Aristotle Kicks the Tires of His Model of Justice

In the ninth section of the fifth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle kicks the tires of his model of Justice, asking the following questions:

  1. Can someone willingly be treated unjustly, or is being treated unjustly always involuntary, in the same way that you can only be unjust by acting voluntarily?
  2. If someone suffers something unjust, does this necessarily mean that they have been treated unjustly?
  3. If an arbiter unfairly divides disputed property so as to give one party more than they deserve, who has acted unjustly — the arbiter or the party who ends up with more than his or her share?
  4. Is it possible to treat yourself unjustly?

Then he finishes off by telling us that justice is harder than it seems, and is something human rather than something divine. But first, the questions:

  1. Can you voluntarily be treated unjustly? Aristotle notes that when it comes to being treated justly, you may be so treated with or without your consent. Is the same true of being treated unjustly, or is it logically impossible to consent to be treated unjustly?

    There’s some confusion here right from the get-go since the question of voluntariness is being applied to a passive verb: “to be treated unjustly.” Someone is doing the treating, and it seems to me that it is this person who is or is not acting voluntarily. You can be treated justly or unjustly without even being aware of it, much less consenting or not. It seems like the real issue is: are you really treating someone unjustly if they don’t have any complaints about how they’re being treated or indeed if you’re treating them just as they’ve asked to be treated?

    This might come into play if you do something to someone that is objectively harmful or unjust, but subjectively desired. For instance, if you sell someone a state lottery ticket, you’re selling them something that’s objectively worth significantly less than what they’re paying for it, but you’re not using any deception or trickery and you’re not forcing them to buy it — are you nonetheless behaving unjustly?

  2. If you suffer injustice does that necessarily mean you have been treated unjustly? Here, Aristotle says that in the same way that you may commit an injustice without necessarily acting unjustly (the former just concerns the nature of the act; the latter also includes questions of motive); you may suffer an injustice without necessarily having been treated unjustly. (The same is true of just acts.)

  3. Who is unjust: the person who divides goods unfairly, or the person who gets the larger share of this division? Aristotle says the unfair divider is clearly acting unjustly, but the person who gets the benefit of this unfair division is not always acting unjustly. “[T]he person in whom lies the origin of the action” is the unjust one, and in this case, that is the person who does the dividing.

    This has the same caveats as other unjust actions: the divider must be acting deliberately and not from ignorance and so forth. Injustice, as Aristotle has defined it, has to do with seeking to get more than your fair share, but in this case it seems like the divider isn’t the one seeking this, so what gives? Aristotle says that in such a case, the divider typically deviates from a just division because “he is himself aiming at an excessive share either of gratitude or of revenge… the fact that what he gets is different from what he distributes makes no difference, for even if he awards land with a view to sharing in the plunder he gets not land but money.” So this preserves his original definition of injustice.

    In the course of this discussion, Aristotle lets loose with an aside that is tantalizing in its suggestions about individual responsibility:

    [T]he word “do” is ambiguous, and there is a sense in which lifeless things, or a hand, or a servant who obeys an order, may be said to slay, [but, like them,] he who gets an excessive share does not act unjustly, though he “does” what is unjust.

    Isn’t that something: Aristotle comparing a servant who obeys an order to “lifeless things” or to a hand (as opposed to the person who guides the hand)? I wonder how he would have commented on the Nuremberg defense. It sounds like he believes that a servant who obeys an order to harm someone is doing an unjust act, but is not acting unjustly, while only the servant’s master is acting unjustly. It’s remarkable that Aristotle thinks that someone can, by virtue of their social status, be on the same level as a person’s hand or of “lifeless things” when it comes to their agency.

  4. Is it possible to treat yourself unjustly? If to act unjustly means to deliberately cause someone to suffer an injustice, and you deliberately cause yourself harm in some way, it seems as though you have treated yourself unjustly.

    This opens up a can of worms that Aristotle would rather not open. To some extent his other vices are defined as things that harm the doer, and so they might all get subsumed under Justice, for instance. And some of his virtues (liberality and magnanimity for instance) involve deliberately ignoring strict justice in favor of generosity (though Aristotle considers that the virtuous person might receive enough “good” in terms of virtuousness to compensate for a lesser share of some public good, and so it might even out or even redound to the virtuous person’s advantage).

    So he suggests restricting his definition of unjust acts to include only acts “contrary to the wish of the person acted on.” This would fix this problem and also solve question #1 as well.

    With this definitional change, you cannot treat yourself unjustly. Furthermore, you cannot voluntarily be treated unjustly, though you can voluntarily be harmed or suffer injustice. Nobody can sensibly want to be treated unjustly, though they may be mistaken about what is just or unjust to them in any particular case.

    (But remember that Aristotle made justice the mean virtue between the opposing vices of treating someone unjustly and allowing oneself to be treated unjustly. Since vices and virtues are only such because of their voluntary nature, wouldn’t this imply that being treated unjustly has to be voluntary in some circumstances? Or does Aristotle need to go back and revise his definition of the vice on the opposite end of the spectrum from unjustly treating others?)

The last two paragraphs of this section do not address any of these questions directly, but are interesting on their own.

First, Aristotle says that being just is hard. It isn’t simply a matter of knowing what is just and what is unjust and choosing right, but must be rooted in a certain state of character. Even understanding intellectually how to treat people justly is no less of a skill than learning how to treat people medically as a physician. It isn’t wielding a scalpel that makes you a surgeon, but knowing when, where, and how to cut.

(He notes in the course of this that “the laws… are not the things that are just, except incidentally” which blunts some of the things he has said in earlier sections that seemed to assume that the law and the just were always or usually in parallel.)

The final paragraph is particularly perplexing:

Just acts occur between people who participate in things good in themselves and can have too much or too little of them; for some beings (e.g. presumably the gods) cannot have too much of them, and to others, those who are incurably bad, not even the smallest share in them is beneficial but all such goods are harmful, while to others they are beneficial up to a point; therefore justice is essentially something human.

What is Aristotle trying to say by asserting that Justice is a human thing, not a divine thing? Here’s what my panel of translators and commentators have to say about this paragraph:

  • Chase says that Aristotle is restricting just acts to zero-sum games; where someone getting more than their share necessarily means someone else getting less than their share. (The Gods, presumably, aren’t limited in this way.)
  • Gillies gives a pretty straightforward reading: Some things are good in and of themselves (health, wealth, power, freedom, honor) but only in the right quantity and only to the right people. A wicked person will only put such goods to vicious ends, to nobody’s benefit (including that person’s). Perhaps to Zeus, no amount of honor is too much, but to an ordinary virtuous person, being honored undeservedly is an embarrassment and a curse. To me this seems like the right reading of the paragraph, but doesn’t explain why it ends by emphatically saying that (“therefore”) justice is a human (not divine) thing.
  • Grant writes that “[t]he passage is a curious one, and may remind us of the position assigned by Aristotle [in the Politics] to man in his social condition, as something between the beast and the god.”
  • Hatch provides his own interpretive paraphrase of this paragraph in which he says that Aristotle is explaining why the gods have no need for justice the way humans do. Similarly, a polis composed of only vicious people would also have no need for justice, as there would be no just distribution of goods to strive for (might makes right, I suppose, would be the rule). “Right can only exist among such as wish for things that are just and do what is just according to human strength, and, again, fail only in such ways as are natural for man.” Stock’s paraphrase also works along these lines.
  • Welldon finishes the paragraph by writing “justice is essentially human, i.e. it affects the natural relations of men as men.
Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics