Is and Ought in Actuality

Aristotle regards the priority of actuality over potentiality to be one of his most important innovations. He regards it as a necessary condition for anything being intelligible. Along with the primacy of the good and that-for-the-sake-of-which in explanation, it is also central to his way of arguing for a first cause.

The Western tradition generally did not follow Aristotle on these points. Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin monotheisms have most often treated God as an absolute power, seeking to put unlimited omnipotence first in the order of explanation, before goodness. Christians were happy to criticize occasionalism in Islam, but theologians like Duns Scotus and William of Ockham defended an extreme sort of theological voluntarism, which was taken up again by Descartes. In the 19th century, Kierkegaard valorized Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as unconditional obedience to God, claiming that faith should take precedence over ethics generally. In the 20th century, Sartre defended unconditional free will for humans, while asserting a militant atheism and the absurdity of existence. His currently influential follower Alain Badiou goes even further. He bluntly says that concern for ethics is a waste of time, and that dialogue and democracy are a scam — not just in particular cases, but in general.

Mainstream views of religion have always insisted that the absolute power is also absolutely good, but have been unable to show why or how this is the case. This has opened the door to simplistic but unanswerable arguments that the facts of the world cannot be reconciled with claims that it is governed by a good absolute power.

Instead of sacrificing ethics and the good on either religious or secular grounds, we should put them first. Leibniz argues that an emphasis on the absolute power or arbitrary will of God is bad theology, and effectively makes God into the kind of tyrant that Plato denounced (see also Euthyphro; Arbitrariness, Inflation).

Aristotle’s first cause doesn’t govern the facts of the world. It is the world’s normative compass. It is the pure good and pure fulfillment that all things seek, according to their natures and insofar as they are capable. Or as Hegel might say, it is pure Idea.

The priority of actuality is a priority of the good and of normativity. For Aristotle, we shouldn’t call something “actual” just because it exists or is the case. Rather, something is actual when it is the case that it is fulfilling its potential, as it “ought” to do.

It is not a matter of pure moralism either though. Actuality does involve an element of being the case; it is just not reducible to that. What is true also matters quite a lot in the determination of what is right, even though it is not all that matters. Every particular good is interdependent with particular truth. That is why Aristotle seems to make the understanding of causes into one of the most important elements of virtue, while at the same time cautioning us that ethics is not a matter of exact knowledge.

We are looking for a kind of mean here. What is true matters for what is right, but what is right also matters for what is true. Truth is not reducible to a matter of neutral fact. There can be no truth without intelligibility, and there can be no intelligibility without taking normative considerations into account in interpretation.


Plato diagnosed tyranny as first and foremost an affliction of the soul. Socrates in Plato’s Republic characterizes the tyrannical soul by a malformed desire that strongly resists any kind of balanced consideration of other factors. This kind of desire wants its way immediately and unconditionally.

The tyrannical soul wants a kind of unquestioning recognition from others, without reciprocally recognizing them. This kind of attitude represents the opposite end of the spectrum from what Aristotle called magnanimity or great-souledness; rather, it is characteristic of the attitude of Mastery denounced by Hegel. Unfortunately, modern egoism, with its emphasis on a narrow kind of self, tends to devolve in this direction. (See also Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

While a tyrannical soul may be an Aristotelian cause of particular unjust acts, this does not mean that injustice as a whole is reducible to matters of individual character. Injustice is not just caused by the bad acts of individuals, but also often involves institutions and social structure, which have their persistence in part from a kind of materiality of their own.


Rights are an important legal concept, and in the interest of justice in an imperfect world sometimes need to be defended, but ethics should guide law, not the other way around. Mutual recognition makes the blunter instrument of unilateral “rights” superfluous for ethical purposes. Kantian respect for others and the Aristotelian spirit of friendship already do so. If we respect others in our actions and treat them in a friendly way, they need not worry about enforcing any putative rights in relation to us. (See also Leibniz.)

If we examine what Hegel called “positive” (actually existing) law, it is often not guided by good ethics as it should be. All too much law is devoted to institutionalizing unilateral privilege (etymologically, “private law”) of one sort or another. We are supposed to be consoled that by the fact that everyone is assigned at least a few privileges, but the whole model of unilateral privilege is ethically deeply wrong.

It is an unsavory fact that the unilateral, unconditional privileges associated with modern ownership and sovereignty historically descend from medieval European libertas or “liberty”, or the arbitrary “right” claimed by the Master to rape the peasant’s daughter and generally do as he pleases, with no regard for others. This kind of “liberty” is an ugly voluntarist fantasy associated with what Plato called the worst sort of character, that of a tyrant. Just such ugliness is recalled by, e.g., the old British Tory slogan “liberty and property”. It is the liberty of the privileged to walk over the rest of us.

Years ago, I was shocked to learn that the classic modern development of the notion of rights explicitly models all rights on unilateral property rights, making reciprocal rights of people a derivative afterthought. (See, e.g., C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism.) Hobbes and Locke did this, and specifically on the question of rights Kant and Hegel unfortunately followed suit, even though their views provide resources for a much better, people-first account, based on respect or mutual recognition.

All rights deserving of legal recognition should be grounded in respect. If we respect property, it should be rationally related to respect for people. No one has a “right” to be a billionaire. (See also Freedom from False Freedom.)