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Aristotle on Community and Exchange

David J. Riesbeck

 Aristotle on Community and Exchange

Aristotle's treatise on the virtue of justice (Nicomachean Ethics V = Eudemian Ethics IV) includes a discussion of commodity exchange often regarded as one of the earliest pieces of Western economic theory. The analysis of exchange appeals to the notion of proportionate reciprocity in order to illustrate the principles of justice in what Aristotle calls “exchange communities” (ταῖς κοινωνίαις ταῖς ἀλλακτικαῖς, 1132b31-32). His account of these communities was influentially taken first by Newman and later by Finley as the basis for a general interpretation of a broader Aristotelian notion of community, one that many have thought attractively avoids conceiving human society in terms of a problematic dichotomy between individualism and social holism. Yet prominent recent efforts to elucidate this conception of community (e.g., Cooper, Curzer, Garver, Morrison, Trott) have denied, whether explicitly or by implication, that exchange relations amount to forms of community at all. The principal objection is that the parties to an exchange do not aim at a genuinely common good: though each of the parties may find the exchange beneficial, they do not aim at a shared goal that benefits them both; each aims instead at some good for himself distinct from any good to the other, whose benefit is merely an incidental effect or at best an instrumental means to a wholly self-interested end. Since Aristotelian communities are relationships in which people cooperate for the sake of a common good, it follows that exchange relationships are not forms of community.

This paper argues, contrary to these recent interpretations, that exchange meets all the criteria of genuine Aristotelian community and that the traditional view rightly looks to exchange relations as a generalizable model for other varieties of community. Though the participants to an exchange do not aim at the same good under precisely the same description, the benefit that each does for the other enters into the relevant description under which he acts. For each party, benefiting the other is a means to attaining the benefit that the other can provide; giving in exchange is therefore an instrumental good that can play an action-guiding role in an agent's deliberation. Accordingly, mutual benefit is not merely an incidental consequence of exchange; it is part of what the parties choose to do when they choose to exchange. Yet because the benefit of exchange for each agent depends on its mutuality, the parties do in fact aim at a common goal that benefits them both. Exchange therefore has the action-guiding and genuinely shared character that Aristotle requires of common goods: the common good of exchange communities is exchange itself.

This conclusion has wide-ranging implications for the proper interpretation of Aristotle's theory of community, implications that proponents of the traditional interpretation have often overlooked. Most importantly, and pace much recent and influential work, Aristotelian communities may be formed around goods that are of strictly instrumental value and divisible without remainder to individual participants. It thereby becomes clear that Aristotle's theory of community is not a strictly normative construction of holistic social metaphysics, but a flexible conceptual tool for understanding co-operative human interaction as well as for formulating principles of justice that respect the separateness of persons.   

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Civic Responsibility

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