Research What Are You Reading...On Aristotle, Telos, and Universality

What Are You Reading…On Aristotle, Telos, and Universality

This past week my Philosophy of Law class discussed Aristotle’s concept of justice as laid out in Michael Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? Sandel discusses the important role of telos in Aristotle’s ethics and politics, which say that decisions should be made based on a thing’s purpose. Students were intrigued, yet concerned about the ways this theory can remove freedom of choice (for instance, if one is a great cook yet hates cooking, should they do so anyway to build a virtuous society?). By the end, a number of students felt Aristotle’s incorporation of telos was a useful addition to justice while others saw it as a distraction.

In order to some answer student questions about the role of telos in Aristotle’s philosophy, as well as how universal or absolute something’s telos is, I searched for recent articles published on these topics. Here’s what I found:


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  1. Nathan,

    On Aristotle, can I suggest Giorgio Agamben’s “The Use of Bodies”? Which is an in-depth reading of Aristotles’ “Politics.”

    Briefly, Agamben begins by describing Aristotle’s distinction between the sovereign master (despotes) and the subaltern slave (doulos), in which the master is seen as the dominant rational, decision-making subject, who posses a psyche or soul, and the slave is seen as simply the “embodied instrument” or “animate tool” subject to the dictates of the master, a body without a rational soul, who is therefore psyche-less or soul-less. For Agamben, this master/slave distinction is equivalent to the Aristotelian distinction between the politically qualified life (bios) of the sovereign citizen of the Athenian city-state (polis), who possess the full rights, privileges and immunities of democratic public life, and the “bare life” (zoe) of the slaves, who are debarred from political life, possessing no privileges, rights, or immunities under sovereign democratic law, and therefore can even be killed without threat of prosecution under Greek and Roman law.

    This distinction runs throughout Western democratic law, from Greece and Rome to the US of A, and was enshrined, for example, in Article IV of the US Constitution, which distinguishes between the white, free, slave-holding, property-owning twenty-one-year-old males (US citizens), who possess the privileges, rights, and immunities of US citizenship, and Southern slaves, who possess no rights, privileges, or immunities (except the due process right of return to slavery), and who (if having escaped from slavery to a Northern State) “shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due”: i.e., to the white slave-holding Southern male who claims them under Southern State law, which is binding upon the Northern States. In the contemporary immigration debate, for another example, the whole argument made in US courts by the ACLU and NGOs is only about the rights of foreign citizens or migrant workers, who have already been legally admitted to the US under current visa law, and who therefore, it is argued, also have the right to return to the US, while Syrian refugees, undocumented Haitian immigrants, and Thai sex workers, who are seeking refugee status, have no rights, and can be denied entry for no reason what-so-ever, since, according to the US Supreme Court, nobody else in the world possess even the slightest rights under US or international law, except what the SCOTUS calls “the due process right of return” to where they came from (see Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, Inc. 509 U.S. 155 (1993)).

    In other words, there’s a stark distinction in US law, as in Aristotle’s polis, between privileged, decision-making, rights-holding US citizens, and everybody else in the world, who have only the subordinate status of slaves or non-persons (soul-less bodies, animate tools, migrant workers, etc.) under US Constitutional law, or in Western (Greek, Roman etc.) law generally. You will probably recognize here Agamben’s argument throughout the Homo sacer series, which argues that Western democratic law is per se based upon the exclusion of a certain subclass of sub-humans (in the US, the homeless, for example), whose exclusion from the privileges, rights, and immunities of citizenship, and exposure to the sheer violence of the law, is the basis upon which the privileges and immunities of the sovereign dominant privileged classes is founded, but I am digressing. My review of Agamben, if you’re interested, is available at:

    But it’s always worth checking out Agamben, since he knows Aristotle much better than I…


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