Aristotle on a Universal Standard of Justice

It seems like up to now, Aristotle has been speaking of justice as a set of conventions. Either it is explicitly a matter of being law-abiding, or it’s a matter of being “fair” where fairness is defined according to the prevailing community standards.

But in the seventh section of the fifth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that political justice is only partially conventional. There is also a “natural” component: “that which everywhere has the same force and does not exist by people’s thinking this or that.”

(If you’re following along in another edition, this section and the ones around it are divided up differently in various translations. This is true for all of the books, but seems especially varied here.)

All along, there has been this tension about whether justice is to be invented or discovered — that is, whether it is solely the product of human invention or whether it preexists and its human-created approximations are more-or-less faithful to it. Aristotle has been walking along the boundary between these two positions: trying to discover the virtues (like justice), but trying to discover it via anthropology, that is by examining how people conventionally discuss and enact the virtues. Now he attempts to face the issue head-on.

Aristotle entertains the idea (promoted by the Sophists) that all justice is conventional, and that the only natural laws are things like the laws of physics (“as fire burns both here and in Persia”) while laws of justice are absolutely mutable and might as well be arbitrary.

He says that there’s a grain of truth to this: certainly it would be possible for any particular proposed “natural” law of justice, to imagine a nation in which that law is inverted so that what we think is just, they outlaw as unjust, and vice versa, and to imagine the people of that nation internalizing that law in that way.

But Aristotle doesn’t think this is the end of the question. He says that there may still be such thing as “natural” law, even though people may be able to override or contradict it with conventional law. He compares this to being right- or left-handed. You can probably train a right- or left-handed child to switch hands or to become ambidextrous. This doesn’t mean that handedness is completely conventional, only that although it is natural it is moldable by human effort.

To Aristotle there is a natural standard by which conventional justice can itself be judged. Although what is just by human enactment is subject to change and is to some extent arbitrary, there are better and worse examples of these things, and “but one [constitution] which is everywhere by nature the best” (it’s unclear whether he means that for each polis, there is a best constitution for it, or whether he means that there is a single best constitution that all political groups would be best off adopting; the translators tend to keep this ambiguous but seem to me to lean toward the latter).

From here, things get confusing. This sounds like it’s saying something important, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what:

Of things just and lawful each is related as the universal to its particulars; for the things that are done are many, but of them each is one, since it is universal.

Is Ross trying to be confusing? Time to hit the translator panel again. Here’s a clearer version from the Chase translation:

Now of Justs and Lawfuls each bears to the acts which embody and exemplify it the relation of an universal to a particular; the acts being many, but each of the principles only singular, because each is an universal.

Okay; that’s not so important after all… it’s just a preamble for what follows (back to Ross again):

There is a difference between the act of injustice and what is unjust, and between the act of justice and what is just; for a thing is unjust by nature or by enactment; and this very thing, when it has been done, is an act of injustice, but before it is done is not yet that but is unjust. [Ditto for just actions.]

What does all that mean? Just that an act is an act of injustice when it is acted out, but when an act is only contemplated it is not yet an act of injustice but may be in the category of things that would be unjust if they were acted out? Is he just defining terms, or is there more to it than that? I hope things become more clear in the following sections.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics