Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Government and The Good Life

Aristotle wrote that “The moral virtues, then, are engendered in us neither by nor contrary to nature; we are constituted by nature to receive them. But their full development in us is due to habit.”

In other words, we do not inherit the virtues, we learn them through training and habituation.

So where does this begin? In the home. It is there that one begins that training for a well-lived life.

The instruction and habits prescribed by a father have as much force in the household as laws and custom have in the state, and even more because of the tie of blood and the children's sense of benefits received, for they are influences from the outset by natural affection and docility.”

The well-lived life, however, needs life-long reinforcement to retain the habits of virtue. This is done through laws. And because most people will fail to cultivate right desires or will lose them through the development of contrary habits, these laws must have appropriate sanctions for their transgression.

“It is not enough to have receive the right upbringing and supervision in youth; they must keep on observing their regimen and accustoming themselves to it even after they are grown up. So we shall need laws to regulate these activities too, and indeed in general to cover the whole of life; for most people are readier to submit to compulsion and punishment than to argument and fine ideals.”

This, according to Aristotle, is the most basic and fundamental task of government—to cultivate virtuous habits in their citizens.

In his words:

“Legislators make their citizens good by habituation; this is the intention of every legislator and those who do not carry it out fail of their object.”

And it is not just for the good of individuals that the state cultivates virtuous habits for its citizens. It is for the good of the state itself. In Aristotle's fourth century city-state, the success of the community depended upon the moral quality of its citizens, who deliberate about how to govern the community and who take turns ruling and being ruled. That is why the ultimate punishment for the incorrigible, those who fail to develop personal and civic virtues, was ostracism, i.e, deportation. It clearly sends the message that such a one is NOT the kind of citizen desired by the community.

And this, after all these preparatory remarks, is the first fundamental conservative principle: the task of government is to make citizens good.

And this is the principle that distinguishes conservatism from liberalism.

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