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Aristotle’s Opinion on Laws that are a Social Construct: Analysis of Nicomachean Ethics

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“All laws are a social construct”. How would Aristotle respond to this statement?

Aristotle would argue that all laws are a social construct due to providing a guideline for society to follow and benefit from, he expresses his judgement on social construct through his types of laws in his book called “Nicomachean Ethics”, the connection and influence the justice system has on the political community in his second book “Politics”, and that without a community of citizens to govern in a state, laws would not have been created to begin with.[footnoteRef:0] The purpose law serves in a state is to create equality, order, and peace within the community. In Aristotle’s perspective, mankind are meant to socialize and form polity’s, however, this may be difficult to achieve without a form of authority and jurisdiction governing citizens of the state.[footnoteRef:1] According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, social construct examines the development of society’s values and represents these beliefs within the form of institutions.[footnoteRef:2] It is a construct of mutual beliefs that are agreed upon in hopes of creating laws that can reflect the community expectations. Social construction helps build knowledge of our society and develops institutions to help the way of life.[footnoteRef:3] Aristotle believes that the good of the city is a greater priority than the situation of one individual because the polity must be preserved for the city and the generations to come. This proposition would not become possible without the social construction of laws within the polity’s justice system. Without society’s obedience and influence on law, there would be no value given to the rules created therefore making these laws ineffective. The same idea goes for universal laws, even if the individual’s understanding is based on their morals and idea of what is considered to be right and wrong, these laws would not exist without the citizen’s involvement and cooperation.[footnoteRef:4] Although every individual is born with a moral trait, they are not born with a legal trait that provides an idea of what actions are acceptable in society and which are not. For this reason, a legal system needs to be constructed to guide the citizens of a state.[footnoteRef:5] The justification behind the social construction of laws will be expressed through one of the main types of laws Aristotle believes exist, which include the virtuous laws also known as Universal law.[footnoteRef:6] The second primary type of law is Particular, this category is separated into three different categories that serve different purposes in the justice system. The first type of law within Particular Justice is distributive which is the division of goods and services amongst civilians on behalf of the state.[footnoteRef:7] Then the Corrective or also known as Remedial law aims to restore an equal amount in value of what was taken.[footnoteRef:8] For instance, if you’re giving someone $200 worth of jewelry, that person must reciprocate the gift with something they give that has an equal amount of value or quantity. Aristotle justifies his judgment through his types of laws in his book called “Nicomachean Ethics”, the connection and influence the justice system has on the political community in his second book “Politics”, and without the social construction of a community of citizens to govern in a state, laws would not have been created to begin with.[footnoteRef:9] [0: ] [1: ] [2:] [3:] [4: ] [5: ] [6: ] [7: ] [8: ] [9: ]

Aristotle recognizes two main types of laws which support the belief that all laws are a social construct. These consist of Universal and Particular justice. He believes that Universal Justice is the general base for natural law and that it is a part of human nature as it reflects the shared morals and values of mankind. It is the basic understanding of laws that most communities would enforce and practice in their justice systems.[footnoteRef:10] It is the rule of law that is built on virtuous behavior.[footnoteRef:11] Although many individuals may be born with a moral compass, that does not necessarily mean they have an idea of what is right and wrong. Morals are often developed and shaped by the environment an individual is raised in. If a child is raised in a negative environment they may begin to develop a different idea of what is just and unjust therefore resulting in behavior that can cause conflict in the community. This would contradict the purpose of why laws were created for society in the first place. Since Universal Laws are associated with an individual’s virtue, it is based on acting just in society for the pure basis of being honorable to one’s self and state.[footnoteRef:12] Some people may suggest this form of law is the only type that can be viewed as a contradiction to the statement that “all laws are a social construct”. [10: ] [11: ] [12: ]

However, even though it is based off of an individual’s morals, it does not change the fact that the laws made based on these beliefs are collectively held views in which influenced the formation of all laws.

Particular Justice branches off into three different categories, they are known as distributive, corrective/remedial, and commercial laws.[footnoteRef:13] These are the laws that are known to be socially constructed to fit the community one identifies with. Each branch serves a purpose in society to form an organized, just society. Distributive laws consist of the division of wealth, honors and goods among the citizens. It can consist of money, property and political office positions.[footnoteRef:14] The belief behind this law is to distribute equally amongst society and provide a type of “good” to every citizen. Distributive law can cause dissatisfaction within the community it is administered in because there is an equal distribution of goods but not an equal division of effort in accordance to the fact that it does not matter if an individual is not performing their best results because they will still receive a benefit of goods from the state due to the distribution theory of law.[footnoteRef:15] This type of justice can also result in other individuals taking more than their fair share at the expense of another individual. It can createinjustice among society and is why the corrective laws were created. Corrective laws can be seen as a form of today’s criminal and civil law.[footnoteRef:16] They ensure that individuals who have suffered an injustice within the system are retributed for. This law was created in hopes of decreasing the number of injustices caused to restore the peace and order within a community. The last type of law within Particular Justice is called Recipricol law. The concept behind this law is to return the favor to any individual that provides you with something of value, with an equal amount of worth.[footnoteRef:17] These laws are considered to be socially constructed due to the meaning society gave when enforcing the mutually shared views into law.[footnoteRef:18] All three laws have a similar objective as to creating equality throughout the community since distribution aims to give everyone a fair share of goods, remedial laws objective is to provide justice to the individual who has experienced inequality and through reciprocal law, to equally treat the individual back with something of similar value to return the favor they recieved.[footnoteRef:19] [13: ] [14: ] [15: ] [16: ] [17: ] [18: ] [19: ]

Aristotle believes that the justice system and rule of law exist to serve not only the state and society but also the political community.[footnoteRef:20] The following quote in Aristotle’s book of Politics supports the argument that “all laws are a social construct” because every law that is made for the justice system is constructed to serve as a guideline in society. “But justice is a political matter; for justice is the organization of a political community, and justice decides what is just”. [footnoteRef:21]Aristotle would suggest laws are a social construct because he believes justice started as a political matter which leads to the organization of the justice system because a state and laws influence one another.[footnoteRef:22] It helps provide individuals a moral guideline of what’s right and wrong, therefore, resulting in an organized and successful community. If laws were not created and instilled in institutions that can enforce justice there would be no order in society and individuals who believed their idea of what is just and unjust would act out and lead to a catastrophic society.[footnoteRef:23] [20: ] [21: ] [22: ] [23: ]

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“a city-state is among the things that exist by nature, that a human being is by nature a political animal, and that anyone who is without a city-state, not by luck but by nature, is either a poor specimen or else superhuman.”[footnoteRef:24] [24: ]

Aristotle believes that humans are born politically inclined and that it is in human nature for them to participate. Living among a community is also in our human nature as socializing and companionships are what every individual need.[footnoteRef:25] However, there cannot be a city-state or community that consists of authority without a justice system that is socially constructed by the people who identify within the state.[footnoteRef:26] [25: ] [26: ]

The previous quote also states that even if basic laws are within our nature, they only exist in communities that have an idea of what a justice system is and have developed similar morals concerning what’s right and wrong.[footnoteRef:27] So if an individual is not within an environment that naturally has a concept of laws, they will not have a justice system because all laws are made for social construct and made to guide society and states.[footnoteRef:28] [27: ] [28: ]

Humankind is meant to be social and create communities so they are bound to naturally follow a basic number of rules, but even if they are not established laws they are a good example as to why all laws are to be considered a social construct from Aristotle’s point of view.[footnoteRef:29] A social construct is an entity that a community of people agree on and give value to because it is required for a society to function successfully.[footnoteRef:30] The following quote will explain Aristotle’s opinion on humankind and the development of city-states. [29: ] [30: ]

“Hence that the city- state is natural and prior in nature to the individual is clear. For if an individual is not self-sufficient when separated, he will be like all other parts in relation to the whole. Anyone who cannot form a community with others, or who does not need to because he is self-sufficient, is no part of a city-state—he is either a beast or a god.”[footnoteRef:31] [31: ]

The quote listed above describes what Aristotle thinks about humans forming communities and finding companionship. He believes that laws cannot be socially constructed without the development of a state and people.[footnoteRef:32] No law has any meaning if there is not a group of people it is meant to target and guide. Laws are relevant because the states and groups of people gathered together giving it meaning and implementing it into their daily lives.[footnoteRef:33] Social construction only exists within the result of human interactions and would not be a part of reality if the people did not believe in the laws.[footnoteRef:34] [32: ] [33: ] [34: ]

In summary, Aristotle would agree that all laws are a social construct, while there are different interpretations in regards to whether his form of universal and natural law would be a social contract, his books “Nicomachean Ethics” and “Politics” provide a sufficient amount of evidence within the quotes to proves his argument otherwise. Aristotle advocates types of laws that are socially constructed appropriately for the societies collectively held views and would benefit the state greatly.[footnoteRef:35][35: ]

Bibliography:

  1. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Massachusetts: Hackett Publishing Company, 2011.
  2. Aristotle. Politics. Massachusetts: Hackett Publishing Company, 2011.
  3. Mallon, R. (2019, January 11). Naturalistic Approaches to Social Construction. Retrieved October 29, 2019, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/social-construction-naturalistic/#WhaSocCon.
  4. Social Construct. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2019, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/social construct.

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Aristotle’s Opinion on Laws that are a Social Construct: Analysis of Nicomachean Ethics. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/aristotles-opinion-on-laws-that-are-a-social-construct-analysis-of-nicomachean-ethics/
“Aristotle’s Opinion on Laws that are a Social Construct: Analysis of Nicomachean Ethics.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/aristotles-opinion-on-laws-that-are-a-social-construct-analysis-of-nicomachean-ethics/
Aristotle’s Opinion on Laws that are a Social Construct: Analysis of Nicomachean Ethics. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/aristotles-opinion-on-laws-that-are-a-social-construct-analysis-of-nicomachean-ethics/> [Accessed 2 Feb. 2023].
Aristotle’s Opinion on Laws that are a Social Construct: Analysis of Nicomachean Ethics [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Feb 2]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/aristotles-opinion-on-laws-that-are-a-social-construct-analysis-of-nicomachean-ethics/
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