Aristotle Examines Justice as a Virtue

In the opening section of the fifth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins his examination of the virtue of Justice. Much of the time these days when we talk about “ethics” we’re really talking about what Aristotle would consider this particular part of ethics. It’s certainly the part of ethics that attracts the most interest these days (see, for instance, Harvard University’s Justice with Michael Sandel, or Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice, each of which hit my RSS feed reader with a splash just last month).

The Nicomachean Ethics translation I’ve been using as my base camp (Ross) is very difficult going here, so I’m going to consult some others (particularly Stock, whose paraphrases are less-shackled by devotion to Aristotle’s Greek) and see if I can make things a little more clear. (Complicating matters, in this chapter in particular different translators divide it up into sections very differently.)

First off, Aristotle says that he’s going to treat Justice as a virtue, which is to say that he’s going to try to fit it into the same framework that he’s used to evaluate the various other virtues he’s dealt with so far:

  1. Determine the subject matter of the virtue and its associated vices.
  2. Show how the virtue demonstrates the mean between the extreme vices.
  3. Look also at the nature of these extremes.

Paragraph two defines justice and injustice with what at first glance looks to be a puerile and wordy pair of tautologies: Justice is that state of character that makes people act justly and desire what is just; injustice is that state of character that makes people act unjustly and desire what is unjust. (And you’re thinking: it’s stuff like this that got Aristotle in the philosophy hall of fame?)

But the important thing to notice here is not the superficial tautological foolishness of the definition, but that Aristotle is planning to define justice as a state of character (that is, a virtue) that is possessed by people who engage in just acts from just desires. These aren’t the same things, and so the definition isn’t as tautological as it first seems. Ignore the adjectives and pay attention to the nouns: justice is a character-state demonstrated by acts and the desires that prompt them.

From here, Aristotle goes into a set of arguments that I found it very difficult to get my head around. Now that I’ve had a chance to look at them from the perspective of a number of translators and commentators, I’ll try to summarize them here in a less-confusing way.

First off he distinguishes states-of-character from “faculties” or “sciences.” A faculty or science concerns a subject matter in which your knowledge and skill can help you aim for opposite extremes: for instance, a doctor knows the science of health, and this knowledge would be equally useful to her in healing someone and in harming them. A state-of-character, on the other hand, goes in only one direction — having a courageous state-of-character doesn’t make it easier for you to be cowardly, nor vice versa. Get it?

Aristotle asserts that Justice is a state-of-character rather than a faculty or science. So Justice isn’t about learning the rules of what makes one thing just and another thing unjust (which, presumably, could help you do either one were you so inclined, and which, incidentally, is most of what ethical philosophy concerns itself with these days), but is about having the right desires and doing the right acts because you have the right state-of-character (Justice) that impels them.

Next, Aristotle notes that the words “justice” and “injustice” each have fuzzy and ambiguous meanings in common usage, and that these ambiguities and fuzzinesses are complimentary so we can’t expect help from using the more precise of the two terms to sharpen the meaning of the other one.

For instance, lawbreakers are sometimes called “unjust” because they break the rules of justice. But shifty operators are also called “unjust” for gaining unfair advantage through craft and wile and unfairness, whether or not what they do is illegal. So justice, in one case, is following the rules, and in the other case it’s playing fair.

Aristotle isn’t troubled by this ambiguity, but just wants to warn us that Justice is a complex virtue that seems to have at least these two different dimensions at play: A grasping person who tries to get more goods (or avoid more evils) than he or she deserves is unjust, whether or not it is illegal; and someone who violates the just laws of the state may also be unjust, whether or not the motive is to get away with unfairly coming out ahead.

As a note expanding the first prong of Justice (that of being happy with getting what one deserves, no more, no less), Aristotle says that people who try for more than their fair share are acting under the misapprehension that it is the goods themselves that are important, rather than the whole package of being a virtuous person who has come by goods virtuously. This, I guess, would be like someone stealing a trophy rather than winning it, and expecting it to give as much satisfaction as if it had been won.

In support of the second prong of Justice — that being just means being law-abiding — here is the curious idea of the law that Aristotle has in mind:

Since the lawless man was seen to be unjust and the law-abiding man just, evidently all lawful acts are in a sense just acts; for the acts laid down by the legislative art are lawful, and each of these, we say, is just. Now the laws in their enactments on all subjects aim at the common advantage either of all or of the best or of those who hold power, or something of the sort; so that in one sense we call those acts just that tend to produce and preserve happiness and its components for the political society.

So Justice, as Aristotle is using the term, is radically relative to the particular legal system in effect — from particulars like individual laws to the core issue of who in general the laws were designed to benefit. It would be a mistake to think that Aristotle is saying that all legislators have wisely made their laws coincide with a preexisting model of justice; I think he is just saying that to the extent that justice is defined as law-abiding, lawful acts can be considered just acts.

Aristotle was a serious student of political science — he collected constitutions, and managed to study more than a hundred — so any time he says something about political arrangements, it’s worth paying attention.

He does not address, yet anyway, what happens when the two parallel definitions of justice go perpendicular — when being law-abiding means being unfairly grasping, or when being just in the sense of fairness means breaking the law. (I’m a little worried he’s going to put this off until another of his works, the Politics.)

Aristotle notes that there seem to be some parallels between what legal systems encourage and prohibit and what his system of virtues and vices encourages and condemns: there are laws against cowardly actions by soldiers, laws encouraging temperance (e.g. by prohibiting adultery), and good-temper (e.g. laws against assault and defamation), and so forth. “[T]he rightly-framed law does this rightly, and the hastily conceived one less well.”

Most of these laws concern those aspects of virtue that show themselves in public acts. And, to the extent that the law really does properly prohibit or punish the vices and reward the virtues, justice (in the form of law-abiding) “is complete virtue, but not absolutely, but in relation to our neighbor.” If you internalize the law, and practice its dictates as a virtue — that is as a character-state or habit — then you will behave virtuously towards your neighbors, which is sometimes more difficult for people to do than to behave virtuously in their own private affairs.

Furthermore, Aristotle asserts that this sort of virtue (practiced towards other people) is a better variety. He doesn’t develop this much, not here anyway, so I don’t know what line of thinking gets him from here to there. But he concludes from this that justice “in this sense, then, is not a part of virtue but virtue entire, nor is the contrary injustice a part of vice but vice entire.” Virtue is a superset that includes all of justice and some additional private virtues.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics