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torsdag, maj 29, 2008

The virtue of justice in the Nicomachean Ethics

En liten uppsats jag skrev för en kurs i antik filosofihistoria, håll till godo:

Introductory remarks

The text I'm treating here is the English translation of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, book five that treats the moral virtue of justice, the revised version from 2004 published by Penguin Books, pages 112-143. The translation is made by J.AK. Thomson, professor emeritus at King's College until his death in 1959. This work is named after Aristotle's son Nicomacheus and he was either the editor of it or it was dedicated to him. It is based on his lectures at the Lyceum outside the walls of ancient Athens. Since all his public writings were lost this work belongs to his esoteric writings.

About justice

Justice is the only one of the moral virtues to which has been dedicated a whole book in the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle starts by defining what he means by justice, and he accepts the basic assumption that it is a state of character that drives a man to perform just acts and to behave and wish for things that are just. Consequently, injustice is being defined as the state of character that drives a man to acts, behaviour and wishes that are unjust. Aristotle goes on with defining what he means by unjust, which is either lawless or unfair(unequitable), therefore just means lawful and fair(equitable). I will return to what the difference between law and equity is.
There is a distinction of justice in two meanings, one has a general character and therefore it's called universal justice. By this Aristotle means complete virtue, the overall just man who not only acts virtuous towards himself but also to his fellow men. And what Aristotle take as virtue is the "golden mean" between what is excessive and what is deficient, for example courage, which is the proper balance between rashness and cowardice. But what Aristotle is concerned with here is particular justice, otherwise he could not have justice as an own category among the moral virtues he's treating. Particular injustice would be unjust gain, and although this comes not from a vice it is still considered evil. In the Nicomachean Ethics there are two kinds of particular justice, distributive and rectificatory. Particular and universal justice are distinct from each other but they are not equivocal, particular justice is a species of universal justice.

Distributive justice

This kind of justice deals with giving proper shares of the common property between members in a community, and proper in this context is equal since Aristotle identifies the unjust man and unjust acts as unequal and therefore justice lies in its contrary. What is equal then consists in giving each member exactly what is due to him, neither more or less, and this is called geometrical proportion. Whatever disturbs this proportion would therefore constitute an injustice. This injustice would be that one part gets too much of what is good and the other too little. But in case of distribution of evils it would be the other way around, there one would naturally try to get as less as possible, and therefore the lesser evil would be the greater good.

Rectificatory justice

Here the concern lies in transactions and differs from distributive justice in the sense that it does not deal with the distribution of common property but the exchange of goods(mainly of the external kind) between two parties. Aristotle distinguishes between two kinds of transactions, voluntary and involuntary. He lists among other things selling, buying and lending as examples of voluntary transactions since they are consented by the other part at least initially. Involuntary transactions would then be contrary to this, and here a further distinction is made between involuntary transactions that are either secret or violent. Examples of secret ones would be adultery, theft and poisoning, among the violent ones there are assault, robbery and murder.
Since equal is the intermediate between more and less, when there is a situation where an unequality has taken place between two parties they usually have recourse to a judge.
The judge is seen by Aristotle as a personified justice since it is his task to restore the equality that has been violated. Here justice should not take regard to the character of the parties involved but only judge according to there actions. Since in an involuntary transaction one party gains something and the other loses, the judge must therefore make sure that each has the equal amount as before the transaction, this is measured by arithmetical progression. Of course in cases of murder this becomes more complicated but the principle would still be there.


In order to facilitate the exchange of products and services there is a monetary system that will measure the worth of all the products and services. It is clearly stated that money is a convention with no real value in itself but valuable when then can get you a product or a service for them(the footnotes tells us that the Greek word for money is nomisma, which has the same root as nomos, which means "law" or "custom"). Although money is just a convention, we can certainly see that it is a very useful one. Aristotle takes the example of the farmer and the doctor, without a monetary system a fair exchange between them could be difficult, but if there is money we have a common measure through which a fair transaction can be made, and there is no need for the doctor to receive the products that the farmer has, but he can get them later if he wants or even buy something else that he needs more. This can be used both in distributive and rectificatory justice.

Political justice

What political justice means is the regulation of the common life in society between citizens that allows them to obtain their rights as free and equal individuals. Aristotle points out that this cannot be applied to a slave or a son since they are not independent but rather as a part of the master or the father, and since nobody chooses to injure himself there can't really be an injustice towards them, since political justice is only between equal citizens. This may upset many people today, but I think this principle is still applied in some respects, especially that children are not indepedent(though we surely recognize that they have rights), and among other thing are not allowed to vote or drive a car, but they are being taken care of by their parents, who in the normal case wills no harm to their own children. Aristotle also mentions another kind of justice, namely domestic justice which takes place between a man and his wife, which is distinct from political justice. But in what way he does not mention.
Now, political justice can be built on either natural law or positive law. Natural law is what is inherent to our being as humans, whereas positive law is decided by convention. Though there are people that claims that natural law is immutable unlike positive law, Aristotle does not agree, saying that even natural law can be changed, and takes the example of how man who is by nature righthanded(were there no lefthanded people in Aristotle's time?) can learn to write with his both hands, i.e. ambidextrous. Here I would disagree, if man is capable to learn to write with both hands this would in no way contradict his nature, for he would not be able to do it unless he didn't have the potential, and no potentiality can be realized unless in something actual, so this must belong to a man's nature. But even though Aristotle believes that natural law is changeable, he does not believe it is man-made as is the case with positive law.

Voluntary and involuntary acts

Aristotle does not think that it is always the case that a man who perform unjust acts is an unjust man, the difference lies in what intention a man has when he is performing an act.
So although there can be agreement that a certain act has been done, it can still be argued between parties who has justice on their side because the peformer of the unjust act in the moment he was performing it was not aware that the act was unjust, such an act would be involuntary whereas an act that is deliberate is voluntary, and a man who acts in such a way would be an unjust man. Other things that would make an act involuntary would be if it was caused by accident or compulsion, so if a man would take my hand and slap another person with it, or other actions done fully conscious of them but outside one's control because of old age, this would not be a voluntary act. Aristotle also thinks that acts caused by temper does not make a man unjust, probably because it clouds our judgement and prevents us from thinking clearly. The question of intention is a very important one and we can observe how it affects our penal systems where a man who killed a person receive different grades of punishment depending on whether or not the intention was to kill. The Philosopher also distinguishes between involuntary acts that are pardonable and unpardonable. If a mistake is made not only in ignorance but as the result of ignorance, then that act would be pardonable. But if it is made in ignorance but caused by "an unnatural and subhuman reaction", that act would be considered unpardonable.

Injustice towards oneself

Aristotle asks whether a man can suffer injustice willingly, a strange question considering that he has already stated that this cannot be done when he wrote about why there can't be political injustice between a master and a slave, or a father and a son. But he develops this, he observes that there are people who allows harm to be done to them. Aristotle answers that this does not mean that such people are being treated unjustly, for he says that such actions has to be made against the patient's will, and this is not the case here. He also brings up the question of suicide towards the end of the book, and claims that a man who commits suicide is not acting unjust against himself but against the state, and would therefore be punished by having his right hand cut off and buried separately, and his descendants could have been disfranchised. Although, in the last part of the book Aristotle asserts that there can be injustice done to oneself in an analogical sense, since in the soul there are both a rational and an irrational part of the soul, and between them there can be a relation of justice or injustice in a similar way as between men, but then again, it is not the same kind of justice.

The difficulty of being just

Some people think that because it is easy to do unjust acts, it is also easy to be just.
But Aristotle disagrees, for it takes no certain character to act unjustly as is the case with acting justly, and building character through repeated just acts is not easy which is evident to anyone who has attempted such an operation. It would also be wrong to assume that it doesn't take any special wisdom discern what is just and unjust, that one only has to follow the instructions of the law on order to be just, but in fact there is whole science behind this. One has to know how those acts have to be performed, in what situation and with what kind of means. The Philosopher compares this with a doctor who not only has knowledge about medicine and surgery but uses his knowledge in a particular way according to the person and the illness he is treating. This could make one think that Aristotle is referring to lawyers who knows how to accurately applicate the law in different situations but what he is probably referring to is the just man, since being lawful is not always the same as being just. And being a lawyer, a knower of the law does not make a man a just person(from what I've heard, few of them are).
What he means here is rather that it takes a virtuous man to know how to act justly in different situations, not just knowing rules.

Equity and legal justice

So we can say that this is the difference between being lawful and being equitable, what has been stated in the last section above. For what the law can state are only general rules, since men's situations are so different and complicated that they cannot possibly all be covered by the law. Therefore equity complements legal justice in the sense that it corrects its deficiency of not being able to cover all particular cases. Thus Aristotle sees equity as a higher kind of justice then legal justice, for although it has a criterion it is flexible and can adjust itself to the given situation, unlike the general rules of the law. This is common sense and this kind of justice appears to have been either forgotten or ignored by Immanuel Kant when he formed his ethical principle of the categorical imperative, where there are only universal laws. Such a view is not only unrealistic but even undesirable. I like to tell the truth, but for that sake I would not tell a soldier of the SS that I was hiding jews in my house if I in fact lived in those times and did hide jews in my home.

Concluding remarks

As I have stated above, the Aristotelian view is common sense that avoids the categorical imperative of Kant but also the kind of casuistry that gives us an infinite set of rules. But I think it is important to remember that Aristotle still employs an objective criterion, the criterion is the virtuous man and what virtues are has been stated earlier in this paper. Indeed, there could not be justice if this weren't the case, since justice takes place between people and the measures must be the same for everybody if it is going to be called justice at all. So the Aristotelian view of equity is neither the excess of moral relativism or the deficiency of the law, it is rather the "golden mean". I say it is common sense because it is the kind of reasoning that may be challenged or even denied by many philosophers but what practically everybody uses in their everyday life. And this is why Aristotle's ethical principles are still valid today, because it is common to all men and man is the same through all of history.