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Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle

Book V

Book IV

Book VI

Summary

Justice can mean either lawfulness or fairness, since injustice is lawlessness and unfairness. The laws encourage people to behave virtuously, so the just person, who by definition is lawful, will necessarily be virtuous. Virtue differs from justice because it deals with one’s moral state, while justice deals with one’s relations with others. Universal justice is that state of a person who is generally lawful and fair. Particular justice deals with the “divisible” goods of honor, money, and safety, where one person’s gain of such goods results in a corresponding loss by someone else.

There are two forms of particular justice: distributive and rectificatory. Distributive justice deals with the distribution of wealth among the members of a community. It employs geometric proportion: what each person receives is directly proportional to his or her merit, so a good person will receive more than a bad person. This justice is a virtuous mean between the vices of giving more than a person deserves and giving less.

Rectificatory justice remedies unequal distributions of gain and loss between two people. Rectification may be called for in cases of injustice involving voluntary transactions like trade or involuntary transactions like theft or assault. Justice is restored in a court case, where the judge ensures that the gains and losses of both parties are equaled out, thus restoring a mean.

Justice must be distributed proportionately. For instance, a shoemaker and a farmer cannot exchange one shoe for one harvest, since shoes and harvests are not of equal value. Rather, the shoemaker would have to give a number of shoes proportional in value to the crops the farmer provides. Money reflects the demand placed on various goods and allows for just exchanges.

Political justice and domestic justice are related but distinct. Political justice is governed by the rule of law, while domestic justice relies more on respect. Political justice is based in part on natural law, which is the same for all people, and in part on particular legal conventions, which vary from place to place.

An agent is responsible only for acts of injustice performed voluntarily. We call injustice done out of ignorance “mistakes,” injustice done because plans went awry “misadventures,” and injustice done knowingly but without premeditation “injuries.” Ignorance is an excuse only if it is reasonably unavoidable.

Aristotle reasons that no one can willingly suffer an injustice and that when goods are unjustly distributed, the distributor is more culpable than the person who receives the largest share. People mistakenly think that justice is an easy matter, as it simply requires obedience to laws. However, true justice comes only from a virtuous disposition, and those lacking in virtue are unable to perceive the just course of action in all cases.

Laws may not always be perfectly applicable. In particular circumstances in which the laws do not produce perfect justice, equity is necessary to mend the imbalance. Therefore, equity is superior to legal justice but inferior to absolute justice.

It is impossible to treat oneself unjustly. Injustice involves one person gaining at another’s expense, so it requires at least two people. Even in the case of suicide, it is not the victim, but the state, that suffers an injustice.

Analysis

Justice, for Aristotle, consists of restoring or maintaining a proper balance. He hardly distinguishes the justice that deals with criminal cases and the justice involved in legal commerce except to call the former “involuntary” and the latter “voluntary.”

It might be difficult to see what a commercial transaction might have in common with a brutal assault. For Aristotle, they both involve exchanges between two people in which one person stands to gain unfair advantage and the other stands to receive an equivalent disadvantage. Since justice deals with maintaining a proper balance, any case that might result in unfair advantage or disadvantage is a concern of justice.

Though Aristotle considers justice to be a virtue, it is not listed in his table of virtues and vices because it is a special case. Because just behavior is virtuous behavior, justice encompasses all the other virtues. Further, it is not the mean between two extremes—injustice itself is a single extreme.

The earlier suggestion that justice involves restoring or ensuring balance fits very nicely with Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean. Justice is a mean state of people having their proper due, while injustice involves people having either too much or too little.

At the outset, Aristotle distinguishes between universal justice, which is a general trait of the virtuous character, and particular justice, which is the primary concern of Book V. Particular justice deals with honor, money, and safety because these are “zero sum” goods. That is, a gain for one person results in a corresponding loss for another. This is most obvious with money. If I steal fifty dollars from you, my unjust gain of fifty dollars corresponds to your unjust loss of fifty dollars. The same idea can be applied more problematically to honor and safety. Presumably, honors unjustly conferred on one person mean that another is unjustly deprived of these honors. An assault on an enemy ensures one’s safety to the extent that it hurts the enemy’s safety.

Because particular justice involves this zero sum exchange of goods, Aristotle associates particular injustice with greed or the desire to have more than one’s due. In Chapter 2, Aristotle points out that someone who commits adultery for the sake of gain is behaving unjustly, but someone who actually loses money by committing adultery out of lust is exhibiting the vice of licentiousness, not injustice.

This notion of zero sum exchange is problematic for a number of reasons. Most obviously, especially in the case of safety, it is far from clear that one person’s gain is always equal to another person’s loss. If I steal an item of great personal value to you, your loss far exceeds my gain.

More significant, though, is the implication that if one person is treated unjustly, then another person must have acted unjustly toward that person. Aristotle has made it clear that injustice is a result of wanting more than one’s fair share and has stated explicitly that behavior motivated by lust or anger is not unjust but rather licentious or irascible. Presumably, a person can suffer a loss, and hence suffer an injustice, as a result of someone else’s lust,anger, or cowardice. The idea that justice is a zero sum game, where one person’s loss is always another’s gain, is thus not entirely consistent with Aristotle’s discussion of virtue.

Distributive justice is a central notion in Aristotle’s Politics but gets only a brief mention here. Aristotle’s suggestion is that wealth and honor be distributed according to virtue. The most virtuous people make the most significant contributions to the life of the city, so they have the right to the greatest honors.

Distributive justice reinforces Aristotle’s aristocratic bias. Women, working men, and slaves do not have the freedom to fully exercise all the virtues, so they will necessarily receive a lesser share of the city’s wealth. Distributive justice is somewhat circular in this sense: those who have the greatest privilege have the greatest access to the leisure, freedom, and wealth necessary for virtue, and so are most deserving of their great privilege.

Aristotle would have seen his distributive justice not as reinforcing an unjust aristocracy but as ensuring the best form of aristocracy. That male aristocrats should rule is pretty much unquestioned by Aristotle. His concern is that the right male aristocrats should rule. His concept of distributive justice is meant to ensure that the greatest privilege go to those male aristocrats who exhibit the greatest virtue rather than to those who have the greatest wealth, the greatest military strength, or the most friends. Aristotle sees himself as trying to defend just institutions, not as trying to perpetuate injustice.

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objection

by ProfessorHinkley, April 06, 2014

The author of this commentary claims that Aristotle's "concept of distributive justice is meant to ensure that the greatest privilege go to those male aristocrats who exhibit the greatest virtue rather than to those who have the greatest wealth, the greatest military strength, or the most friends." This claim is superficial and grossly misleading. We need to approach books by trying to understand them as the author understands them, and in this case Aristotle articulates a principle of justice, called merit, that transcends gender and socia

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