Aristotelian legislation and the virtual community

by Sebastian Benthall

I dipped into Aristotle’s Politics today and was intrigued by William Ellis’ introduction.

Ellis claims that in Aristotle’s day, you would call on a legislator as an external consultant when you set about founding a new city or colony. There were a great variety of constitutions available to be studied. You would study them to become an expert in how to design a community’s laws. Classical political philosophy was part of the very real project of starting new communities supporting human flourishing.

We see a similar situation with on-line communities today. If cyberspace was an electronic frontier, it’s been bulldozed and is now a metropolis with suburbs and strip malls. But there is still innovation in on-line social life as social media infrastructure as users migrate between social networking services.

If Lessig is right and “code is law“, then the variety of virtual communities and the opportunity to found new ones renews the role of the Aristotelian legislator. We can ask questions like: should an on-line community be self-governing or run by an aristocracy? How can it sustain itself economically, or defend itself in (cyber-)wars? How can it best promote human flourishing? The arts? Justice?

It would be easy to trivialize these possibilities by noting that virtual life is not real life. But that would underestimate the shift that is occurring as economic and political engagement moves on-line. In recognition and anticipation of these changes, philosophy has a practical significance in comprehensive design.

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