Justice 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 the individual 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 common 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 article deals 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 will be taken.

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 socio-ethical aspects of the same, as well as the position of Aristotelian justice between 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 sub-categories, 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 endeavour 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 companion guides on the Nicomachean ethics and the Aristotelian concept of justice.

Before beginning 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 the Nicomachean Ethics on philosophical debate to this date (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 and the particular justice, will be briefly presented before the sub-categories 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), obviously referring to the different types of justice, mentioned previously.

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” (virtue), used by Huang, 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 particular 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 the 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 2013, 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 or compensatory justice, but we will also take a look at the role that just exchange and equality play in Aristotle’s concept of 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 2013, 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 understood as “need” or alternatively as “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.).

2 The Role of Justice in Aristotle’s Ethics

Now that Aristotelian justice and its subtypes have been sufficiently presented, the following chapter of this thesis will deal with its special position within the Nicomachean Ethics. It is worth investigating for (at least) three reasons: First, because of its position between law and justice; second, because of its special position between the other Aristotelian virtues, e.g. between ethics and diaonethics, the moral and intellectual virtues (cf. Winthrop 1978, p. 1202); and third, because of its validity both for the individual in particular and for society as a whole. These three features of Aristotelian justice(s) will be examined in more detail below.

2.1 Between Justice and Law – Aristotle’s Equality

Winthrop describes equality as initially contrasting with justice. Aristotle makes clear that justice (at least in the sense of the law) is not equal to equality. At the beginning of the fifth book of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle had approached justice through its opposite. Does this mean now that everything except the just is automatically unjust? This must be denied at least in the case of equality. Although it seems to be opposite to justice, it is merely another kind of justice, which fulfills an extremely important function, namely “as a necessary correction of legal justice and superior to it” (ibid., p. 1211). Guest II agrees with this statement and even goes so far as to claim that equality is generally seen as even something better than justice, but not always; E.g. not when “what is just ‘simply’ or ‘without qualification’ (1137a33-34, 1137b2-5 with 1137b11-13, 24-27).” (Guest II 2008, p. 15). Laws are generally universal, i.e., should be applicable to all persons and situations, but this cannot always be the case without doing an injustice, which would of course miss the point. What Aristotle refers to as “simply just” or “just without qualification” in the above quote can probably be related to the normally universal character of laws: If they make sense in the particular situation, the law retains its validity. If, however, the case arises that an injustice is inflicted by one of these universal laws, then equality must be “interposed” as a mediator in order to satisfy justice and the respective law(s) must be adjusted, at least temporarily – as far as necessary (cf. ibid.).

A similar interpretation can be found in Beever: Equality is here also a kind of mediator between legal or juridical and absolute justice. Absolute justice is what he calls particular justice in its entirety. For the sake of understanding, he gives the following example: “Suppose legal justice dictates that A is obliged to do X, but it is (all things considered) unjust to require A to do X. Legal justice is the part of morality that prescribes that A must do X; absolute justice is the part that allows A not to do X; and equity is the part that acts on legal justice to limit its effect, so that A does not actually have to do X. Equity, then, is not justice itself, but the part of morality that corrects the defects of legal justice.” (Beever 2004, p. 35).

Hughes defines Aristotle’s equality as a tool that is applied “when the outcome of applying a law in some unusual set of circumstances would in fact result in an injustice being done.” (Hughes 2013, p. 103). Thus, this tool is applied when the application of a law results in an injustice. This is said to be the case when a situation arises whose circumstances and course of events were not anticipated by the legislators. As a result, the law may no longer correspond to justice, at least in the sense of Beever’s absolute justice. Equity is supposed to resolve this discrepancy, similar to what Beever has already described: “To sum this up, Aristotle defines ‘the equitable’ (to epieikes) [‘] as a correction of the law where it is inadequate because it is universal. ” (ibid., p.104).

At this point, attention is necessarily drawn to the fact that this does not mean that a law should be permanently amended or even completely repealed in such a case. On the contrary, “to keep it as it is leaves open the possibility of prosecution” (ibid.), should this be appropriate in the particular case. Hughes explains this vividly with the example of the legal status of euthanasia in England, which is basically illegal. However, if euthanasia was performed due to ” genuine compassion and care for the would-be suicide” (ibid. p. 105), the court may choose not to impose a penalty. However, if this has not been the case, the relevant instrument of the legislature is free to impose a corresponding penalty on the basis of the law against assisted suicide, which would not be possible if this law did not exist (cf. ibid. p.104 f.). This example makes it clear that equality is merely intended to provide for a more flexible application of the laws established by justice, rather than to permanently override them (cf. Winthrop 1987, p. 1211). As has been illustrated in the chapter on general equity, laws should be guided by the common good of society and, ideally, should fulfill this purpose in most cases. Thus, if a law guarantees the common good in general and this only does not apply in exceptional cases, in which equality must then again be interposed, then the law basically fulfills its purpose and does not need to be amended.

Finally, I would like to quote Chroust & Osborn on the relationship between equality and justice: “Equality, like moral justice, is a social virtue, and this social nature, common to both moral justice and equality, furnishes further proof that they are not two different virtues but merely two aspects of the same virtue.” (Chroust & Osborn 1942, p. 134). Equality and justice, because of their “social nature” are thus both merely two sides of the same coin in the Aristotelian theory of justice and necessary for the existence of a just society.

Apart from justice, Aristotle also deals with other virtues in his Nicomachean Ethics, which he considers essential for the function, existence and development of both the individual and society. In the following subchapter, the special position of justice among these virtues will be examined in more detail.

2.2 Justice between Aristotle’s other Virtues

As mentioned in Chapter 1, Aristotle’s understanding of the term virtue differs from ours. So if virtue cannot be understood in its modern sense, how can the term be defined? “He [Aristotle] said that “a virtue is the best arrangement, character or ability of something useful or available” (Aristotle 1883, 1218b40-1219a1).” or in other words “the praiseworthy and valuable character” (Huang 2007, p. 267). Here, Huang cites wisdom and munificence as examples of such virtues. One can therefore conclude from this that the author basically defines a specific virtue as a good character trait, or all virtues in general united in one person as “the best character” (cf. ibid.).

According to Trude, the virtues themselves arise from the human need to attain happiness. In order to achieve this goal, which is common to all human beings, certain criteria must be fulfilled, which the Aristotelian virtues, including above all “those concerned with thinking,” fulfill. Among these criteria is that the bliss “proceeds entirely from man and his faculties” or his “activities”: “This must be man’s own activity, since chance, independent of man’s will, cannot bring about the bliss 71). Likewise, it is necessary that the happiness has duration, that is, that it lasts throughout the whole life 72). Finally, bliss grants man the greatest pleasure 73).” (Trude 2016, p. 12).

Under this definition(s) of the virtues now also justice falls, to which as the only one among the moral virtues a complete book is dedicated (Winthrop 1978, p. 1202). In total, the treatment of justice makes up one tenth of the entire ethics (Cruzer 1995, p. 207).

Aristotle describes it as “a purposeful virtue, but not par excellence, but in relation to one’s fellow man. For this reason, justice is often considered the most excellent of the virtues” and further as “the perfect virtue, because it is the exercise of perfect virtue” (EN. 1129a 25-30). This also means that – at least in general – justice is not a mere part of virtue, but embodies virtue itself. As a reason for this special position of justice, Aristotle gives its reference “not only for itself” (ibid. c. 30 ff.), but also to the other members of a society. Justice is, “Unlike the other virtues […] about striking a balance between ourselves and others and it is not considered good simply because the practice of virtue is its own end.” (Guest II 2008, p. 10). Again, the emphasis is on the value of justice not only for oneself, but also for fellow human beings and the common good. Interestingly, Guest adds to this statement that Aristotelian justice is not “good” solely by virtue of being a virtue, but primarily by virtue of its impact on society, which further sets it apart from the other virtues (cf. ibid.).

Chroust and Osborn agree with this definition of justice as the highest of all virtues, but add that it is also the most difficult of all virtues, perhaps precisely because it is directed – at least in part – outward, to fellow human beings and to the common good of the state or society, and not merely to the individual. Difficulty may well be understood here in connection with the practical exercise of justice as a virtue. Furthermore, justice is called “the most perfect virtue because it is the practice of perfect virtue” (Chroust & Osborn 1942, p. 134). Thus, justice holds this special position among the virtues because its practice includes all other virtues, which may also contribute to the aforementioned special difficulty of justice as a virtue.

2.2.1 Justice between the moral and intellectual Virtues

Justice as a virtue finds itself in the curious position between the moral and intellectual virtues, ethike and diaonethike, both in terms of the structure of Nicomachean Ethics and because of its properties and subject matter: “This placement reflects the fact that it forms a bridge of sorts between them, not only because justice is shown to require discriminating judgment as well as good character, but because the analysis reveals that the ground of the moral virtues is problematic.” (Winthrop 1978, p. 1202). Trude describes the dianoethic virtues as the logical, intellectual, and thinking or reasoning virtues, opposite to the ethical virtues, which he describes as the practical, moral, and character virtues (cf. Trude 2016, p. 14). Justice, then, in order to fulfil its function as a virtue, must refer to qualities of both the moral and intellectual virtues. How exactly this takes place is vividly described by Curzer.

Curzer argues that general justice is not a virtue in the sense of the other Aristotelian virtues, as examples of which “courage, temperance, particular justice” are mentioned here. In contrast to these, general justice does not have a closed subject area and consists of “those aspects of all of the other virtues which pertain to other people” (Curzer 1995, p. 209). It thus incorporates aspects of all other virtues, which Curzer also knew how to depict pictorially (see Fig. 1 below). Particular justice would rather correspond to one of the other Aristotelian virtues than to general justice, since the latter would have a closed concept of justice, namely “cases of the distribution of the goods of fortune to others” (ibid.), as already pointed out in the chapters on distributive and compensatory justice. This results in the following diagram with the Aristotelian virtues on the left, and general justice parallel to the same on the right. This parallel position is meant to illustrate that general justice combines aspects of all the other virtues. Particular justice as well as nemesis are located as subtypes of general justice, but as full virtues in the sense of virtues on the left side of the diagram (at least in the case of particular justice), above general justice. Nemesis denotes a character trait that is mentioned only briefly in the EN and is uninteresting for the special position of justice among the Aristotelian virtues, since it is not a virtue (cf. ibid., p. 233 f.).

Fig. 1: Diagram 1 showing the relationship of General and Particular Justice to the other Aristotelian virtues.
In: Cruzer: Aristotle’s Account of the Virtue of Justice, p. 210).

Justice – although actually part of the moral virtues – thus also refers to the intellectual virtues, ethike and dianoethike.

2.2.2 Justice as a Virtue without a Median

According to Young, the Aristotelian virtues can generally be seen as a middle ground between two extremes. Whereas Aristotle’s teacher Plato still merely contrasted a virtue with a single vice, such as courage with cowardice, Aristotle argues that every virtue has one vice on either side. Thus, on the one side of courage would be cowardice and on the other side would be wantonness (cf. Hughes 20132 p. 87). But what should these two vices be at the extreme ends of the spectrum in justice? Injustice on one side stands to reason, but what is on the other side? According to Young, general justice does not meet this (and other) otherwise common criterion(s) of the other Aristotelian virtues and therefore cannot be understood as virtue in the sense of these other virtues (cf. Young 1988, p. 234 f.).

Hughes, on the other hand, argues that the emotional aspect of general justice, the intention to do the right thing, occupies the middle position between “not to care about doing the right thing at all” (Hughes 2013, p.93) and “some kind of scrupulosity, a pettifogging insistence on the letter of the law being observed to a ridiculous extent.” (ibid. p. 94). According to this definition, then, justice would meet the criterion of virtue as a means between two extremes.

2.3 Justice between Individual and Social Ethics

In his 2007 paper “Justice as a virtue: An analysis of Aristotle’s virtue of justice,” Huang defines Aristotelian justice as “an individual ethical virtue, differing from others for it is at the same time a social ethic.” (Huang 2007, p. 265). The author sees Aristotelian justice as situated between individual and social ethics, with elements relevant to both the individual and to the interaction of citizens within a social structure such as a society or a state. This becomes especially clear in the distinction between universal or general justice and specific or particular justice, whereby justice in the former, as was already shown in the previous subchapter, is to be equated with virtue in general and thus (also) carries a greater significance for the individual, and in the latter the legal relationships between several parties are the focus. For this reason, Huang also calls Aristotelian justice “a ‘non-individual-individual ethical virtue'” (ibid.).

This makes sense when one considers that Aristotle’s goal in writing the Nicomachean Ethics supposedly was to provide a guide to a good or virtuous life, here, of course, in terms of the Aristotelian virtues. This life is to be made possible in the first place by a society organized according to the same virtues (see Hughes 2013, p.243). While this principle applies to the totality of the Aristotelian virtues, it makes particular sense in the case of justice. Whoever wants to lead a (morally) good life must also act justly and whoever is wronged often needs help from others, e.g. a judge, to restore justice. For this it needs therefore a kind of institution, which determines laws after which judges and/or courts can judge. How this can be done in detail has already been sufficiently explained in chapter 2. Through this, Aristotelian justice receives both its individual and its social ethical aspect.

Aristotle’s justice in the social ethical sense is supposed to be “the grand embodiment of the moral vision of the political community and the guarantor of its happiness” (Guest II 2008, p. 9). In this context, it then makes perfect sense that a particularly virtuous individual would renounce “the good” to which he or she would be entitled by distributive justice, for the good of the state. If what is renounced is inconsequential to the individual in question and this renunciation is done for the sake of the virtuous character of this act itself, then both the state or society and the individual benefit. The former through the gain or preservation of the good and the latter through the virtuous action. Of course, it may also be that a person renounces his or her entitlement to his or her share of the good for some other reason, e.g., because of a prestige gain associated with that act (cf. ibid. p. 16 f.). Regardless of the motivation behind such an action, this example should make clear the interplay between the individual and society in Aristotle’s understanding of justice and how closely individual and social ethics are related here.

Chroust and Osburn see Aristotelian justice in the legal sense as principally addressed to others, i.e., to fellow human beings or to one another, i.e., concretely social ethical (cf. Chroust & Osborn 1942, pp. 129 f.). The authors even go so far as to claim that “the predicate ‘just'” deserves only “the ‘citizen,’ the ‘social man,’ the member of a socially organized society, and not the morally virtuous man,” i.e., they deny the existence of an individual-ethical component of justice, or at least hardly, if at all, acknowledge its importance (cf. ibid. p. 134 f.).


Aristotle’s treatment of justice begins with a reference to its ambiguity. After reading this article, it should have become sufficiently clear why the concept of justice is ambiguous, perhaps even more so than Aristotle himself was aware of when writing the Ethics.

According to Aristotle, justice can be broadly divided into two general types: The general and the particular justice. But at least the particular justice has again at least two subtypes, in the eyes of some authors even as many as five. Apart from the subtypes of Aristotelian justice presented in this paper, there has also been extensive discussion of political and natural justice and their position in the Nicomachean Ethics. Unfortunately, these manifestations of the Aristotelian concept of justice could not be discussed in more detail here, as this would go beyond the scope of this thesis. This is only to show how complex Aristotle’s concept of justice actually is.

Another aim of this work was to demonstrate how Aristotle saw justice and how he distinguished between the different types of justice. The most important point in this presentation was probably the already mentioned ambiguity, which shows that justice is not equal to justice and different situations also require different types of justice. And even then there can still be difficulties when it comes to what is now just, as has been shown in detail in the example of Aristotelian equality.

This brings me to the second goal of this thesis: To show how justice as a virtue occupies a special place within the Nicomachean Ethics.

A large part of Aristotle’s work is based on the Aristotelian virtues, which are considered necessary for the construction, maintenance and development of both the state or society and the individual. The structure of the Ethics alone indicates the special role that justice plays within this work. One tenth of the Nicomachean Ethics is devoted to the treatment of justice and its subspecies, a considerable proportion when one considers the number of virtues. However, the special position of justice becomes even clearer on the basis of its positioning between the moral and intellectual virtues, a circumstance Winthrop aptly described as “a bridge of sorts” (Winthrop 1978, p. 1202) between the two kinds of virtues. In Chapter Three, we detailed the ways in which Aristotelian justice relates to both the moral and intellectual virtues.

Also conspicuous is the apparent absence of the criterion of virtue as a means, if we disregard Hughes’s interpretation of justice as an emotionally motivated midpoint between “doing nothing” or “caring nothing” and pedantically following laws without any reflection on their rightness or justice.

Last but not least, the position of justice between social and individual ethics was dealt with. Virtues such as courage, which has already been used as an example in this thesis, clearly refer to the individual. Justice, on the other hand, applies to both the individual and society. An individual must act justly in order to live virtuously and thus well, and justice within society is necessary to make such a life possible in the first place. However, this justice at the societal level is in turn only possible if righteous individuals can occupy positions in the legislature, such as legislator and judge. Thus, the individual and social ethical aspects of Aristotelian justice are mutually dependent.

By highlighting these points, the special position of justice within the Nicomachean Ethics should have become clear. Again, different researchers have come to different results regarding the special nature of justice and not every result could be included in this work.

It would be interesting for the further investigation of Aristotle’s concept of justice to compare it with other works of Aristotle, such as the other ethics or politics, in order to establish a more comprehensive theory of justice according to Aristotle or also to investigate to what extent Aristotle’s concept of justice has changed in the course of time. However, the purpose of this thesis to present the ambiguity and distinctiveness of Aristotle’s justice should be fulfilled by the present remarks.

Primary Literature

  • Aristoteles: Nikomachische Ethik. Translated and published by Gernot Krapinger. Stuttgart2017 (Reclam Verlag).

Secondary Literature

  • Beever, A. (2004) ‘Aristotle on equity, law and justice.’, Legal theory., 10 (1). pp. 33-50.
  • Chroust, Anton-Hermann & Osborn David L.: Aristotle’s Conception of Justice, 17 Notre Dame L. Rev. 129 (1942).
  • Curzer, Howard J.: Apeiron: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science, Vol. 28, No. 3 (September1995), pp. 207-238.
  • Guest II, James W.: Justice as Lawfulness and Equity as a Virtue in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In: The Review of Politics 79 (2017), 1–22.
  • Dudenredaktion (Hrsg.). (o.J.).Vergeltung. Duden online. Abgerufen von: https://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/Vergeltung, letzter Abruf 13/01/2021.
  • HUANG, Xianzhong: Justice as a virtue: An analysis of Aristotle’s virtue of justice. In: Frontiers of Philosophy in China , April 2007, Vol. 2, No. 2 (April 2007), pp. 265-279
  • Hughes, Gerard J.: The Routledge Guidebook to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. London und New York 20132.
  • Höffe, Otfried: Gerechtigkeit. Eine philosophische Einführung, München 2001.
  • Knoll, Manuel: Die distributive Gerechtigkeit bei Platon und Aristoteles. In: Zeitschrift für Politik , März 2010, Neue Folge, Vol. 57, No. 1 (März 2010), pp. 3- 30
  • Trude, P. (2016). ” B. Das allgemeine Wesen der Gerechtigkeit als Tugend und ihre hieraus folgende Begründung und inhaltliche Bestimmung aus der Ethik”. In: Der Begriff der Gerechtigkeit in der aristotelischen Rechts- und Staatsphilosophie. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. doi: https://doi.org/10.1515/9783111531755-006
  • Winthrop, Delba: Aristotle and Theories of Justice. In: The American Political Science Review, Vol. 72, No. 4 (Dec., 1978), pp. 1201-1216.
  • Young, Charles M.: Aristotle On Justice. In: The Southern Journal of Philosophy (1988) Vol. XXVII, Supplement.


  • Abb. 1: Diagram 1 zur Darstellung der Beziehung von Allgemeiner und Partikularer Gerechtigkeit zu den anderen aristotelischen Tugenden. In: Curzer, Howard J.: Apeiron: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science, Vol. 28, No. 3 (September1995), pp. 207-238.
  • Featured Image: By © Hubertl / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48353342

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