My roommates are watching Battlestar Galactica and wondering about the repeated use of “we live in extreme times therefore anything is justified” plots. They’ve been talking about things like putting people to death for betraying a community and reaching some of the more thoughtful and interesting conclusions of political philosophy on their own. One Aristotlean guideline I like to invoke is that typically, one doesn’t and shouldn’t use the same reasoning in extreme situations as one does when things are more ordered.The shouldn’t is the issue: a lot of politics today is running around like the sky is falling. We always believe we live in times where everything is on the line, even when nothing is.
They’ve definitely caught on to the value of that guideline. They are perhaps seeing a necessity/justice distinction whereby things that are necessary may not be just or beautiful. Necessary things may only be good in the lowest sense of good; acting on what is necessitated might or might not be useful. Typically, the necessary/justice distinction generates political thought like Thucydides and Machiavelli. Instead of investigating virtue and searching for wisdom, the questions that preoccupy one have to do with generating order. Justice is something we feel we want and aids our more social, higher transactions. It stems from an order where necessities like security, food, shelter are being taken care of, and that order might come about from immoral, impious, inhuman means.
But the necessity/justice distinction can lead one to ask: What if justice is a virtue? People have been saying for years all virtue is just made-up, a product of human convention. Even if that’s true, it misses the point. When you ask about justice as a virtue, you’re also asking about what virtue is. We want to leave open the possibility that there is something natural about justice. Not every action is going to be excused in extreme times. Some people preserve their humanity better than others. Recently on campus people were asking whether there is no difference between ancients and moderns. The issue was whether Platonic/Aristotlean concerns with virtue ultimately are seen by Plato and Aristotle themselves as subordinate to more modern concerns about order. No doubt there’s something to this, and by “something,” I mean quite a lot. But while it is pretty nutty to try and demonstrate the existence of virtues that are solely natural (save wisdom, perhaps), it’s even nuttier to think philosophy is exclusively about demonstration. The whole difference in the history of political thought is whether or not we leave some questions open. In the case of the conventionality or naturalness of virtue, the latter is absolutely not made-up moral rhetoric in the final analysis: deny absolutely that human beings have serious excellences they can achieve and you deny humanity prior to any other considerations. It wouldn’t be clear why one would do savage things to save themselves: would we be worth saving? Conventionality points to something beyond itself, if not us.