From Ethics to Politics. Why do human beings so often go astray in the conduct of their lives? Aristotle answers this question at two levels. At the individual level, he adverts to aspects of human nature that are obstacles to proper human development. At the collective level, he identifies the ways in which political systems (politeiai) engender or strengthen the psychological tendencies that impede human well-being. He has, in other words, a theory of dual responsibility: each of us deserves either praise or blame for having become the sort of person we are; but at the same time, because the polis has a profound effect on the character of its citizens, improving the human condition requires political measures and not merely individual effort. When a citizen acts virtuously or shamefully, we are entitled to praise or blame him, but his behavior may also reflect the good or poor organization of civic life. This double character of Aristotle's practical thought emerges in the opening pages of the Nicomachean Ethics. Having argued that there is a hierarchy of ends culminating in a single pinnacle – the good for human beings – Aristotle portrays it both as an object to be sought by each individual and by the science of politics (I 2 1094a18–b7). In Book II, he says that the virtues of character, which have been identified as the main topic of his treatise, are acquired by a process of habituation: “we become just by doing just actions, temperate by temperate actions, and courageous by courageous actions” (II 1 1103a34–b2). To support this claim, he appeals to what we observe in the political realm: “What happens in cities bears this out as well, because legislators make the citizens good by habituating them, and this is what every legislator intends. Those who do not do it well miss their target; and it is in this respect that a good political system differs from a bad one” (b2–6).
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- Arts and Humanities(all)