Aristotle's Ethics: Book 5

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Justice has a unique place in Aristotle’s ethics. It represents the most comprehensive expression of all virtue and it’s the foundation of social life. Aristotle acknowledges its importance by giving it a book of its own – the only virtue to have this. He explains that justice is generally thought to mean a state of character that disposes us to perform just acts, behave in a just manner and wish for what is just. An unjust person is someone who breaks the law and takes unfair advantage of others by taking more than his share of goods, whereas a just person is law abiding and fair.


All lawful things are in some sense just. Laws aim at promoting the common interests of all citizens, so something is just if it promotes or conserves the happiness of the community. In this sense justice is complete virtue. It is often regarded as the highest virtue, because its end is virtue in its complete sense in that the individual exercises it in relation to another person and not just himself.


The worst person is one whose bad behavior is directed towards both himself and his friends, while the best is not someone who directs his virtue towards himself alone, but towards all other people. Justice in this sense is the whole of virtue, not just a part, and injustice, likewise, is the whole of vice, not just a part. The only difference between justice and virtue is that justice is qualified by being defined in relation to somebody else, whereas virtue is unqualified: it is simply a certain kind of moral state.


There are two distinct forms of justice: universal and particular. Universal justice is concerned with obeying laws and with virtue as a whole. Particular justice is seen as one of the virtues and is divided into two kinds: distributive and rectificatory or corrective. Distributive involves distributing honors, money and other assets. Rectificatory has two parts: voluntary transactions involving paying debts, buying and selling, and so on; and involuntary transactions involving the giving of just restitution of harms inflicted. 


The distributive sense reflects our understanding of justice as the mean between two extremes of unfairness. Everyone agrees that justice involves the distribution of things in proportion to merit. The man who acts unjustly gets too much, the victim too little, of what is good. Therefore that which is unjust in the narrow sense defies the proper proportion.


As for rectificatory justice, this reflects our belief that in any exchange the just is what is fair. Unlike distributive justice, this involves not “geometrical,” but “arithmetical” proportionality, because it doesn’t take into account the parties involved, just the transaction itself. Both parties are treated as equals before the law in the exchange of goods, regardless of their individual merits. The role of the judge, therefore, is to restore the mean between too much and too little: to remedy an inequitable division between two parties by means of some sort of arithmetical progression. He tries to equalize the inequality of the injustice. 


Some think that what is just is simple reciprocity: doing to one what is done to the other. But this is not compatible with either distributive or rectificatory justice. Justice is the intermediate position between doing injustice and suffering it; one has more, the other less, than their share. It is that state of virtue in which the individual is capable of doing just acts from choice and of distributing property, not in a way which gives himself more than his neighbour, but to each in proportionately equal manner. Injustice is choosing excess or deficiency in defiance of proportion.


Only when a person acts voluntarily does he do just and unjust acts and can be blamed and held responsible. When he does them involuntarily, by accident, he is not acting justly or unjustly. When he acts in ignorance, or through compulsion, or by accident, it is not voluntary. Voluntary acts can be intentional or unintentional, depending on whether or not the person has deliberated about them.


There are three types of injury. Those done in ignorance or miscalculation are mistakes. When the injury occurs not contrary to reasonable expectation, but without malicious intent, it is a mistake. When someone acts knowingly without premeditation it is an injury, for example, acts done in response to temper or other unavoidable natural feelings. But in all these cases it doesn’t mean the person responsible is unjust and wicked, because they are not done through malice. It is only when someone acts on purpose that he is unjust and wicked. 


But still it is asked, can a man be wronged voluntarily? Can he do wrong to himself? The answer is that no-one wants to be treated unjustly, not even the incontinent man. He acts against his will when he does this, because nobody wills what he doesn’t think to be good. Similarly, is it the distributor or the recipient of the unfair distribution who is guilty of injustice or unfair distribution? It is the distributor, because justice or injustice resides with the person who acts intentionally.


Equity is related to justice, but is not the same. It is superior to one kind of justice; that which is dispensed through universal laws that fail to apply perfectly to all cases. But equity isn’t superior to justice, just one particular form of it. When a statement of law doesn’t apply perfectly to a case the legislator or judge can correct the problem, as long as this fulfils the intention of the lawmaker. Equity, then, is just, but not what is legally just – it is a rectification of legal justice, of law, insofar as the law is defective because of its generality. There are just some things that the law cannot pronounce on rightly in general terms.  




This book is important for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most significant is that it allows Aristotle to bind the virtues into a complete system of justice. On their own they are not able to do this. When Aristotle refers to justice as the most comprehensive expression of all the virtues he is describing a system of justice in which the virtues are included alongside particular and general justice. Indeed both forms of justice act like virtues in that Aristotle describes them as being the mean between two extremes.


Aristotle needs particular justice within this complete system of justice in order to deal with the problem that not all unjust acts are illegal and not all legal acts are just. General justice deals with a state of lawfulness, ensuring that the laws of a society are complied with. Without particular justice Aristotle is left with a system in which it appears that a just person is one who complies with the law and an unjust person ignores it. But then this ignores all those acts that might be just or unjust regardless of the law.


Particular justice tackles this problem by addressing the question of what is fair, while general justice is concerned with what is lawful or lawless. So now, a complete system of justice can emerge made up of three elements: virtues, the written law of the general justice system and particular law divided between distribution and rectification.


Equally significant is the influence that this part of his argument has on virtues in allowing him to talk about a complete, unified system of virtues, in which it is not possible for a person to have just one virtue in its entirety without at the same time having all of them. And within this unified system there can be no conflict between individual virtues, because they are all ordered in their relations with justice, which encompasses them all. In relation to the other virtues he describes justice as a complete virtue in that it requires all the virtues to be performed well.


It is complete because it is exercised not just in relation to ourselves alone, but towards others too. He says, “It is complete virtue in the fullest sense, because it is the active exercise of complete virtue; and it is complete because its possessor can exercise it in relation to another person, and not only by himself” (page 115, 1129b 30-3). Indeed, it is the only virtue that is directed towards others in this way.


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