Edinburgh Research Explorer

Just giving and just taking: An Aristotelian approach to modern problems of inequality, insatiety and consumerism

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


One focus of moral disquiet, throughout the history of capitalism but especially in the last 10 years or so, has been the relationship between the acquisition of material wealth and its disposal. In a capitalist economy – maybe in any economy – the creation, measurement, storage and exchange of material wealth are the drivers of economic activity and much else besides. I argue that Aristotle’s ideas about justice and what it means to act justly in relation to the acquisition and disposal of wealth can be reinterpreted in ways that are practically useful – Aristotle was very clear about the practical nature of philosophy – and, indeed, more useful than some of the modern theories of justice in these matters that remain prevalent among policy makers and actors in a modern capitalist economy.

Aristotle grounded his moral theory in virtue, which he calls a kind of excellence, and the motivations and dispositions of character within each individual. Speaking of virtue in a modern, English- speaking setting, sounds faintly quaint and old-fashioned, compared with the superficially more muscular and technocratic language of utilitarianism and deontology. It is about the nature of the human soul, not the application of frameworks and measurements, and discussion of the soul, rather than calculations of utility. This will feel pretty incongruous in a modern boardroom or economic policy seminar.

Some who are concerned about the morality of acquisition and disposal of wealth will appeal to religious belief. But this only works for believers. Aristotle, however, developed his philosophy several hundred years before the emergence of revealed religion and the notion of divinely ordained moral codes. Referred to by St Thomas Aquinas as ‘the Philosopher’, he is the founder of ethics as a philosophical discipline and his thinking has shaped, directly, the main revealed religions.

I contend that Aristotle’s thought does offer the possibility of a consensus, across modern religious and philosophical divides, that can lead to practical actions. He grounds his thinking in human experience, and reasoning from there, without recourse to divine direction, allowing us to bridge the divide between people of religious faith and those with none.

I argue that an Aristotelian conception of justice, commanding a broad consensus across cultures and settings, entails a notion of virtue in relation to the acquisition and disposal of wealth that can inform our thinking about questions such as: how much material wealth is enough? What is wrong with consumerism? And is inequality morally defensible?

I will summarize, with grotesque simplification, Aristotle’s moral theory; draw out this notion of virtue, which I will call ‘desiderative justness’; then contrast it with the theories of Rawls, and Nozick and Hayek, standing as proxies for the two sides of the modern left/right, social democrat/market liberal divide, in capitalist economies. I will refer to the work of Alasdair MacIntyre in bridging from Aristotle to these modern thinkers.

    Research areas

  • Aristotle, Aristotelian, moral philosophy, markets, inequality, morality

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