Aristotle on Justice

Aristotle covered a lot of ground in book five. Here’s a review of what we learned about Justice:

Justice is a virtue — that is, it springs from core character and it occupies the golden mean between the extreme vices of committing injustice and suffering injustice (of which committing injustice is the worse of the two). It is not a precise science, nor is it reducible to abstract laws, but is more of an art that manifests itself in concrete actions from virtuous motives. It isn’t just a matter of obedience or of learning some simple rules, but is a difficult matter of molding your character.

There are just and unjust acts, but for an act to be done justly or unjustly, it must both be the right sort of act and it must be done voluntarily and deliberately, based on the character of the actor, and with knowledge of the nature of the action. An unjust act is not necessarily a case of acting unjustly, but may be merely an accident, a mistake, an unpremeditated injustice, or a justified act of retribution; or it may be only incidentally just or unjust, while done from some motive having nothing to do with justice.

If you commit an injustice from actual ignorance of the nature of the action (you didn’t know there was a gas leak when you lit the match) or from the sort of weaknesses we’re all susceptible to (fury, hunger, etc.), you can be excused; otherwise, not so much.

There are two sorts of justice: the justice of following the rules that govern your society, and the justice of fair transactions between people. In a good state, these things will be in parallel, and being law-abiding and being fair will amount to the same thing.

A group of people exhibit justice by divvying up the goods and privileges that they acquire or create as a group in a way that respects the status of the people who make up the group with respect to the group. One example of this is states, where goods should be distributed with respect to the different political statuses of people in the state. This is distributive justice.

Individual people exhibit justice by being law abiding, but also by not trying to get more than their share in interpersonal transactions. Determining what a fair share is and what to do, when injustice results from a voluntary or involuntary transaction, in order to restore the balance, is the realm of rectificatory justice.

Something akin to the law of supply-and-demand allows people to come up with a just quantitative exchange rate for qualitatively different goods, and money was invented to serve as a measuring stick for this and a way of facilitating such transactions.

To clarify: you can only be just or unjust to somebody else (or perhaps to the polis as a whole), not to yourself. And it is the person who initiates the unjust action who may be acting unjustly — not necessarily the person who directly benefits from the injustice.

Political justice, whether distributive or rectificatory, only makes sense between people who stand in some formal political relation to one another. People from different states, or people in a situation where conflicting states or standards are battling for supremacy, or people without political status (slaves, children) don’t have access to political justice, although in such cases we may speak of justice in a metaphorical sense.

Explicit, codified law is preferable to rule by people, because if certain people rule outside of a framework of laws, they no longer have a common political status with the people they govern, but stand above and outside.

That said, codified law can only be a schematic guide — individual cases require us to look at the spirit that informed the law and apply this spirit rather than the letter-of-the-law. This is “equity” and it is both a correction of and the culmination of justice.

To some extent, justice is entirely conventional, and depends on the agreements groups of people come to about how to organize their societies and what sorts of interactions are fair. But behind the scenes there is a natural law to which human laws are more-or-less faithful.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics