create the best possible life and reach happiness. He, in Nicomachean Ethics, developed a philosophy showing how men should best live; and in Politics, he tries to demonstrate how the best life can be achieved with the help and under the order of the state.

Aristotle starts Nicomachean Ethics with this statement:

“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason, the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”

As is seen from the words of Aristotle, philosophy is basically used to find what good is. This does not mean that if the “good” has always been very certain, clear and globally excepted by people, there would not be philosophy at all. There would always be the endeavor to reach better things, better lives, and better relationships in the life; at least, there would still be the question: “What is the meaning of life?”. Therefore, the search for good is not a prerequisite for a philosophical activity, but it constitutes a considerable part of it.

Ethics tackle the problems as to what is good for people and how the best life can be achieved. Politics tries to find how the best life can be achieved as a society, as a state. So, we can say, while ethics is about the aspects of life concerning individuals, politics is about the groups of people, societies, and public. On top of these two elements, we can place the law, as it aims to preserve a society where people can live safely and happily.

In Aristotle’s philosophy, ethics and politics are the different sides of a medal, as they share a common purpose, but through different methods. It might be argued that trying to find an answer to how a society can live happily and achieve the best life is more important than finding and answer to how an individual can find the happiness and achieve the best life. And the opposing argument would say: “No, it is not more important. Because what is good for the society will also be good for the individual.” At this point, I will not try to pick one argument and try to justify it. The philosophical discussion about this issue is still, in today’s world, going on. However, the solution to this dilemma, at least for the practical purposes, is provided by the law. While ethics and politics are trying to find what good is for different units, i.e. the individual and the society, the law is bringing these two elements together and strikes a balance between the interests of the individual and the society.

Aristotle also argues that an individual can realize himself/herself only in a society under the control of a state, because human nature requires this realization to be within the social framework. He, therefore, states that the establishment of the state was not somehow imposed on people, instead, people established the state because their nature made them do it. In Politics, Aristotle argues that the state is for everyone to live well together with their families and relatives and to achieve a satisfying life; and the purpose of the state is not only to enable the life but to establish a life which is worth to live. As we can see from his arguments, Aristotle thought that the state was a prerequisite for a good and happy life. Here, the underlying idea is that the human being is a political being. He writes, in Politics:

“… it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the ‘tribeless, lawless, heartless one.”

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