Aristotle and Justice

Aristotle and Justice

October 8, 2018 0 By Felso

Now that we have talked about the importance of virtue from an ethical standpoint, it is crucial to examine what Aristotle considers as the best and most complete virtue – justice.

There are two different types of justice: justice as a complete virtue, and justice with respect to proportion. Aristotle takes a slightly different approach in defining justice as a complete virtue by talking about it in terms of its contrary – injustice.

The unjust person is more or less “the lawbreaker […] the grasping or unfair man,” while the just person is the “law-abiding man or the fair man”. Laws are made for the common good of the community “with respect to virtue or with respect to some other such thing [e.g., honor]; so in one way we call ‘just’ those things which produce or preserve happiness or its parts in a political community”.

Aristotle demonstrates that one way to see law is through the connection between virtue and living a good life and the law. If breaking the law results in injustice, then laws must be just. Since virtue is a part of the law, and breaking the law results in injustice, then the law “orders us to perform the actions of a brave man (e.g., not to desert our post, nor to take flight, nor throw away our arms) […] and similarly with respect to the other virtues and evil habits, commanding us to do certain things and forbidding us to do others; and it does so rightly if it is rightly framed, but less well if hastily framed”.

The law demands that its citizens perform the actions of a brave person, and in order to carry out brave actions, the citizens must possess the habit of bravery. If a person neglects these actions, the result is injustice. Not only is it an act of injustice to forego the acquisition of virtues, but it is unlawful; therefore we have a lawful obligation toward the rest of the people in a given society. The law demands that citizens “meet minimal standards of character” (Kraut 395) which signifies that citizens should possess some kind of virtue, because those who possess virtues demonstrate good character. True virtue can only be demonstrated toward another person.

Hence it is important for citizens to have virtues because “[in the best state] the virtue of a citizen and of a ruler is the same as that of the best man […and] the task of a law giver would be (a) to see that men become good”.

If the concepts just and fair serve as means, where does that leave injustice? Aristotle considers injustice both a deficiency and an excess. Injustice is an excess “of what is beneficial without qualification” and it is a “deficiency of what is harmful”.

The term “without qualification” is a confusing term which needs elaboration, and to demonstrate this, I use the following example. Imagine that there is a boss who has two employees working for him. One employee receives less than the other one yet they both put in an equal amount of work. If the two workers did not have any other outstanding credentials – perhaps one worked for more years and thus deserves a higher pay or one received a bonus for acquiring more clients – then the employee who received more for less gained that extra money “without qualification,” or obtained it without a logical reason.

A “deficiency of what is harmful” may occur if the boss of the employees decides to cut drastically one of the employees’ pay for no good reason so that he could not afford to sustain his life. To show how unjust this action is, imagine that the company grosses more than enough to allow everyone to have a luxurious salary. This example illustrates some serious wrongdoings because it affects people in a negative and undeserved way. Recall that law and virtue is related; since the law is a branch of justice, people commit an injustice as well. But this kind of justice is complete virtue because it includes all of them, so committing an injustice is much worse than neglecting one virtue.

Still within the context of justice as a complete virtue, Aristotle praises the “just person” who “acts for what is expedient for someone else, whether for a ruler or a member of the community”. Justice is a virtue that always impacts others. On the other hand, the worst kind of person is one “whose evil habit affects both himself and his friends”. In Aristotle’s conception, neglecting or committing injustices over a span of a lifetime leads to one to become an evil person.

Aristotle keys in on two conceptions of justice: proportional justice and complete justice. Proportional justice, or a justice based on equal geometrical proportions, and corrective justice, which contains a judge who restores the balance of proportions when it is disrupted. Proportional justice depends on “four things; for the persons to which it happens to be just are [at least] two and the things are distributed into [at least] two parts”.

This logic applies to the equal as well, based on the idea of proportions. The commentary at the back of the Ethics provides an example of the kind of proportion that Aristotle acknowledges:

For example, 5 is greater than 3 but less than 8, and it is also equal to the sum of 3 and 2. Now in transactions, what is given may be of greater value or of less value than what is received. Hence it is possible for what is given to be equal in value to what is received […] fairness is a species or an application of equality. Evidently, just as the equal lies between the greater and the less, so the fair lies between what is unfair in excess and what is unfair in deficiency.

This equality becomes an important component with respect to the mean of fairness and how it is distributed; if the parts are not divided equally, “quarrels and accusations arise” and this occurs when the “equality of ratios” is not adhered to.

Aristotle considers those who violate this proportion as unjust, but how? For instance, imagine another scenario where a boss has a bonus to distribute to two members of the company. Both members worked on the same project for an equal amount of time and both put in an equal amount of work to see the project succeed. However, the boss gives one of the workers double what he gave the other one.

In Aristotelian logic, the boss committed two injustices: he acted unjustly by giving one of the workers more than he deserved, and the other worker was treated unjustly by receiving less than the worker earned. Ideally the two workers should receive the same payment, and in a just society, everyone should work to keep these proportions equal.

Nevertheless, humans will always make mistakes and commit wrongs that destroy the proportion. So Aristotle includes one more type of justice: corrective. Unlike proportional justice, corrective justice measures the “amount of harm” that occurred within the exchanges and it serves to “[treat] both parties as equals”. Corrective justice differs in another respect as well: a righteous judge exercising justice attempts to equalize situations given in the court. If a person kills another, “the suffering and the action are distinguished as unequals,” so the judge steps in and tries to balance the loss that the victim experienced “by means of a penalty which removes the gain of the assailant”.

The judge acts as a type of mean because the judge tries to restore justice and harmony to the unjust cases. Having corrective justice in a society restores the loss of the offended and removes the gain that the perpetrator took. The restoration is important because the perpetrator who serves out the penalty can return to society and can still maintain a virtuous life. However, if the person continues to pursue these unjust actions, Aristotle would not consider the person as living a virtuous life if all the person does is spend time in jail, on parole, or whatever sentence the judge gives.

In order to live a virtuous life, a person must not only understand virtue, but must practice it throughout a person’s life and the person’s descendants. Both ethical and intellectual virtue connects to prudence, or the ability to deliberate well about what is good and bad for a person.

While ethical virtues such as bravery, generosity and good temper are important habitual dispositions essential to living a virtuous life, it is justice that Aristotle acknowledges as the most complete virtue because it incorporates all of the other ones. By neglecting any given virtue, the person also breaches justice as well. To pursue the virtuous life means that a person ought to follow the law and pursue virtuous actions.

Aristotle’s conception of the virtuous life serves as a strong foundation for the way in which citizens ought to conduct their lives. We must turn to the Politics to understand Aristotle’s conception of the polis, a term that will be defined in the next chapter, and how the virtuous life fits into the polis.