Aristotle on Political/Legal Justice

In the sixth section of the fifth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle covers a lot of territory in a few dense paragraphs. Among the points he makes:

  • Remember that Justice is a character-trait, so it’s not necessarily true that an unjust act means that the actor is unjust. For the actor to be unjust, he or she must be committing that unjust act because of a habitual unjust character. Some unjust acts are spontaneous or are motivated by character flaws other than injustice. For instance, someone who commits adultery might not be motivated by an unjust disregard of the institution of marriage, but by an intemperate inability to regulate the passions.
  • Political justice is a subset of justice as a whole, and concerns the interactions of individuals who have a formal political standing vis-a-vis each other, whether that be the equality of citizens in a democracy, or the tiered status of citizens in an oligarchy, or what have you.
  • Between people who do not have this sort of formalized relationship (for instance, between people in an unstable or contested regime, or between people each of whom is in a different regime, or between a citizen and a non-citizen or slave), there is no justice in this sense, though a type of justice can be cobbled together by analogy.
  • “Justice [political justice?] exists only between men whose mutual relations are governed by law; and law exists for men between whom there is injustice; for legal justice is the discrimination of the just and the unjust.” This one is going to take some unraveling. How can Justice, a character trait, exist “between men”? Or is he using justice, not in its meaning as one of the virtues, but in the limited sense of “political justice” or as a synonym for a legal system? The next phrase seems paradoxical, but maybe it is meant to be interpreted as a progression through time: the law emerges when there is injustice between men and its existence allows justice to replace this injustice. But does the “for” phrase do anything to explain this? It almost seems as though it should come first, defining “justice” as Aristotle is using it here, so that this section would mean something like this:

    Legal justice is the discrimination of the just and the unjust. It is a human convention, and must be shared by people in a community for it to work. It serves people in such a community when they come into an unjust imbalance by identifying the imbalance (so that it can be rectified).

    Some other translations of this bit interpret the middle section as only making the point that if there is legally-defined justice, there must also be legally-defined injustice, else what is there to compare it to?:
    • “Justice cannot exist unless there be a law between man and man; and the very existence of law implies the possibility of wrong, inasmuch as an adjudication is nothing more than a distinction between that which is right and that which is wrong.” (Williams; Stock, Browne, Stewart, Chase, and Peters go along with this too)
    Perhaps, but that seems a much more obvious and less interesting point for Aristotle to be making here. Vincent tries to return to the idea of Justice as a character trait, and renders this section like this:
    • “[J]ustice exists in the case of those who have laws to which they are amenable; and law in the case of those who have the habit of injustice, (for judgment is the decision of justice and injustice).”
    Hatch gives a somewhat different reading of the middle-phrase:
    • “Rights can only exist among those who are ruled by a common law; and law can only exist among those who can injure one another (a legal sentence being a distinguishing of what is right from what is wrong).”
    This either makes this phrase just repeat the previous one in a sideways fashion for emphasis, or it says that the reason why there is no universal standard of justice is that geographically distant people have no injustice between them because they don’t have the opportunity. Gilles gives a looser paraphrase:
    • “Justice takes place among those who being capable of injuring each other, are restrained by law from mutual encroachments; and those encroachments must be made, before injustice can be committed.”
  • Aristotle follows this up by saying that “between men between whom there is injustice there is also unjust action (though there is not injustice between all between whom there is unjust action).” This seems to just be restating his first point and returning to speaking of injustice as a character trait. But then what does he mean by describing this character trait as existing “between” men? Could he really be saying “between men in which there is injustice there will inevitably be unjust action”? (Here again I looked to the other translators, but they translated this section in a variety of ways, none of which were any less confusing or more clear.) Aristotle is talking about injustice in the “grasping” sense (taking more than your share) rather than in the law-breaking sense.
  • Aristotle says that for these reasons we prefer the rule of codified law or abstract principle to the rule of individual people, because when a person rules, they no longer stand in an equal or proportional relationship to other citizens, and their actions cannot be judged in this fashion. Combine this with the power associated with rulership, and you have a recipe for injustice (in the grasping sense) unchecked by justice (in the legal sense). This strikes me as the perpetual error of political science: the belief that laws can rule autonomously. Ultimately it’s always people who call the shots, using their discretion, and this discretion is limited not by codified law but by other people, and that these people, using their discretion as they see fit, are in this same sort of unequal political status and subject to this same temptation to self-indulging injustice that Aristotle says is the reason we shun tyranny.
  • Aristotle suggests that in order to motivate a magistrate not to deviate from justice for the sake of self-interest that we bestow honor and privilege on him to compensate for the opportunities we ask him to give up or to reward him for the character of Justice he exhibits in not pursuing such things. Those for whom honor and privilege are not enough become tyrants.
  • Finally, Aristotle reiterates that it only makes sense to talk about legal justice between similarly-situated people under a single legal order. When we use “justice” to talk about how a father treats his children or how a master treats his slaves, we’re not being precise but are using an analogy.
Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics