The Concept of Justice and its Role in Aristotelian Ethics

What is justice Societies have dealt with this question for millennia. It is therefore not surprising that Aristotle also thought about this and tried in several of his works to define justice, or rather, the different types of justice, and to find a way how societies as a whole and individuals individually in specific situations should deal with these different types of justice. Aristotle’s works, and among them his theories on justice, were again controversially discussed over the millennia and are still a very topical topic in philosophy today, especially on the basis of the ongoing discussion about John Rawls “A Theory of Justice” (1971), which refers, among other things, to elements of the representation of justice from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Hughes 20132, S. 105 f.).

This work should also deal with the investigation of justice within the Nicomachean Ethics. First of all, what Aristotle understands by justice and what types of justice he differentiates will be presented before a closer look at the peculiarity of justice in Aristotle’s work.

Special attention should be paid to the position of justice within the Nicomachean ethics. Large parts of Aristotle’s ethics are based on the Aristotelian virtues, and Aristotle’s concept of justice falls under this category of virtues. How exactly Aristotle’s concept of virtue can be defined will be discussed in more detail later. For the time being, it is only important to note that Aristotelian justice occupies a special position within these virtues for several reasons and that this point, among others, should be examined in detail in the second part of this work. However, other peculiarities of Aristotelian justice will also be discussed, including both the individual and social ethical aspects of the same, as well as the position of Aristotelian justice between law (in the sense of justice) and law, illustrated by means of Aristotelian equality.

In defining the various types of justice in the first part of this paper, I will rely largely on Hughes’ division of particular justice. In most cases, a distinction is only made between distributive and compensatory justice, but Hughes also differentiates between a few other subspecies, which should be discussed at least briefly (cf. Hughes 20132 , p. 88 ff.). I will deviate from Hughes’s account in two places: First, “retribution” will not be dealt with in this work. Second, the equality highlighted by Hughes and, in this context, the relationship between law and statute in Aristotle will only be dealt with in the second part of this work, since this relationship belongs to the peculiarities of Aristotelian justice. Finally, I will briefly summarize the results of this work and draw a conclusion on the special position of justice.

In this project I will obviously rely on the Nicomachean Ethics itself, but of course also on relevant secondary literature, here mainly articles from philosophical and occasionally also legal journals, as well as accessories on the Nicomachean ethics and the Aristotelian concept of justice.

Before that, however, we should briefly point out a peculiarity of the Nicomachean ethics itself. What is now considered to be probably one of the most influential works of Aristotle was more a “work in progress” than a fully elaborated ethic. This applies both to the work as a whole and to the fifth book of the Nicomachean Ethics, which deals with justice. As a result, some aspects may appear less detailed than others, and some desirable topics may not be addressed at all. Even if the work leaves something to be desired in this sense, it is precisely because of this that it initiates discussion and contributes to the immense influence of ethics on the philosophical debate (cf. Hughes 20132, S. 9).

1 Justice

As mentioned briefly in the introduction, justice is one of the most topical issues in the history of philosophy. This is easy to understand if you ask yourself what justice actually is. Does justice equate with the law? What is right and what is wrong? Who decides about it? Can one basically act just or unjust and which external – or perhaps also internal – circumstances influence whether an action is just or unjust?

Aristotle deals with these and other questions in the fifth book of his Nicomachean Ethics, a work named after one of the sons of Aristotle, which deals with “political science”, as Aristotle calls ethics, as a whole (cf. EN. 1094a 24-29, 1094b 10-11).

In this chapter, the two main types of justice distinguished by Aristotle, the general or general and the particular or special justice, will be briefly presented before the sub-types of the latter are discussed in more detail.

1.1 General Justice

Aristotle introduces the fifth book of the Nicomachean Ethics by pointing out the ambiguity of the concept of justice (see Hughes 20132, p.). Because the different “meanings are close together, it [the ambiguity] escapes one more easily and is not so obvious as in the case of things that are far apart;” (EN. 1129A 25-30). What is meant here is the aforementioned general justice, as well as particular justice and its various subtypes, which we will discuss further in the next subsection.
Aristotle assumes that the essence of a thing can often be defined by determining its opposite, and this is also the case with justice. Thus, he does not begin by defining justice, but injustice, or the unjust man, who, according to Aristotle, “violates the laws, and likewise who wants to have more and is thus against equality;” (ibid., 30 ff.). From this it follows that justice, or the just man, embodies the exact opposite: “…he who respects the laws and equality” is just (ibid.). Thus, it seems that Aristotle equates justice with law, which could be justified by the fact that laws are usually oriented towards the common good and thus virtuous and can correspond to justice as virtue (cf. Guest II 2008, p. 6 f.).

With the term virtue, Aristotle relates general justice to the other virtues mentioned in the Nicomachean Ethics, on which most of the work is based in the first place. In part, the English-language literature also speaks of “Virtue Ethics” (Hughes 20132, p.68). Aristotle even goes so far as to equate justice with virtue as a whole, or with virtuous behavior per se, and not just as a part of the same. Trude introduces the second chapter of his work on the Aristotelian concept of justice with the statement that virtue, and thus justice, is the subject of Nicomachean ethics (cf. Trude 2016, p. 4). This can mean both that justice is the subject of this work as one among many virtues, and that justice is to be equated with virtue as a whole, as was already the case with Huang. It is important to note here that the German word “Tugend” does not necessarily correspond to the Greek term “arete” used by Aristotle. According to Huang, the translation “good function” is more appropriate here, since the German word Tugend or its English equivalent “virtue” also carries moral connotations, which was not originally the case for Aristotle (cf. Huang 2007, p. 266). This alternative translation also clarifies Aristotle’s pragmatic view of justice. For reasons of continuity with the English- and German-language literature, however, the term virtue will continue to be used in this thesis. Justice as such a virtue will be discussed in more detail in chapter three. At this point, it should only be pointed out that the ambiguity of the Aristotelian concept of justice does not stop at the division into general and particular justice, but also and especially comes into play in the understanding of justice as a virtue. For now, let us continue to look at the definition of the Aristotelian concept of justice.

According to Hughes, a just person in the sense of Aristotle’s teacher Plato can be equated with a “good” person. This kind of person is defined as “has a balanced set of desires and aggressive instincts, all of which are controlled and shaped by reason” and further with the statement that “The good person requires temperance and courage – the two cardinal virtues which include all the others – and both of these under the guidance of reason. It is this harmonious relationship in the soul that constitutes the third cardinal virtue, justice.” (Hughes 20132, p.). Justice in Plato, then, is a result of the relationship of moderation and courage, paralleling Aristotle’s general justice, as the latter also defines a just person by the possession of the virtues “moderation, courage and justice” (ibid.). Beever confirms that Aristotle equates the just person with the good person (cf. Beever 2004, p. 33).

Not referring to the individual, general justice is also roughly to be equated with the law, although Hughes correctly notes that this is a rather “optimistic”, if not naïve, point of view (cf. Hughes 20132, p. 91). The purpose of justice as a whole or in general, he argues, is the satisfaction or happiness of the people and the state as a whole, although, of course, the extent to which the various types of justice and the law in specific meet this purpose remains questionable (cf. Winthrop 1978, p. 1203). Here it is important to emphasize that it is not sufficient merely to act justly: “one has to wish to act rightly (1129a8-9). The word ‘wish’ here refers to the intention which the just person must have: they must be acting because it is the right thing to do. (Hughes 20132 p.93). Thus, the intention of the person acting plays as great a role as the action itself.

Unfortunately, Aristotle’s contribution to general justice falls relatively short in comparison to particular justice, to which we will turn in the next subchapter. The main difference between these two types of justice, according to Curzer, who seems to agree for the most part with Hughes and Winthrop’s statements above, lies in the following: “Irwin distinguishes general and particular justice by maintaining that general justice ‘aims at the common good of the political community . . . while particular justice insists on proper respect for particular people in the fair allocation of external goods.'” (Curzer 1995, p.214). However, it must be briefly mentioned that Curzer fundamentally contradicts Irwin’s statements and does not assume that general justice can be equated with law (cf. ibid.). The relationship between law and justice in Nicomachean ethics will be discussed in more detail in the third chapter of this thesis. For the time being, we will focus on the definition of particular justice and its subtypes according to Aristotle.

1.2 Particular Justice

According to Beever, particular justice is about allocating to persons what they are entitled to (cf. Beever 2004, p. 33). This may most likely be understood both literally and figuratively, as will be shown in a closer look at the different types of particular justice in the following chapter.

Winthrop expresses himself similarly, though probably more precisely: “This partial justice is justice in the sense of taking one’s equal or fair share of good and bad things.” (Winthrop 1978, p. 1203). That is, what one is justly entitled to refers to both good and bad things, both rewards or rewards and punishments. Guest II echoes this by stating, “justice is essentially giving and receiving an equal share of contested goods, and he emphasizes the just person’s motivation not only to see that others get what is due them, but also to receive what is considered “one’s own,” or what one deserves” (Guest II 2008, p. 11).

Interestingly, Aristotle is considered the discoverer of particular justice(s): ” ‘While general justice is familiar to the Greeks, the idea of justice as a virtue among other virtues, that of a particular justice (iustitia particularis), was probably discovered by Aristotle.'” (Knoll 2010, p.5 after Höffe 2001, p.23). Before Aristotle, then, the understanding of justice in terms of general justice seems to have prevailed, even though considerations in the direction of a more differentiated justice were already present in Aristotle’s teacher Plato, who undoubtedly inspired the former in many respects, as well as in the Pythagoreans. Knoll even goes so far as to claim that Plato already knew two of the particular justices (cf. ibid.).

According to Aristotle, all types of particular justice have in common that they deal with people who try to appropriate more than they are entitled to. Hughes also gives the etymology of the word used by Aristotle at this point for better understanding: “His word for this is pleonexia, and the person who is characterized by this is a pleonektēs. The derivation of both these words is simply from the two words for ‘more’ and ‘have’; the pleonektēs is best described in English as ‘grasping’ – or perhaps as ‘selfish’.” (Hughes 20132, p. 94). Particular justice thus possesses “some kind of unfair inequality,” in contrast to general justice, in which inequality or the motivation to enrich oneself play no role (cf. ibid.).

According to Knoll, “the more specific sense of justice […] consists in the requirement to abstain from pleonexia, that is, to refrain from appropriating for one’s own benefit the property of another – his property, reward, office – or from depriving a person of what is owed to him, such as the fulfillment of a promise, the repayment of a debt, or the showing of proper respect.” (Knoll 2010, p. 4). Here, the pleonexia mentioned earlier in Hughes is once again explained particularly well and, more importantly, vividly. Curzer equates particular injustice, i.e. the opposite of particular justice, which make the same and its subtypes necessary in the first place, with pleonexia and thus sees it, as it were, as the cause of particular justice (cf. Cruzer 1995, p. 215).

Roughly, particular justice can be divided into distributive and corrective justice, but we will also take a look at the role that just exchange and equality play in Aristotle’s justice (cf. Beever 2004, p. 33). We will, however, devote ourselves to the latter aspect only in the second part of this thesis in connection with Aristotle’s relation between justice and law.

Chroust and Osborn see the main difference between the two main types of particular justice in their subject matter: While in the case of distributive justice the persons themselves, or their role and position in society, play an important role, this aspect can be disregarded in the case of compensatory justice (cf. Chroust & Osborn, p. 135 f.). What they have in common, however, is that the necessity of these two subtypes arises from a kind of inequality, which in the case of distributive justice is solved by a “proportionate equality”, while in the case of compensatory justice a “strict equality” takes effect (cf. p. 136 f.). What exactly is meant by this and how these processes proceed in detail will be examined in the following treatment of these two subtypes of particular justice.

1.2.1 Distributive Justice

According to Winthrop, distributive justice provides the principles according to which “goods and honors in a political community” are distributed fairly (cf. Winthrop 1987, p. 1204). Knoll specifies, “If offices, honors, and public funds, or more generally rights and duties, are distributed to citizens in the polis, then distributive justice (iustitia distributiva) applies.” (Knoll 2010, p.6).

According to Hughes, the main issue here is “the distribution by the state of rewards, or honors, or burdens, perhaps, such as those of military service.” (Hughes 20132, p.94). In the same place, he explains what must be present in a violation of distributive justice: “two persons, and two amounts of some good or another.” (ibid.). Thus, it is a matter of the just distribution of both material and abstract “goods,” e.g., political or social titles of honor and offices, between two persons or parties, though Aristotle may have been thinking here of the abstract rather than the material goods. In the case of equitable distribution, these goods are distributed “in proportion to what they [the persons in question] deserve” (ibid.). The word “deserve” is particularly controversial here, since Aristotle leaves it open who exactly deserves what, and the fact that different people will have different opinions on this depends not least on the social background of the person in question (cf. ibid. and EN 1131a 20-29).

Knoll distinguishes distributive justice from compensatory justice, which will be examined in the next subchapter, as Chroust and Osborn did, by the object of the respective justice. In the latter, “contractual justice, the just exchange of goods and the compensation of injustice” are in the “center”, in the former, “the allocation of offices in the political community as well as the recognition that can be obtained through their exercise” (Knoll 2010, p.4 f.). Due to its focus on the political sphere, Knoll also refers to this subtype of particular justice as political justice (cf. ibid., p.6).

1.2.2 Equalising Justice

In contrast to distributive justice, according to Winthrop, compensatory justice is not about goods or about awards per se, but rather about correcting unjust or unequal contracts, which may have goods as their object, in a court of law. If contracting parties receive an unequal share of, say, the profits of a transaction by virtue of a previously made contract, this type of justice is intended to redress that type of inequality by correcting that contract. For this reason, compensatory justice is also called “corrective justice” in English (cf. Winthrop 1987, p. 1204).

Hughes sees compensatory justice in a similar way to Winthrop, which is made clear by the term “compensation” he uses to describe this subspecies of particular justice. He describes the initial situation in which this justice is applied as one in which someone has been harmed by another. It is now a question of the damage caused to the former being corrected by the latter. In this case, however, it may happen that the damage caused cannot be determined exactly, or at least not by both parties in agreement. For this reason, a mediator, a judge, is called in to help find appropriate compensation for the injured party. In contrast to distributive justice, in which – as we have already seen – many different factors play a role, the circumstances of the respective person or his or her character traits do not exert any particular influence on the manner of compensation (cf. Hughes 20132, p. 95).

According to Knoll, “compensatory justice (iustitia regulativa) regulates voluntary and involuntary private intercourse between citizens” (Knoll 2010, p. 6). It thus stands in contrast to the more politically oriented distributive justice. Balancing justice can be further divided into “exchange justice (iustitia commutativa)” and “judging or punishing justice (iustitia correctiva).” According to Knoll, corrective justice is thus merely a subspecies of compensatory justice, unlike that presented by Winthrop. Exchange justice or just exchange will be briefly discussed in more detail in the following subchapter.

1.2.3 Fair Exchange

At the outset, it should be pointed out that the equitable exchange of goods is, strictly speaking, a part of compensatory justice and thus follows the same principles (cf. Knoll 2010, p. 4).

Hughes, however, highlights this subtype of compensatory justice in his companion work to the Nicomachean Ethics, since it is not so easy to define what a just or fair exchange of goods should be. He draws on Aristotle’s example of how an exchange between a shoemaker and a construction worker should proceed. Admittedly, a single shoe or a single pair of shoes cannot be exchanged for a house. But how many pairs of shoes is a house worth exactly (cf. Hughes 20132, p. 97 ff.)?

Again, Aristotle speaks of the equality that must be established between both parties. According to him, money is used for this purpose, with which the value of different objects can be measured and put in relation to each other. Money, however, is only a placeholder for “need”, which in this case can probably be translated as need or want. The value of an object (or possibly also of a service) is basically determined by the need of a potential customer for this object and by the need of a potential seller of this object to sell the same, and can therefore also change depending on the “strength” of the need or need in one direction or the other, is therefore relative (cf. ibid.).

Even if this insight is also of an economic nature, according to Hughes, Aristotle is not concerned with this aspect, but rather with the question of whether a fair average value for both parties can be found in principle in an exchange or a trade of any kind, which can be affirmed on the basis of the previous presentation (cf. ibid.).

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