Aristotle Asks: Can You Be Unjust to Yourself?

In the ninth section of of the fifth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle addressed, among other questions, whether it is possible for people to treat themselves unjustly, and it looked as though he had settled the question to his satisfaction (no: you cannot be unjust to yourself).

But in the final section of the fifth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle takes the question up again. This, I think, is just a consequence of how the book came to be stitched together from surviving fragments, and not a deliberate decision on Aristotle’s part.

Grant says this chapter “might be called superfluous and out of place” and “is merely an instance of Eudemian mal-arrangement” with “feeble reasonings and… repetitions.” Jackson took great pains to disassemble the ninth and eleventh sections and then stitch them back together in a more logical and coherent way.

But, in any case, Aristotle comes to much the same conclusion this time around (no: you cannot be unjust to yourself), but he points out some different landmarks along the path and takes on the particular case of suicide.

He lets loose this stinker right off the bat: “The law does not expressly permit suicide, and what it does not expressly permit it forbids.” This just plain sounds too stupid to attribute to Aristotle, who was a serious student of legal codes and must have known better than this. What gives?

Grant asks, incredulously, “Did the Athenian law command its citizens to breathe, to eat, to sleep, &c?”

Chase responds to Grant’s objection by saying “the obligation of State service, to which every man was liable, may well have been taken by Aristotle to include things necessary for health.” This isn’t much of an answer, since Grant’s examples could easily extend beyond things necessary for health: “Did the Athenian law command its citizens to laugh, to stumble, to salt their food, &c?”

Jackson says that the Greek being translated here is idiomatic and doesn’t deserve the literal reading that prompted Grant’s disdain. Alas, you have to know Greek to follow Jackson’s note on this, and I don’t, so I can’t explain his argument with any certainty, but he seems to be saying that the phrase being translated as “does not allow” was just an idiomatic way of saying “disallows” which would turn the phrase into a tautology: “what the law disallows it forbids.”

Stewart thinks it’s unlikely that Aristotle would resort to tautology like this. He thinks Aristotle is saying that in “not merely statute law, but custom and fashion” every action is either allowed or forbidden. Suicide is not customarily permitted, so it must be forbidden. He thinks that if Grant is to be faulted, it is for interpreting “law” too narrowly, so as to apply only to the explicit legal code of the polis, when Aristotle meant it more broadly to apply to both law and custom.

Browne explains the phrase in this way:

The Greeks recognized the principle that it was the duty of their state to support the sanctions of virtue by legislative enactments; the moral education of the people formed part of the legislative system. Hence the rule which Aristotle states, “Quæ lex non jubet vetat” [what the law does not permit it forbids]. The principles of our law, on the contrary, are derived from the Roman law, which confines itself in all cases to forbidding wrongs done to society. Hence the rule with us is exactly the contrary, “Quæ lex non vetat permittit” [what the law does not forbid, it permits].

If Browne is right, this solves the problem. But I have to wonder why none of the other commentators and translators mention this possibility. I think it’s probably too simple an explanation, the sort of thing that would be very helpful in explaining Aristotle were it actually true.

Burnet tries to explain the phrase away by suggesting that Aristotle really meant something like “the law does not expressly provide an exception to its prohibition against murder for killing yourself, and so suicide must fall under its general prohibition.” (Hatch also inserts an “in matters of this kind” into Aristotle’s phrase, to the same purpose.)

Paley swings in the other direction, making the phrase even more ridiculous by translating it so that instead of “permit” it says “order,” like this: “the law does not order a man to kill himself; and what it does not order, it virtually forbids.” (Peters, too, translates it this way; Taylor says “[the law] forbids what it does not command” and Vincent also uses “command” here. Some of the other translators come pretty close to this either-command-or-forbid reading. Stock veers in this direction as well, but then changes course at the last minute by adding “if you take law in the ideal sense of all that reason would enjoin” which gelds the phrase into a sort of “an action is reasonable or it ain’t, in which case it’s not, and then you oughtn’t.”)

Well, that gets us through the second sentence of this section, and we’re only just getting started. Aristotle notes a possible contradiction: you’re forbidden from killing because harming people voluntarily (except perhaps in retaliation) is unjust; but he’s just said that it’s not possible to be unjust to yourself; so where is the injustice in killing yourself?

Aristotle resolves this, sad to say, by saying that a person who commits suicide is being unjust to the state. He follows this with a series of further arguments for why it is impossible to be unjust to yourself that strike me as not particularly good, and, after the arguments he gave in section nine, superfluous.

He then adds a parenthetical remark:

It is evident too that both are bad: being unjustly treated and acting unjustly.… But still, acting unjustly is the worse, for it involves vice and is blameworthy — involves vice which is either of the complete and unqualified kind or almost so (we must admit the latter alternative, because not all voluntary unjust action implies injustice as a state of character), while being unjustly treated does not involve vice and injustice in oneself. In itself, then, being unjustly treated is less bad, but there is nothing to prevent its being incidentally a greater evil.

As a general rule, it is better to suffer injustice than to commit injustice (Socrates/Plato also taught this, and Hannah Arendt frequently alluded to it in her writings about ethics). People who believe the opposite are fooling themselves: they may get better goods and better advantages, but only at the cost of becoming worse people, and that’s typically a poor trade.

Finally, Aristotle drops an intriguing aside about a sort of metaphorical justice that exists within individuals. A person’s rational and irrational sides are sometimes at odds, have different goals, and so forth. “There is therefore thought to be a mutual justice between them as between ruler and ruled.” He doesn’t develop this further here, but it could be an interesting thread to pick up elsewhere.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics