Excerpt from The Game of Philosophy


Chapter 1: Some Preliminaries

Two major stories of moral and political philosophy have emerged in recent times. These two stories or theories provide markedly different views of the human person, morality and justice. The first is a communitarian story, the second a liberal tale. In the first, the human person is described as a social being; in the second, the person is viewed mainly as an individual. In the communitarian story, the good life or the kind of life worth living can be determined only within a community; in the liberal account, the good life or lifestyle is an individual matter. Several other features that we will examine distinguish communitarianism from liberalism.

These two stories seem to be so radically different that no reconciliation or common ground between them can be found. The first part of our project will be to grasp some of the main differences between the two stories and the power of each in its description of morality and justice. We will also consider how each story can collapse into a form of tyranny when, in the name of morality, some treat others in an arbitrary way. Our final concern will be to explore whether common ground may be found to allow adherents of each story to address differences and conflicts.

Both the communitarian and liberal stories have ancient roots in the history of ideas. In this book, some of the main roots will be examined. The communitarian account, as we will see, prevailed in the ancient and medieval worlds. With the emergence of moral liberalism in recent centuries, morality in many societies has become less a public and
more a private matter. The liberal view is the major account of morality and justice in contemporary democracies. The rise of liberalism, according to its proponents, represents moral progress. The communitarian view, however, continues to have many adherents. Indeed, many individuals feel drawn toward both communitarianism and liberalism, so the conflict between the two stories can occur even within individuals.

Our study of the roots of communitarianism and liberalism will take us beyond the practical questions of morality and justice. Some philosophers who address moral and public policy issues also offer speculative answers to the questions of what is real and true. In the course of this work, various communitarian and liberal answers to these perennial questions of reality (metaphysics) and truth (epistemology) will be examined.

The Rawls Game

John Rawls is a major contemporary defender of a liberal notion of justice. One of Rawls’ students, Ronald Green, devised a game to illustrate Rawls’ conception of justice. Several classes of mine have played the game described in the following paragraphs. This version contains a few minor changes from Green’s version, which appeared in Teaching Philosophy, 9:1 (1986), 51-60.

The Rawls Game consists of three rounds. Prior to the first round I announce to the class that we are the elected representatives on the island republic of Nacirema. Each of us represents about one thousand constituents. Nacirema is a completely isolated island and the economy is agricultural. Everyone either farms or provides services to the farmers. The people own their own farms and believe strongly in looking out for number one. They also share the widespread belief that no one should be forced to do anything against his or her will. To protect liberty to the greatest extent possible, the legislature has adopted the procedure that all policy decisions must be adopted by unanimous vote.

The rules for the first round of the game appear on the blackboard:
(1) you may look at the cards, and (2) the measure will pass if the vote is unanimous. I then pass out cards and explain the situation that we are voting on. The island has been afflicted with a serious drought and many, but not all, of its people are now suffering from the drought. The mountaineers have water from a snowcap on the mountain and continue to flourish. The flatlanders, who are completely dependent on rainfall for their crops, are suffering. The mountaineers make up about one-fifth of the population on the island. Those who have an “X” on their cards are mountaineers and those without a mark are flatlanders.

A proposal has been studied by our scientists and is now in front of the legislature for discussion and vote. The proposal is that water from the snowcap will be transferred equally to all farms on the island, and that an irrigation system will be built to make this possible. The mountaineers currently are living very well, since traditionally they have had an abundance of water for their crops. The flatlanders, however, even in the best of times have barely eked out an existence and in the present crisis are unable to do even that. In a few years, if the waterworks project is adopted, the unequal economic and social division between the mountaineers and flatlanders will be erased and everyone on the island–flatlanders as well as mountaineers–will be at the same economic level.

After some discussion and an exploration of alternative proposals, we bring this proposed waterworks project to a vote. Generally some of the mountaineers will vote against the proposal. When they do, I point out that a weakness is present in our system. We have followed the two procedures (looking at the cards and trying to get a unanimous vote) in an effort to protect everyone’s liberty, but a tyranny of the powerful minority has resulted.

The second round of the game begins at this point. I entertain suggestions for changing either of the two rules of the game. The suggestion to have a majority vote is quickly made. I change the second rule to incorporate the suggestion. The two rules now read: 1) you may look at the cards; 2) the measure will pass if it receives a majority vote.

The situation for our second vote is as follows . A serious disease has broken out on Nacirema that takes the lives of ten percent of the population every year. Five people on the island have been found to possess an enzyme that protects them from the disease. Our scientists have also found that this enzyme provides a cure and prevents the disease in others who are vaccinated with the enzyme. After considering various alternatives, the scientists have determined that all five people must be hooked up to machines so that the enzymes can be extracted and used to bring the dreaded scourge to an end. The five people will have to be hooked up twenty-four hours every day for at least ten years–and perhaps longer.

Five representatives are given marked cards while the rest receive unmarked cards. Each of the representatives with a marked card has one constituent with the valuable enzyme. During the discussion of the proposal, the five representatives report whether their five constituents are willing to give consent. Sometimes the consent of the individuals is withheld until enormous sums of money are given; sometimes a small child is one of the people with the enzyme; and sometimes a constituent simply refuses to give up his or her freedom and rejects being attached to a machine. In the last case, the one who refuses is sedated and kept “happy” throughout the time that he or she is on the machine.
The vote is taken on the enzyme-extraction procedure, and generally a majority of the class votes in favor of the proposal. I then point out that a tyranny of the majority has occurred: the liberties of one or a few persons have been overridden for the good ofthe many.

The third round then begins. Again I invite a suggestion for a possible modification of the rules. Sometimes a student will suggest not looking at the cards. I take that suggestion and pass out a set of cards with the marks turned down, as I instruct the students not to look at the marks on the cards until after the vote is taken. In addition, I suggest that to protect the liberty of each person we return to the requirement that the vote be unanimous. The two rules now read: 1) you may not look at the cards; 2) the measure will pass if the vote is unanimous.

For the third round, another proposal faces the legislature. The proposal is that each mountaineer family will be assigned four flatlander families. If the mountaineers wish, they may provide food and shelter for their designated flatlander families. The flatlanders, meanwhile, are required to provide labor for the mountaineer farms. No wages are given for the labor, only food and shelter. The food and shelter are provided at the discretion of the mountaineer.

During the discussion of the proposal, someone invariably identifies it as a slave or serfdom proposal. When the vote is taken, the proposal is generally defeated with a unanimous vote. I then point out that we have adopted Rawls’ perspective of justice and ruled slavery out. This procedure, according to Rawls, helps us to grasp the origin of a right not to be enslaved. We don’t in “real life” actually engage in turning down the cards and voting unanimously; however, when we realize that such practices as slavery are not allowed in liberal societies, the image of the face-down cards can help us to grasp how and why they were ruled out. It is as if such a procedure were used. During the course of our study, we will see that the cards-down perspective has sometimes been associated with a religious point of view.

The link between religion and public policy is strong in the history of ideas. In Chapter Two we will examine different forms that this link has taken in various Mediterranean societies. One of our main projects is to gain some understanding of why the link between religion and public policy has been so strong. The central answer that we will explore is that many people believe war can be avoided if the cards are turned down before violence breaks out over issues that divide communities.

In Chapter Two, we will trace the link between religion and public policy through the traditions of Plato and Aristotle. Despite the problem of the tyranny of orthodoxy, as we will see, religion continues to exercise an influence on policy matters in many cultures. Modern liberalism has in large measure emerged as a corrective to the tyranny of orthodoxy that has historically accompanied the shaping of public policy by religious authorities.

In Chapter Four, “Modern Moral Liberalism,” we will study classical and contemporary moral liberalism and review Rawls’ efforts to preserve the strengths of both liberalism and communitarianism. We will examine Rawls’ response to four major forms of tyranny–the tyrannies of the majority, the powerful minority, orthodoxy, and perfectionism. His response to the tyrannies of the majority and the minority is that the cards should be turned down for policy decisions, but Rawls is aware that the tyrannies of orthodoxy and perfectionism lurk nearby when the cards are turned down. We will see that Rawls addresses this problem with two main suggestions: first, the turning down of the cards is merely a hypothetical, not an actual, procedure; secondly, the cards may be regarded as inverted for some matters only. The fair-minded, cards-down perspective, Rawls maintains, helps to understand how individual rights are created. We will examine the matters for which Rawls would turn the cards down and review criticisms of his notion of a hypothetical social contract.

The three perspectives that emerge from the game will be helpful in our discussions of moral and political philosophies. The place given to self-interest, altruism, and fair-mindedness will be traced through various philosophies.

The central metaphor of the Rawls game–turning the cards face up for some decisions and face down for others–can be quite graphic to those who have played the game and expressed their intuitions on specific issues from the different perspectives. The card-game metaphor has its limitations, to be sure, so it will be used mainly to provide preliminary comparisons among moral theories in our search for a fair social game. It will also provide a framework for presenting some of the problems associated with various theories.

Moral Relativism: Survival of the Fittest

At this point in our search, you may be thinking that morality is simply an individual matter. Further, you might hold that so-called “morality” is simply a matter of conditioning. A person’s beliefs and behaviors are best viewed as mere products of one’s culture. The position that you are entertaining if you think along these lines is known as moral relativism.
In this section, I will talk about relativism and try to explain why it is so popular, but also why it quickly falls apart as a coherent story of the phenomenon that people call morality. We will then examine liberal and communitarian stories of morality. I will try to point out the important influence that relativism has exercised on these two major stories or approaches to morality.

As people become aware of practices in various cultures, many are led to the conclusion that what is right varies from culture to culture. Polygamy is practiced in some cultures, monogamy in others. Pre¬marital relations are permitted in some cultures but forbidden in others. Some cultures are vegetarian while others are carnivorous. These and similar examples seem to provide evidence to support the assertion that what is right varies from community to community. They seem to support, in other words, a form of ethical or moral relativism that may be called communal relativism.

Communal (Cultural) Relativism: Horses in a Herd

Communal relativists hold that if a group regards an action as right, it is right. The group is the exclusive determiner of what is right. Communal or cultural relativism, may be illustrated with the image of a herd of horses. A dominant stallion provides protection for the mares and the young. There is no right or wrong in this animal herd; there are only hungry horses in need of food and protection. The survival of the herd increases the chances that each member of the herd will survive, so the good of the group and the good of each member of the group are closely connected.

Relativists regard humans as close to animals as far as questions of life’s meaning and morality are concerned. Humans, like other animals, are subject to control and domination by others, and both human and non-human animals end their lives in the same way: they die. Non¬relativists, on the other hand, regard humans as having capacities that fish and animals lack, capacities that make relationships among humans significantly different from relationships among non-human animals.

If the community is the determiner of what is right, a person who seeks to know what is right must only consult a community’s standards. When the standards of different communities are examined, however, one quickly realizes that some pretty outrageous policies have been adopted at different times and places. Chattel slavery was practiced in various parts of the Americas for several centuries. Genocide has been inflicted on people of different religious or ethnic heritage in some European and other countries as recently as the twentieth century. To say a policy is right if a community or group declares it is right seems out of place or even misguided in light of such examples.

A search for a coherent response to communal relativism seems to point us in the direction of individual or subjective relativism. What is right, according to subjective relativists, varies from individual to individual. If an individual regards an action as right, according to the subjective relativist, it is right.

Individual (Subjective) Relativism: Fish in the Sea

The subjective or individual moral relativist regards the human person as an isolated individual who, independently of others, determines what is good and right. On this view, there are as many different standards of morality as there are people in the world. In effect, then, there is no shared standard of right action and no universal standard of right or wrong. A picture or model for this position is the model of fish in the sea, where big fish eat little fish. Individual relativists regard humans as quite similar to animals as far as moral and ultimate questions (questions about what is right, real, and so forth) are concerned. There is no measure of right and wrong; there are only hungry fish.

Subjective relativism can be tested and refuted in the same way that communal relativism has been challenged. Son of Sam, a mass killer in New York, claimed that mass killing was right–even divinely inspired. This claim runs counter to the ordinary intuitions of many people, who would hold that mass killing is wrong. To hold that mass killing is wrong, then, requires that one reject the claim of the subjective relativist that an action is right if an individual regards it as right.

Problems with contradiction and circularity also render moral relativism incoherent. The position of individual relativism may be expressed with this principle: “If a person regards an action as right, it is right. ” Along the same lines, the position of communal relativism may be expressed: “If a group regards a policy as right, it is right.”
Philip Montague, a philosopher from the state of Washington, has pointed out that if two people have opposite opinions of an action, the consistent relativist must say that the action is right and it is wrong. This contradictory conclusion follows from the principle “If a person regards an action as right, it is right.” The counterpart to this principle is “If a person regards an action as wrong, it is wrong.” So, if one person regards an action as right and another person regards the same action as wrong, it follows from the relativist principle that the action is both right and wrong.

To avoid this apparent contradiction, people often modify the principle and say: “If a person regards an action as right, it is right in his or her view.” Montague points out that if an action is right in someone’s view, that person regards the action as right. Anyone who accepts this paraphrase, Montague observes, must acknowledge that the principle is equivalent to this statement: “If a person regards an action as right, that person regards the action as right.” The principle is true but trivial. This circular principle tells us nothing about a state of affairs in the world. The effort to find consistency in a relativist principle leads first to contradiction and then to circularity. These are serious difficulties for moral or prescriptive relativists.

Examples of the sort we have been examining-known as “counter¬examples”-help us to express our own intuitions; they ordinarily lead to the rejection of relativism in both its communal and individual forms. A plausible claim that may be made after the critical examination of both forms of relativism is that the individual and the community, in some combination, decide what is right. Neither the individual nor the community acting independently of the other is the exclusive determiner of right actions or policies.

The serious objections to relativism may well lead one to ask why relativism continues to be such a popular position. The reason may well lie in a failure to distinguish between descriptive and prescriptive relativism. Descriptive relativists hold that what is regarded as right varies. They may hold that what is regarded as right varies from culture to culture or that what is regarded as right varies from individual to individual. The descriptive relativists may also hold that both of these claims are correct.

Prescriptive or moral relativists address the question of what is right. They hold that what is right varies. Prescriptive relativism takes two forms. These are the two positions reviewed above under the labels communal (or cultural) and individual (or subjective) relativism. Polygamy, slavery, genocide, and clitorectomy may be regarded as right in some times and places, but a person may still ask whether these practices are right.

The popularity of the view that morality is relative may now be explained in the following way. When people hold that morality is relative, they are ordinarily subscribing to a form of descriptive relativism. Descriptive relativism, in the judgment of many philosophers and non-philosophers, gives a highly plausible account of a state of affairs in the world.

Prescriptive relativists, however, make quite a different claim. They make the controversial claim that what is right varies from culture to culture or from individual to individual. While descriptive relativists give a description of an actual state of affairs, prescriptive relativists make a claim about what could or should be. Descriptive relativism has been said to present claims about what is, but prescriptive relativism to make claims about what ought to be. The position of descriptive relativism can be readily verified through the study of different cultures or the observation of different individuals, but the claim of prescriptive relativism that what is right varies is highly controversial and requires defense. The popularity of relativism may be explained as the result of a failure to distinguish between descriptive and prescriptive relativism. The position that many people have in mind when they say “morality is relative” is descriptive relativism, not prescriptive relativism.

In the rest of this section and the remainder of the book, I will be concerned with prescriptive or moral relativism. When I refer to ‘relativism’ I will mean prescriptive relativism unless I specify otherwise.

The final objection to relativism is that moral relativists address only the question of who decides. When they address only this question, they fail to take into account other questions that people often ask in regard to moral issues: What is the standard of right action? What is the good life? Why be moral? What is virtuous? The failure to take into account these questions, along with the exclusive emphasis on the individual or the group and problems with contradiction and circularity, leads most philosophers to look elsewhere for a definition or standard of a right action or a good life. Some look to moral liberalism and others to moral communitarianism.

Neither moral liberalism nor moral communitarianism is a relativist position. Both positions assign a role to the individual as well as to the community in moral decision-making. In liberalism, the individual is the primary moral agent; in communitarianism the community is the primary agent. The main differences between liberals and communitarians, as we will see, may be traced to conflicting views of the human person and the source of personal identity.

Chapter 2: Ancient and Medieval Moral Communitarianism in the Mediterranean Area

When we move from relativism to the moral theories of communitarianism and liberalism, we move from the view that humans are simply like animals or fish to the notions that humans are capable of engaging in cooperative activity and that humans can attain more than mere survival. Humans build social structures in an attempt to achieve the complex goal of survival in freedom. Rather than engage in strictly individual activity or in blind subordination to a powerful leader, humans can cooperate in their efforts to attain both survival and individual freedom.

Communitarianism may be found in both strict and moderate forms. Strict or particular communitarianism encompasses various kinds of communities. Plato is a strict communitarian as is Augustine, but while Plato made the standard of right action the Form of the Good, Augustine adopted the standard of God’s commands. For this reason, followers of Augustine are often associated with the “religious right.”

Moderate or universal communitarianism may be regarded as a “communitarian left”; it moves in the direction of taking into account the interests of all members of the community. Aristotle, Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas provide examples of moderate communitarianism.

Both strict and moderate communitarians regard the community as analogous to the human organism. In this model, the individual’s survival is dependent on the survival of the community, just as the survival of each part of the body is dependent on the survival of the entire body. In strict communitarianism, the body is viewed as subordinate to the mind. Moderate communitarians, by contrast, regard the mind as having a closer alliance and harmony with the body.

Strict communitarians also hold that human society is like an upright pyramid. Different groups or classes play different roles in society. The rules are made by the one or the few at the top, who are believed to have greater knowledge of what is good, right, just, real, and true. a problem accompanies the pyramid model: when class division becomes too rigid, resentment sets in and the social pyramid collapses into a tyranny of orthodoxy with its arbitrary and impersonal treatment of people.

Communitarianism may be rescued from the tyranny of orthodoxy by a move toward the communitarian left. When challenges to the authority of the decision-makers in the upright social pyramid are raised, the decision-makers may preserve the pyramid by representing more fully the preferences of the people. This preservation is not accomplished without some cost: to protect the pyramid from the rigidity of a tyrannical orthodoxy, the pyramid must be inverted. This “inversion” is a way of expressing the idea that the rules take into account the interests and needs of the people. A difficulty with the inverted-pyramid model is that an inverted pyramid is unstable. Moral liberalism has emerged in efforts to stabilize the inverted communitarian pyramid. This liberal project will be examined in Chapters Three and Four.

The Platonic School: An Upright Social Pyramid

The moral communitarian regards the community as the primary unit in moral decision-making. According to the main ancient and medieval communitarians, the relationship of the individual to the community is analogous to the relationship of part of a body to the whole body.


Plato was a major figure in Western communitarianism. Plato rejected the relativist position, although he provided a detailed and sympathetic account of relativism in his writings. Plato lived during a period of corruption and turmoil in the democratic city-state of Athens, Greece. The state executed Plato’s mentor Socrates. Plato had regarded Socrates as Athens’ best citizen, and the trial and execution must have been a major factor in Plato’s thinking about right and wrong. After Socrates was executed, Plato went into a period of exile. Later he returned to Athens and spent the remainder of his life working to bring about a just state that provided a place for political dissenters.

Plato gave a blueprint of a just state in his political utopia, The Republic. In this work, the just state is described as a state that is governed by the Guardians—fair-minded persons who have the welfare of all at heart. The military is subject to the Guardians, as are the merchants, craftsmen, and farmers. The loyal opposition and political dissenters, according to Plato, belong in the Guardian class. If they care enough to try to improve the state, political dissenters such as Socrates should be given the opportunity to act on their goals. Plato’s conception of the just state may be pictured as an upright pyramid, with the Guardians at the top, the military immediately below the Guardians, and the merchants, craftsmen and farmers at the bottom of the pyramid.

Plato’s conception of the just state is based on an analogy with a healthy individual. When reason directs the bodily appetites, the virtue of temperance is achieved; when reason directs the will, courage is present; when reason directs the intellect, wisdom is attained. When reason directs the intellect, will and bodily appetites, each part of the human organism plays its proper role and the virtue of justice is present. Inner harmony is the result.

Harmony within the state is achieved in a similar fashion . When the state—the “body politic”—is governed by the reasoning elements in the state, harmony or justice results. However, if the will (embodied by the military) or the bodily appetites (merchants, craftsmen, or farmers) take over the governance, disorder and injustice result. The merchants, craftsmen, and farmers are said by Plato to correspond to the bodily appetites in the body, since they look primarily to personal gain. The welfare of all in the society is not the primary concern of these private businessmen. The Guardians of the state, by contrast, are those who have demonstrated a concern for all and knowledge of how best to achieve fairness for all.

Plato describes a state governed by the reasoning elements as an aristocracy. The state can decline from the ideal of aristocracy when either the will or the bodily appetites take over. When the will—or military—takes over, timocracy develops. The leaders become more concerned about their reputations and preserving their power than fairness and the well being of all. The next stage of decline is plutocracy. The leaders in a plutocracy use public office for increasing personal wealth and the wealth of their families. The bodily appetites have overtaken the reason in a plutocracy. The next worse stage is democracy. When everyone wants an equal share of the wealth, the bodily appetites make things fall apart completely. To bring order of this chaos, a strong leader or tyrant emerges. Tyranny is the worst form of government and the final stage of the state’s decline.

Only the few are capable of governing, according to Plato. In his ideal state, the few born with leadership qualities are selected early in life for extensive training. In regard to the Rawls Game, Plato’s position is consistent with the view that only a select few are capable of turning the cards down. Those who are born with an ability to lead are the ones who have the ability to be fair-minded and invert the cards. Plato describes the individuals capable of leadership as persons who have gold in their veins.

The Guardians demonstrate their concern for everyone by denying themselves private families and private property. Wives and children were to be held in common among the Guardians. Plato compares family love, friendship, erotic love, and love of humanity and regards family love (storge) and erotic love (eros) as the types of love that bring humans closest to the animal world. Friendship (philia) and love of humanity (agape) are higher forms of love.

The knowledge of how best to govern is gained through the long period of training, during which the Guardians contemplate and through reflection gain knowledge of the Forms. They study art (beauty), science (truth), and moral philosophy (goodness). The highest Form is the Form of the Good. The dedication to the ultimate good on the part of the Guardians overcomes the conflict between the rich and poor—a conflict in the Greece of Plato’s day that led to the deaths of many in civil strife.

One of the casualties of such strife was Socrates. In Plato’s model of the just state, the dedication to goodness and fairness exemplified by such persons as Socrates was the catalyst that could bring about peace in the traditional conflict between the rich and poor classes.

Aristotle criticized Plato’s view that only those with gold in their veins should serve as Guardians. Aristotle pointed out that the same people should always govern if Plato’s claim that the leaders had gold in their veins—that is, that leadership is innate—were correct. Also see the criticisms of Plato by Lynda Lange and Susan Moller Okin in Chapter Nine below.

Plato regarded the Forms as permanent, nonphysical entities. Some of Plato’s predecessors had proposed that everything could be understood in physical terms. Plato rejected this materialist account of reality. In addition, he rejected another account—idealism—which maintained that everything was nonphysical. Plato compromised, as it were, between the two and accepted a dualist view of reality. In Chapter Six, “Metaphysics,” we will examine Plato’s argument for the view that some things are physical and some nonphysical. Forms—such as the Form of the Good—were among the nonphysical things of the world. Everything in the physical world had a corresponding nonphysical Form .


Several centuries after Plato’s utopia, another major utopia that profoundly influenced the history of ideas was written by the African philosopher Augustine. As Plato’s Republic before it, Augustine’s The City of God was a product of a concern over injustice. In Augustine’s case, however, the injustice occurred on a larger scale than that which Plato addressed. Some colonies on the fringes of the Roman Empire were treated harshly by the Roman military. Land distribution policies, for example, sometimes displaced indigenous peoples when the land was taken over by the Romans.

Resistance to this decimation of communities was mounted in some areas. In Palestine, for example, some Jews advocated violent resistance against Rome while others favored nonviolent resistance. Jesus Christ, who was probably regarded as a pacifist resister, was executed about forty years before Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. and the Jews were thrust into dispersion. The establishment of the state of Israel in the second half of the twentieth century was the first Jewish state in the former Palestine in almost two millennia. The experience of the Jews and other colonists of Rome precipitated the movement known as Christianity, a movement for which Augustine became a central spokesperson.

In his City of God, Augustine contrasted the city of man with the city of God. The city of man was a society in which personal gain was valued over fairness and the welfare of all. The use of public positions for personal gain was a practice in the city of man and, according to Augustine, a practice that produced disorder. Such disorder was a feature of the colonialism of Rome, a military state that inflicted grave injustice in its failure to pursue a fair-minded treatment of all within the empire.

The city of God, on the other hand, was the community that based its policies on the advice of those who provided the voice of conscience in the state. Those who had suffered injustice were among the most valued members of the city of God. By coming together in voluntary associations, these individuals and others who sympathized with them could perform a valuable function in the state. Collectively they could act as the voice of conscience. This voluntary association, according to Augustine, was the church; as the conscience of the state, the church was the moral community.

In the Augustinian tradition of the Middle Ages, the members of the church directed the military leaders in the governing of a just state. The king or head of government was regarded as the head of the military. When the military leaders acted under the sanction of the religious community, a harmonious and lasting peace in the state was possible. The church was separate from the court or military when it played the role of conscience in the state. The different elements of the body politic played their proper roles when the military leadership derived its policy from the conscience of the state. When each part of the organism played its proper role, an inner harmony was present: justice and peace ensued when this mystical union of church and state was obtained. Such a state could be called a mystical body.

Augustine subscribed to the same set of virtues as Plato—wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. To these Augustine added the Christian religious virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

So powerful was Augustine’s vision that his utopia became the blueprint for medieval society in Europe. In the tradition that evolved from Augustine, the feudal system was divided into classes, with the clergy at the top, the military leaders below the clergy, and the peasants at the bottom of the pyramid. Its very strength, however, set the stage for the decline of feudal society. Class division came to be resented by those who, from generation to generation, were denied a share of the governance and the social goods such as wealth and power. The system was successful as long as each member of society accepted the role laid out in the class structure. When many peasants came to reject their state of intergenerational poverty, the feudal system was set for collapse. A tyranny of orthodoxy was present when the “right-minded” views of those at the top of the upright pyramid were imposed on the peasants at the bottom.

Augustine shared Plato’s view that only the few were capable of turning the cards down. When those suited for leadership occupied the uppermost part of the upright social pyramid, order in the state was assured. Disorder, according to the Platonists, followed when persons not suited for leadership were placed at the top of the pyramid.

The Platonic-Augustinian model came in for serious challenge in the late Middle Ages. Aristotle had challenged Plato’s conception of the just state, and during the eleventh and twelfth centuries an Aristotelian revival took place in Europe. The Aristotelian tradition as preserved and transformed by Jewish and Muslim thinkers made its way back into Europe through Spain. We turn now to examine the major impact the Aristotelian revival had on European thought as it addressed the tyranny of orthodoxy that arose with the Platonic-Augustinian school in the late Middle Ages. Also see Rosemary Radford Ruether’s criticism of Augustine in Chapter Nine below.

The Aristotelian School: An Inverted Social Pyramid


Aristotle, who came from Macedonia, studied for twenty years under Plato in Athens. After this long period of apprenticeship, Aristotle turned on its head Plato’s account of morality and the just state by inverting Plato’s pyramid. He regarded the restrictions against marriage among the guardians to be too stringent. In a state having women and children in common, Aristotle argued, love will be watery. People love particular persons, according to Aristotle, and the love of humanity begins with the love of particular persons.

Aristotle also rejected Plato’s foundation for justice—the theory of Forms. A world of nonphysical Forms that duplicates the world of particular physical things is too complicated, in Aristotle’s view. He was aware that the debate between the dualists and the materialists had been going on for centuries, and he did not think Plato’s solution to the controversy was satisfactory. Whether physical things or nonphysical things constituted the ultimate reality was a question that Aristotle did not think could be answered. He was a practical man of science, and he responded to the concern about ultimate reality with a suggestion that such an issue be approached by asking what we know for practical purposes.

Aristotle observed that it makes sense to accept the existence of minerals, plants, animals, and humans. It is also meaningful to ask about the relationships between these groups. If one is to be ranked higher than the others are, the ranking might be determined by the function or functions of each group. Plato had ranked humans higher on a scale of being by virtue of the access to special knowledge that humans possess. Knowledge of mathematics, geometry, and logic, Plato thought, distinguished humans from animals. When Plato gave his account of the source of this knowledge, however, Aristotle was not satisfied. Plato regarded knowledge of Forms, including those of mathematics, geometry, and logic, as innate. Such knowledge, according to Plato, gave humans access to knowledge of what ultimately is real. Humans could attain this knowledge through the exercise of speculative reason. Aristotle, on the other hand, held that knowledge of an ultimate reality may lie beyond the capacity of humans. Humans, however, can gain practical knowledge, and such knowledge comes through experience and practical reason.

Humans, Aristotle maintained, are not distinct from animals by virtue of innate knowledge. Rather, humans are distinct by virtue of the type of action that they can perform. Each group has its unique function, and that function includes the function of “lower” groups. When an individual attains the function typical of its species, it achieves what Aristotle called its “perfection.” Minerals exist, while plants both exist and grow. Animals, in turn, exist, grow and move about. They possess locomotion, a function or perfection not possessed by plants. Animals also have the capacity for sensation. Humans have the functions of each of the other groups: they exist, grow, move about, and have sensation. In addition, however, humans have another function.

Aristotle used the term “reason” to describe the additional function. It is important to remember, however, that he rejected Plato’s account of reason. So we must probe some to understand what Aristotle meant when he used that term.

Humans were unlike animals, according to Aristotle, since humans possessed the capacity to reason. Humans could attain more than mere pleasure and experience more than mere pain. Humans could aim at more than mere existence or the satisfaction of everyday wants. Humans could aim higher and try to attain a self-subsistent, good life­—that is, a happy life. The good life was a life of self-sufficiency or self­-subsistence, but humans were unable to become self-subsistent in isolation. Humans by nature, Aristotle maintained, are political animals or social beings. Humans can attain the self-sufficient, good life only in communities.

In communities or groups a natural division takes place for the purpose of governing. The soul naturally rules over the body, and the mind or rational element directs the body or passions. In the family or private domain, according to Aristotle, the male naturally directs the female. The governing of the state or public domain is ordinarily best performed by those who embody the rational element. The natural order of the rational element over the passional nature also explains why Greeks (Hellenes) govern barbarians: barbarians are generally governed by kings in isolated clans or tribes. Larger communities, in contrast to tribes and clans, tend toward greater self-subsistence. Greater self-subsistence, in Aristotle’s account, was a sign of a more fully rational people.

The role of the state is to enable each person to attain the potential given by nature. Aristotle inverted Plato’s social pyramid and said that the leaders play their appropriate roles when they assist people in attaining their potential.

Aristotle studied the governments of over one hundred different societies. While Plato proposed that rule by the few, or aristocracy, was the ideal form of government, Aristotle acknowledged that different forms of government—monarchy, aristocracy, or polity—may be suitable in different societies. He proposed that individual self-realization was the measure of the just state. When Aristotle left open the prospect that self-realization is attainable in a society ruled by the many (a polity), he planted a seed that was to come to full flower in some forms of moral liberalism—namely, the view that everyone is capable of turning the cards down and adopting the perspective of fair-mindedness.

Aristotle faces two main difficulties with his position a tyranny of perfectionism and a problem with social stability. The tyranny of perfectionism can arise with the Aristotelian moral framework. The character of people is the primary focus of moral evaluation, according to Aristotle, and those lacking virtue may be described as morally deficient. The potentials of people vary according to their place on a chain of being. Disagreements over the human functions or the conceptions of the good life can divide communities. Since the potentials that people possess are so varied, conflict can arise over which functions or perfections to attain.

An inverted pyramid is unstable if one tries to set it on solid ground. Aristotle found his self-realization theory compatible with rule by one, rule by the few, or rule by the many. While this view was quite tolerant of different systems, it lent itself to considerable division among later Aristotelians. Thomas Aquinas, for example, favored monarchy as the best form of government.

For further criticism of Aristotle’s perfectionism, see the section on Lucius Outlaw in Chapter Five below. Also see Jean Bethke Elshtain’s and Elizabeth Spelman’s criticisms of Aristotle in Chapter Nine below.

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas witnessed the early stages of the decline of feudal Europe. The demands of the English people for greater decision­-making power were formalized in the Magna Charta in the decade prior to Aquinas’ birth. The Christian crusades to win the lands of ancient Palestine from the Muslims had been waged during the preceding century. Aquinas, against the objections of his political family, withdrew to the monastery, where he gathered about himself texts from the Muslim, Jewish, as well as the Christian traditions. Although Aquinas remained closer to a moral communitarian, he produced a synthesis of thought in the Summa Theologica that laid the seeds for the reformation of Christianity and the rise of modern science.

Aquinas discovered in the Muslim (Averroes and Avicenna) and the Jewish (Maimonides) commentators on Aristotle extensive criticism of the Platonic system. Aquinas saw the power of the Aristotelian system to address some of the difficulties with Platonism, which through Augustine had come to dominate European thought and social structures.

Aquinas incorporated Aristotle’s inverted pyramid, in which the leaders were viewed as primarily servants of the people who helped the people realize their potentials. Aquinas transformed Augustine’s transcendent God into the notion of the good within each person. Each individual, according to Aquinas, had the potential for good as well as for harm. To attain one’s natural function, however, was to seek the potential for the good within. This potential for good was a potential to discover a higher moral law that lies within each person. It was, to use the metaphor of the Rawls Game, the potential to turn the cards down on issues involving harmful relationships between humans.

Aquinas drew upon Augustine’s list of virtues, but he re-interpreted the meaning of each of the virtues. Faith, for example, was taken by many followers of Augustine to mean a blind trust in a transcendent God. For Aquinas, however, faith was closely associated with doubt. To have faith or to believe that something was true implied some doubt. A framework of doubt surrounded human knowledge, according to Aquinas, and this doubt reflected the limits of human knowledge. To claim to know more than is warranted, Aquinas held, is to overstep the bounds of human reason. A boundary or perimeter surrounds human knowledge. Claims to know a transcendent God or the will of God take one beyond that perimeter. Human existence, according to Aquinas, is surrounded by a sea of uncertainty. According to Aquinas, one attempted to discover one’s purpose by attaining the potential given by heredity, environment, and self-awareness. The realization of this potential was sought within a community, not as an isolated individual.

The moral community, according to Aquinas, was not a particular community—Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. It was rather the human community itself. To attain one’s potential was to attain one’s unique function as a human being. The virtues were to be found, as they had been for Aristotle, within practices; virtues arose from and were specific to particular practices.

The problem of instability for the Aristotelian school is illustrated by Aquinas’ preference for rule by one. Individual self-realization and social stability are best attained, Aquinas claimed, through a monarchy. The structure of society for the Aristotelians could take various forms—­rule by one, the few or the many. The measure of justice was whether individuals could attain their potentials. As Aquinas’ defense of monarchy illustrates, the variety of political structures permitted by the followers of Aristotle reduces the stability of society.

The cards are down to decide the good life in communitarian decision-making. Problems with the cards down include a tyranny of orthodoxy and a tyranny of perfectionism.

Strict communitarians, as we have seen, regard the social pyramid as upright, and moderate communitarians hold that it is inverted. An inverted pyramid implies that the leaders are the servants of the people, not their rulers or masters. Class division and the resentment that accompanies a caste system are problems for strict communitarianism, and the tyranny of perfectionism is the main problem for moderate communitarianism.

These problems with communitarianism have contributed to the emergence of modern liberalism. Some liberals, as we will see in Chapter Four, address the tyrannies of orthodoxy and perfectionism by leaving the cards up. Conflicts over who can turn the cards down and what it means to invert the cards can be avoided when the cards are left up. Other liberal philosophers place strict limits on what can be decided when the cards are turned down. Rawlsians will turn the cards down only for decisions on what is seriously harmful—e.g., slavery and religious intolerance. The cards will remain up for decisions concerning the good life.

In Chapters Six and Seven, we will see that some moral and political philosophers also attempt to stabilize the inverted pyramid by floating it in a sea of uncertainty that surrounds life. They do not attempt to place it on a solid foundation of claims about what is ultimately real and true.