Justice in Aristotelian Ethics

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. 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 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 20132, 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,49 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 Aristotle’s 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 (see Trude 2016, p. 14). Justice, then, in order to fulfill 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 on p. 18). 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 two vices on either side. Thus, on the one side of courage would be cowardice and on the other side would be wantonness, in German already recognizable from the word or the etymology of the same (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 20132, 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 being 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 is 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 20132, 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 work, 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 like even 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.

The aim of this work was to show 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 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 the following part of 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

1 Comment

  1. muunyayo says:

    Reblogged this on Muunyayo .


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