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  • Boundaries, Birthright, and Belonging:Aristotle on the Distribution of Citizenship
  • Richard Boyd (bio)

Introduction: Aristotle and Contemporary Citizenship Studies

Far from being dismissed as irrelevant or anachronistic, Aristotle looms large in contemporary discussions of citizenship.1 Natural law theorists, communitarians, neo-republicans and even many liberals have appealed to Aristotle as a way of thickening up the moral content of contemporary public life and underwriting a more participatory "civic republican" variant of citizenship.2 Yet these and other contemporary appropriations tend to focus on only one strand of Aristotle's discussion of citizenship in the Politics. Assuming that someone is already a citizen in the modern, juridical sense, what additional moral duties and participatory contributions ought we to expect from them?3 But this is to ignore the closely related taxonomical question of who is, or ideally ought to be, entitled to citizenship in the first place. Put differently, the question of what citizens are expected to do may be inseparable from the issue of who these citizens are or, in many cases, are not.

Despite this connection, strikingly little has been said about the implications of Aristotelian citizenship for those who find themselves located outside of the political community. Does the Aristotelian view suggest that the boundaries of the political community ought to be more or less permeable than the modern liberal or contractual understanding? And how might Aristotle's seemingly restrictive and illiberal view of citizenship draw attention to the moral lacuna of contemporary liberal theories, which have [End Page 215] historically coexisted with exclusions such as black chattel slavery, the denial of full citizenship rights to women and minorities, and the colonial subjugation of indigenous peoples?4

With an eye to these and other contemporary questions about the distribution of citizenship, I want to argue, first, and somewhat counter-intuitively, that Aristotle's "thinly naturalistic" understanding of citizenship potentially makes his theory less susceptible to exclusion than liberal theories that locate political capacity in controversial nineteenth-century notions of "civilization," or even in putatively more enlightened contemporary social scientific concepts such as "political culture."5 Secondly, Aristotle's insistence that we must understand citizenship as a problem of distributive justice challenges contemporary practices that allocate citizenship on the basis of morally indifferent criteria such as birth, territoriality, and kinship. Lastly, Aristotle's argument, properly understood, brings to light a fundamental tension between the "thickness" of a moral and political community and the porousness of its borders.

Citizenship as a Process of Exclusion

Great Britain, France, the United States, and other so-called "civic nations"—not to speak of "ethnic nations" such as Germany or Japan—allocate citizenship mainly on the basis of descent from parents who are citizens; birth on a territorially circumscribed piece of land; or naturalization policies that prioritize ascriptive criteria such as national origins, kinship, and social class.6 Even in the most liberal regimes, citizenship is normally dictated by accidents of birth that seem impossible to square with liberal theories of justice, fair equality of opportunity, or consent.7 Why, for example, should a child born several hundred feet north of the Rio Grande River enjoy greater economic and political advantages than someone who happens to be born on the other side, through no fault of his/her own?

Martha Nussbaum has observed that "among the cherished human goods, membership and good activity in a political community are outstandingly vulnerable to chance reversal."8 But citizenship's fragility is hardly limited to the vagaries of political instability and civil war that plagued ancient Greece. Maybe the greatest "chance reversal" is to be born without these goods in the first place. Nature locates beasts and gods outside the political community, while political and economic turmoil upset others from positions of honor, but the chance matter of birth is the single most capricious arbiter of who enjoys the benefits of life in a given political [End Page 216] community. The naturalness of the polis means that few are born outside the boundaries of some political community. But like the acorn that falls either on barren, rocky terrain, or more fortuitously in fertile soil, our ability to enjoy the good life is radically contingent on the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-9731
Print ISSN
1089-0017
Pages
pp. 215-235
Launched on MUSE
2013-12-13
Open Access
No
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