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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