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Yitan Coco Wang

Bryn Mawr College


The Naturalness of Nomos
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle has an extensive discussion on
justice and nomos as a political justice. In Book 5, he implies that one of the
most important reasons behind the emergence of nomos is to prevent the
ruling of a tyrant (1134a, 35). He further suggests that there are two kinds of
justice, namely the natural and the conventional (1134b, 18). Aristotle
seems to indicate that there is a bigger portion of conventional justice than
natural justice in nomos, given that it comes into being through agreement
of people (1134b, 33). In this essay, I would like to challenge and complicate
Aristotles theory of nomos, especially on how nomos came to be.
First, let us examine the nomoi that have already been established
before our existence1. These kinds of nomoi almost feel natural to us
because we are born into accepting them and being habituated by them.
Although we might be able to contribute to the newer customs or law, we are
not the creators of those nomoi that existed before us. We inherit these from
our ancestors consciously or unconsciously. Thus, if we were to look at nomoi
from an individual perspective, we do feel as though it is something natural.
However, this does not provide enough evidence for us to conclude that
nomos is more natural than conventional. Further, it is important to note that
I am neither denying the fact that human beings are the initial cause of
nomoi, nor insinuating that there are some greater beings out there that
gave us law and customs naturally. Rather, I am arguing that, as much as we
1 By our, I dont mean human species but human beings as individuals.
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Yitan Coco Wang


Bryn Mawr College
want to believe in it, we do not have full control over the evolvement of
nomoi.
Now, since nomos is not natural but only feels so, we must examine
how nomos comes into being. If we were to imagine the evolution of nomos,
the very first nomos in human history probably emerged without people
being conscious of the process. As more nomoi appear, we started to realize
the need to modify nomos from time to time and eventually systemize it in
an institutional way. A good example of this is the think tanks and research
institutes in modern times. Those institutions would provide data and
research results to policy-makers who would implement the advice in their
new policies. Among all those policies, some are concerned with legal issues
and others with customs2. Because of the systemization of nomos, we have a
false impression that we are able to tailor it to whatever fits the best for us at
our times. However, things do not ever turn out the way that we want them
to in human history, if they ever did. Adam Fergusons law of unanticipated
consequences can help us better understand the situation. It suggests that
the outcome of a purposeful action is not predictable, and even when the
motives match outcomes it is incidental. When applying this law to our case,
it almost seems that whatever happens between the intention and impact is
out of reach for human reasoning. Thus, nomos leans toward the natural3 in
2 For example, amendments are changes for law and policy to incentivize
people from setting off fireworks during Spring Festival for the sake of
environment is, to some extend, the change to customs.
3 The natural that I am using here should be understood as not subject to
human control. I am aware of (and personally agree with) the theories that
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Yitan Coco Wang


Bryn Mawr College
that human beings dont have control over the consequence of those
purposeful initiatives.
Further, as we speak of nomos in this intention and impact paradigm, I
am by no means justifying the legitimacy of law. Aristotle also does not view
following law as justice (1137a, 12). Further, he implies that law is only an
institutional expression of justice and some of laws can even be unjust
(1137a). It is also important to recognize that when we speak of nomos, we
do not mean law on the surface level exclusively but also customs and the
connotations of law.
Another Aristotelian theory that further supports my argument on the
natural tendency of nomos is his understanding of friendship. As he proposes
that political friendship is the entity that holds cities together (1155a, 25-30),
friendship also indirectly becomes the foundation of nomos. For, if there is no
human association, there is no need or basis for the existence of nomos. He
explicitly suggests, when people are friends, they have no need of justice,
but when they are just, they do need friendship in addition (1155a, 26-28).
Although this shows that friendship is a necessary but not sufficient condition
for the formation of a city, it also implicitly criticizes nomos. If we were to
take Aristotles praise of friendship as the premise for our argument, then
nomos can be understood as some mediocre thing that branch out of the
natural affection of human beings.
suggest human beings are a part of nature, but its important to distinguish
the two.
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Yitan Coco Wang


Bryn Mawr College
In general, although human beings are the origin of nomos in its early
stage of formation, we do not have complete control over the consequences
of law and customs. Rather, it has a natural trajectory of evolution. Further,
as Aristotle proposes, justice is not the ultimate goal of human association;
thus, when we understand the institutional expression of nomos, we need to
put it in a bigger context. More specifically, friendship is a higher and more
necessary need for human beings, which comes from our natural tendency to
form relationship with other individuals in our species. As the foundation for
the formation of cities and human associations in general, its natural
character also contributes to the natural justice argument that we provided
in this essay.

Yitan Coco Wang


Bryn Mawr College

Aristotle, Robert C. Bartlett, and Susan D. Collins. Aristotle's Nicomachean


Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2011. Print.