Recoiling from Reason

Whose Justice? Which Rationality?

by Alasdair MacIntyre
University of Notre Dame Press, 410 pp., $22.95

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 automatically 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 called for. Sometimes these modifications will apply an existing principle to a new and unforeseen circumstance—as when a government takes account of its existing obligations to provide food for all its citizens in order to grapple with the special challenge posed by a famine or a migration of new settlers. Sometimes the principles themselves may be modified, in the light of reflection about concrete experiences and other principles—as would happen if the citizens of Cyme gave up their homicide law after deciding that it relied too much on bad evidence and did not fit well with other principles they held concerning justice and the good human life.

Aristotle’s reflections about justice and legal change expose a deep and pervasive problem, which is central to Alasdair MacIntyre’s recent book. It is difficult, now as then, to think clearly about the tensions between tradition and critical reasoning that arise within a single society—as when Cymeans argue about the merits of their ancient legal code—and even more difficult to think clearly about issues of justice that arise in conflicts between different and opposed traditions. When one does try to reason on such questions, Aristotle’s problem arises: How …

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