Dr. Laurie M. Johnson

Political Thought

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Home: Political Thought Links: Parallels: Aristotle


Parallel: The Permanency of Natural Standards

William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Education, is an excellent example of a contemporary Aristotelian thinker. In the past several years, he has authored and edited The Book of Virtues, The Moral Compass, and several children's books, all of which are inspired by the Aristotelian idea that people's moral virtues are not just products of reason and choice but of habit. If virtue is first approximated through habit, then training to virtue can start in early childhood, as his latest book, The Educated Child, emphasizes. Bennett argues that habituation to moral virtue starts with morally edifying stories for children and young people, but even adults benefit from continued exposure to such stories and edifying role models. Such a perspective claims that much of what passes for entertainment in America today is morally corrosive.

The Aristotelians of our time argue for a return to "character education" in our schools, especially the public schools which, they argue, have turned toward moral relativism in part as a response to the growing diversity of students' backgrounds and beliefs. Bennett illustrated in a lecture the moral malaise of our society in this way:

"When I was a philosophy professor, teaching freshman philosophy, the answers I started to get from students in the '60s were, "I think each person should do his own thing. I mean if they want to do something, who am I to say something's right, who am I to say something's wrong?" And then we would play this little intellectual game of 'Catch-Me-If-You-Can', see if you can catch me in a contradiction. But that's not what the idea is all about, a game of 'Catch-Me-If-You-Can'. The idea that each person should do his own thing and that there are no common responsibilities or common values is a real notion which, if taken seriously, will lead to the end of society and the end of all of these institutions.

"The good news is that not one of my students really believed it. You know how I know? Because I cut through the rhetoric and got to the point. In Philosophy 101, a student would say that there are no values, no right and wrong. "Who are you to impose your values on me?" Whenever I heard this I always did the same thing. I'd say, "You don't think there are values, you don't think there's a right and wrong. You don't think there's a difference?" "No." I said, "Well, you are wrong." And they said, "Well, who are you to say?" I said, "I'm the professor in this class, and if you don't agree with me, you're flunked . . . and I will have you removed from this institution because you're too stupid to be here."

"Imagine yourself on the other end of this, as if you're the student. You know what the students invariably did? They stood up and said, "You can't do that!" And I said, "Why not?" And they said, "It's not fair." "It's not what" "It's not fair." My reply: "Don't impose your values on me, son."

As this story illustrates, Bennet and people like him claim that certain manners and morals are of a universal character and need not be closely tied to any specific religious or cultural heritage. These manners and morals, such as sharing, not stealing, being kind to those less fortunate, are useful for all children to learn, regardless of background. They argue that they should be integrated into the curriculum, at first mainly through the use of morally edifying stories, and later by other means appropriate to the age of the students. Many schools around the country have begun to adopt character education curricula of various kinds in response to problems such as violence, drugs and delinquency.


The enduring issues raised by Aristotle's Politics are varied, but almost all of them eventually turn on questions of morality-what is right and what is wrong. Like Plato, Aristotle bases his claims on an understanding of human nature as having certain permanent characteristics. Human beings, he says for instance, are political animals. Human beings have a capacity for virtue and rationality which sets them apart from the animal kingdom. Even so, in order to achieve what they have the capacity to achieve, human beings must be placed in certain circumstances, which include adequate physical means, the proper government and the proper education. As we have seen from reading excerpts of Bill Bennett's speech, all of this can translate into controversy, as it did in Aristotle's time and still does today.

Bad Music?

Is there such a thing as bad music-that is, music that is bad for you? As we have seen, Aristotle argued that there was hardly a type of music that was bad in the abstract, but people should be exposed to different types of music at appropriate stages in their development. Children, he thought, should not be exposed to music that was too passionate or violent. Of course, Aristotle didn't know about Marilyn Manson or Madonna. Aristotle's contemporaries, like Bennett, would claim that some of today's popular music is not fit for anyone at any age, that it degrades the dignity of people, oftentimes especially women. Bennett argues that people should turn away from this music, not by demanding censorship, but by a simple realization that it is not good or edifying. Government should never be involved in supporting such "art." He has called for shaming and boycotting entertainment companies that produce offensive music and television programming. Aristotle thought rhythms and melodies actually shaped people's souls, and could either ennoble them or make them crass or base. But Aristotle also thought that the "mechanics" of the world (who shouldn't be citizens) were themselves base, and that these citizens should be allowed their cruder form of entertainment without restrictions. Bennett agrees with Aristotle that music is highly suggestive and can corrupt youthful idealism and innocence, but it is precisely the average U.S. citizen for whom he has the most concern. Unlike Aristotle, Bennett seems to believe that ordinary
Americans can lead the way to a new cultural renaissance despite the entertainment elite, who are bent on keeping their minds and wallets empty. Can ordinary people be the true repository of good taste, and more fundamentally, is there such a thing as good taste at all?

Those on the other side of this debate are varied, but almost all would disagree with Aristotle and critics like Bennett on the issue of good taste. They would say that "good taste" is in the eye of the beholder. The individual defines what is good for him or her. Bennett's story about what is fair might have some application in laying down rules about how to treat students in college, who are "customers" after all, but there can be no absolutes in aesthetic matters like music, art and literature. One person's work of art is another's trash, they say, but that is what makes art so interesting. Advocates of this individualistic approach are put off by cultural critics like Bennett. They suspect them of secretly wanting to stop certain forms of entertainment. They often see boycotts or sharp criticism, especially from elected officials, as forms of censorship. Even if they do not call such reactions censorship, they still tend to see the criticism as illiberal-an attempt to stop individuals from freely choosing their entertainment.

In 1999 a controversy erupted over an art exhibit in Brooklyn including, among other things, the Virgin Mary speckled with elephant dung, sharks preserved in formaldehyde, and a painting of the Last Supper with a naked woman substituted for Jesus. The mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, complained that the exhibit was not art but was obscene and that the museum had gone back on its commitment to allow people of all ages into all exhibits (children were restricted from viewing this exhibit). He threatened to pull city funding. The museum and friends of the exhibit cried foul, and claimed that Giuliani was attempting to censor and decide for himself what was art and what was edifying for New Yorkers to view.

Is there such a thing as bad music-and is there such a thing as good taste? Would you would take a young child to see that exhibit or allow such a child to listen to sexually explicit and/or violent music lyrics? If not, why not?

Men and Women - Different Natures?

The nature or natures of men and women is such a complex subject that to treat it thoroughly would take a library of books. Aristotle obviously thought that the natures of men and women differed enough to treat them differently in his political philosophy. Aristotle classed free women above animals and slaves. Indeed, as free people, they were to be considered citizens, although exactly how they could be so when they were not to participate in politics, is left vague. However, Aristotle clearly thought that the natures of men and women differed. Men were in general more rational and more capable of authority. Women were rational enough to perhaps give or refuse consent to big family decisions, but not enough to make the decisions themselves. Women's virtue was found at home, in keeping out of politics, in taking care of household management. Aristotle thought that women were the better at taking care of children. The rule of men over women should be "constitutional" and mutually respectful, and as women were half of the population, the development of their virtue was not to be overlooked by the state.

It would seem clear that the Aristotelian position on women is sexist, and perhaps it is. But these days, one needs a scorecard to keep track of the diversity of feminist positions on the female and male natures. Some say there is no such thing as female or male natures. Instead, different societies construct images of gender which they then socialize their members to fit. People who see gender (femininity, masculinity) as nothing but social constructs often make proposals for educating children and young people
which would reconstruct or even eliminate gender identities. This, they reason, would get rid of the problem of one sex dominating the other. Other feminists focus specifically on the male nature, either as a product of over-zealous male hormones or over-bearing socialization. If they see the problem as a matter of male hormones, they may even suggest medical treatments to cut down on the hormones and "cure" the problem. These feminists tend to see women's nature as so distorted by the discrimination of the opposite sex that we will not know what female nature truly is until we have totally eliminated the problem of male domination. Still other feminists see femininity (whether a product of nature or nurture) not as a problem but as society's salvation. These feminists complain that because we live in a sexist society, women's special qualities are either downplayed or treated as inferior, whereas what we really need are more of these qualities, even among men. Women's ability to be more nurturing and empathetic, is not a problem but a boon-and makes them ideal candidates for leadership positions. Some of these feminists even suggest that if women were in top leadership positions in countries world-wide there would be no more war.

Even though the latter feminists would agree with Aristotle on the idea that men and women have different natures, and that women's nature is to be valued as nurturing, that is where the similarity ends. None of them would agree that women should only be in the home, concerned only with the house and children, and taking no part in politics. Indeed, today it is difficult to find anyone willing to openly adopt these Aristotelian positions. Even those religious groups which come close to such positions, such as the Promise Keepers, would deny that separate roles for men and women should exist because women are the intellectual or spiritual inferiors of men. Rather they argue that men and women should have separate roles because it is part of God's plan, or because this division of labor is generally the most beneficial for the family, or because they believe women should not be burdened with the task of bearing and rearing children and working at the same time. They tend to see the rearing of children as a full time, and intellectually challenging, occupation.

If there are people who fully agree with Aristotle's position, they probably do so for the same reasons Aristotle did-because they believe that the inequalities that still exist between men and women are a product not of socialization but of true differences in nature and abilities between the sexes. And so, we return to the debate of nature versus nurture.

Reason or Habit?

What shapes our characters more-our own decisions based on our own reason, or the habits we have imposed on us from society and family from infancy? Political thinkers from the 18thCentury Enlightenment, and many of us today, prefer to believe that we can and should choose our values based on an individual, independent and largely rational exploration of alternatives as we move through life. After all, how can we truly believe in and adhere to, moral principles which we do not understand and to which we never really agreed? It is a weak moral code, they argue, which relies on mere training or habit or childhood conditioning. Those who see the development of moral principles in this light tend to downplay moral education in early childhood, and emphasize introducing questions of morality or values still in youth but at an age when true reasoning can take place, when the young person can see the rationale behind the moral rule. Some think that many moral values really are matters of choice and as such should not ever be imposed on people, young or old. They may advocate training such as "values clarification," a curriculum which simply helps young people discover their own value-systems, for instance, what they want to keep and what they want to discard from their parents' moral code.

Advocates of relying mainly on reason to arrive at moral principles blame the method of habituation for many of the injustices of the past, such as sexism, racism, religious bigotry, and ostracism of social "misfits." It is because what is customary may not be right that they believe all morals must be examined anew in the light of reason. Many things which are deemed matters of morality in the past, such as sexuality, may turn out not to be a matter of morality after all, but merely a matter of programming and preference. They think that relying on reason to construct our values will lead to less discrimination and cruelty.

Those who emphasize the need for instilling moral values into people from a very early age emphasize habituation. Although it is sometimes tried, it is difficult if not impossible to reason with a small child about why they should or should not do something. However, it is relatively easy to say "no" or "yes," and to guide children into certain activities and away from others. Young children soak up every bit of information around them, so those who wish to habituate them to virtue have only to surround them with what they consider morally edifying stories such as those in Bennett's Children's Book of Virtues and Aesop's Fables, moral messages, examples and activities. Yes, children and young people may not know exactly what all of this is about until they are older, but by then they will already be accustomed to making good choices and can more easily understand the reasons behind those choices. Such would be the argument for praying at the table with a two year old, or asking him or her to say "please" and "thank you." The two year old child can reason very little about the metaphysical being known as God, and has little appreciation for reciprocity, yet advocates of this approach believe that this is the first step toward understanding. They would say that waiting until reasoning is effective would be waiting until it is too late.

Underlying the approach of habituation is the belief that, left untrained, human nature tends early towards its worst instead of its best qualities. The better qualities, as Aristotle believed, only come out if they are developed in the proper environment. Although the young soul is the most pliable, they do not see this as a form of "brainwashing" or "propaganda" because, like Aristotle, they disagree that moral values are a mere matter of choice or relative to the individual. Instead, certain values are simply true, useful, and indeed necessary for the happiness and even survival of the individual.

Here we are back to the issue raised by the excerpt from Bill Bennett's story about his students. Advocates of habituation like Bennett would introduce considerable amounts of morally edifying content into the curriculum of our schools. Bennett's books have emphasized moral role models from all cultures and a generic moral code which does not rely on any specific religious or cultural underpinning. This type of character education he finds suitable and proper for public schools. Opponents of this type of character education may see a subtle religious underpinning nonetheless, or they may simply object to the imposition on young minds of strong moral values chosen by someone other than the student or his parents, such as the teacher, principle, school board or state legislature. These opponents might ask, as did the student in Bennett's speech, "who are they to decide what is right and


William J. Bennett, ed., The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

William J. Bennett, ed., The Children's Book of Virtues, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

William J. Bennett, ed., The Children's Book of Heroes, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

William J. Bennett, "The Education of Character," The Joseph A. Reich, Sr., Distinguished Lecture on War, Morality, and the
Military Profession, No. 8, United States Air Force Academy, Colorado, 19 September 1995, p. 6.

William J. Bennett, ed., The Moral Compass: Stories for a Life's Journey, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

William J. Bennett, Chester E. Finn, Jr. and John T.E. Cribb, Jr., The Educated Child: A Parent's Guide From Preschool
Through Eight Grade
, New York: The Free Press, 1999.




Dep't of Political Science
Kansas State University
Primary Texts Certificate