Aristotle and the Palace of Westminster

Posted on August 9th, 2016 by Julian Baggini

The Crick Centre has launched a major research and public engagement project exploring the planned restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster: Designing for Democracy. In the latest in our Designing for Democracy blog series our Philosopher in Residence, Julian Baggini, considers how thinking like Aristotle could help us make the right decision about rebuilding Parliament.

The parlous state of the Palace of Westminster presents the United Kingdom with a rare opportunity to make a radical break with tradition. The decision we make could mean government still meeting under the chimes of Big Ben at the turn of the twenty-second century or the House of Parliament becoming a tourist destination within a decade.

Such choices would seem to pit two fundamental value systems against each other. On one side we have conservatives who value tradition and always prefer continuity over what they see as precipitate ruptures with the past. On the other are radicals or progressives who see the past bequeathing more of a burden than a gift and who long to restructure society on a fairer, more rational basis.

The Palace of Westminster. Image courtesy of Redcoat via Wikimedia Commons

These values appear to be incommensurable and only one side can win. But this way of looking at it is too neat and binary. One of Aristotle’s great insights is that the battle between virtue and vice is rarely one of opposites. Rather, virtue is almost always some kind of mean between two vicious extremes. Courage, for instance, lies between cowardice and rashness; generosity between meanness and profligacy.

This model works especially well for the debate between reformers and conservatives. Virtue is finding the balance between giving appropriate value to our inheritance and the need to move forward and change. In other words, both radicals and traditionalists see things that are of value, but go wrong when they give weight to only one of them and so end up pursuing it to excess.

Take the reformers first. Common sense is largely on their side. It would be a remarkably unlikely fluke if nineteenth century institutions were ideal for dealing with twenty-first century problems. Much of what we have inherited as a society was created at a time when aristocrats ruled the land, workers had few rights and women didn’t even have the vote. Worse, many laws, institutions and practices in the UK have evolved gradually, creating a hodgepodge which makes little rational sense. No one designing our democracy from scratch today would create an unelected House of Lords, get parties sat opposite each other in parliament, or make an hereditary Monarch head of state.

Conservatives, however, counter that it is very difficult to create social institutions from scratch that can deal with the complexities of human behaviour and society. Those who have sought to do so, tearing down all vestiges of the old order, have invariably created monsters. The gradual evolution of society over time may not appear to make sense but just as nature evolves sustainable ecosystems, so societies develop rituals, rules and practises that work. Meddle at your peril: it is easier to destroy than to build.

These should not be radically opposite world views at all, but two sets of considerations that a sensible polis should take into account. In practice, that is what we almost all do. Conservatives have embraced votes for women, gay rights and even reform of the House of Lords. Nor are there many progressives who seek to tear down every brick of the old order.

The choice is not therefore between being a wholesale radical or conservative, but deciding what changes, if any, are desirable in any particular case. In the Aristotelian scheme, there is no algorithm for this. The mean is not some kind of arithmetical mid-point between each extreme, and where it lies will vary form case to case. Sometimes radical reform is what is needed, on others the status quo is best left more or less undisturbed. We require practical wisdom to decide. The Aristotelian framework is thus an aid to deliberation, not a substitute for it.

One further piece of advice from Aristotle is especially useful. If we are not sure where the mean lies, he advises that we think about how we tend to err and compensate for that by pushing ourselves more towards the opposite end of the spectrum. If we tend to cowardice, for example, we should probably try to be braver than we find ourselves inclined to be.

In this case, the advice is obvious. Most of us tend to be either more radical or conservative by temperament. Few of us naturally hit the Aristotelian mean. So if we find ourselves inclined to keep parliament how it is, even before hearing the arguments, we ought to try harder to listen to the alternative case. Similarly, if we can’t help but get excited by the thought of escaping the dusty chambers of old Westminster, we ought to check we’re not over optimistic about our capacity to create something better.

By being good Aristotelians, we can therefore prevent this debate becoming a war between traditionalists and modernisers and make it instead one in which due weight can be given to the considerations put forward by both parties. That way we can decide on an outcome is found which satisfies the better judgement, if not the instincts, of both.




Julian Baggini is the Philosopher-in-Residence at the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics. He is the founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine and is the author, co-author or editor of over 20 books including The Virtues of the Table, The Ego TrickWelcome to Everytown and, most recently, Freedom Regained (all Granta). Julian has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, as well as for the think tanks The Institute of Public Policy Research, Demos and Counterpoint, and has a PhD on the philosophy of personal identity . He has also appeared as a character in two Alexander McCall-Smith novels.

For more information, please visit Julian’s website Microphilosophy.


  • This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre; the Designing for Democracy project; or the Understanding Politics blog series.
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