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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.
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
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
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,
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Nicomachean Ethics!