Apr 8, 2012

Ethics Course Materials: Aristotle on Justice

A few entries back (here and here), I posted some materials I'd developed and uploaded into the course management system of which I make heavy use for both my online and my face-to-face Ethics classes.  This semester, because of all the work I'd put into creating modules on the specific lessons, texts, ideas, and thinkers last semester, much of what I've been doing has been tweaking and improving the modules I'd already designed. 

Still, there was some room for creating a few new modules from the ground up -- either filling in gaps I'd left last semester, or leading my students through texts newly added this semester.  One of those, which I teach is Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics book 5 -- the place where he most intensely and intensively examines the virtue of Justice and its corresponding vice of Injustice -- and I thought it might be of some interest or value to share. So, here are -- admittedly a bit longer than my usual posts -- portions of that module:

The Ambiguity of Justice

Aristotle writes of the term "justice" as being ambiguous, which means that the term has more than one meaning.  An example of an ambiguous term in Greek, one Aristotle uses, is the term "kleis" (key), which was used to denote both the key with which one locks or unlocks a door and the collar-bone (which resembles a key a bit).  An English example might be the term "seal", which can signify a certain kind of animal, the closure of an envelope, or something which one uses to make an impression in soft material.  It's easy in these sorts of cases to tell the different meanings apart.

When multiple meanings of a term are closer together -- that's the case with Justice and Injustice -- particularly when they're interconnected, it is easier to mix up the different meanings.  In fact, if they've not given much thought or study to what is being talked about, it may be difficult for some people to realize that the term actually does have more than one legitimate meaning.  Often this can lead to situations in which people end up arguing with each other -- and past each other -- about how to use the term, what it applies to, what is means or ought to mean. 

With terms like Justice or Injustice, some people might be tempted to think that they don't have any determinate meaning, that everyone just gives those terms a meaning they subjectively prefer.  There's a big difference between an idea being ambiguous because everyone has their own interpretation of it -- for instance of a modern work of art -- and the sort of ambiguity Aristotle thinks Justice has.  In another work, the Politics he writes of Justice as being something that many people become confused about, and get into arguments about with each other, precisely because they grasp only one side or part of Justice -- but think that they've got the whole idea.

What's needed in this sort of case is to clarify the different meanings of Justice and Injustice, and that's precisely one of the tasks Aristotle tackles in this book.  That sort of conceptual work is not just like coming up with different definitions to place under one heading in a dictionary entry, though -- in order to help us understand what Justice and Injustice actually are, he has to specify how the different kinds of justice are connected with each other.  He also has to clarify how Justice is connected with several other matters we've been studying:  the other virtues and vices, laws, equity, and what is voluntary and involuntary.

He also has to clarify how other closely related senses of Justice and Injustice, applied to persons, actions, and arrangements, differ from but are connected with each other -- and that's probably the best place for us to start.


Justice, Just Acts, and Being Just:

As with all of the virtues, Justice names a habitual disposition, a quality established within a person's character, built up by repeatedly doing just actions.  A just person -- someone who has the virtue of justice -- can be relied upon to behave justly, to choose just actions in situations calling for justice, and to do so because they want to do the just thing.  Likewise, a person who is actually unjust -- who has the vice of injustice -- can unfortunately also be counted on, but in this case to do unjust things, to give in to its temptations, to choose injustice, and to do so because they actually like or enjoy unjust actions.

As Aristotle puts it:

all men mean by justice that kind of state of character which makes people disposed to do what is just and makes them act justly and wish for what is just; and similarly by injustice that state which makes them act unjustly and wish for what is unjust.

So, that is one important sense of "just" and "unjust" -- applying to the person who has and acts according to the virtue of justice, and to the person who has and acts according to the vice of injustice.

We can also speak of a person doing something that is just or unjust, but not being just or unjust as a person -- i.e. not possessing the virtue of justice or the vice of injustice, but acting the way a just person in those circumstances would or the way an unjust person would.  If the person keeps doing unjust or just actions, of course, eventually he or she will come to develop those vicious or virtuous habitual dispositions.  But often, a person is morally in a state between virtue and vice.  Suffice it say at this point that a person might choose to do just actions, motivated solely or even mainly by the wish to avoid punishment -- and that person, while acting justly, is not just.  Put in another way, there is justice in his or her action, but not in that person

A person might also end up doing something that goes against what justice -- understood in one way or another -- requires or dictates, but he or she might not have intended that action, or its result -- or perhaps he or she was under the impression that what was being done was in fact something just.  In such cases as well, we can say that something unjust was done, but that the person was not unjust in doing the action.

Justice and Injustice can also be said about things besides people, dispositions, and actions -- for instance about social and political arrangements, relationships, policies and decisions.  One can speak about laws being just or unjust. 

All of this leaves open the questions:  what is Justice?  What is Injustice?  What do these mean specifically?  To find good answers to these, we have to look closely at the distinctions Aristotle himself makes.

Legal Justice:

One sense of Justice which Aristotle discusses early on in this book -- distinguishing it from fairness -- is being law-abiding, i.e. following or obeying the laws.  When applied to actions or to other things, we would call those lawful

Being the kind of person who habitually follows the laws, who does what the laws require one to do, who doesn't do what the laws forbid, would be to be just in this sense. Likewise, being the kind of person who habitually breaks the laws by not doing what the laws require, or by doing what the laws forbid, would be to be an unjust person.  A person might break the law without being unjust himself -- but breaking the law would itself be an unjust action.  Likewise, a person can obey the law without being just -- even so, obeying the law is a just action.

Why is obeying the law something just?  Aristotle gives two main reasons, and not all in the same place of the book.  One reason is because the laws have been made by the legislature -- the lawmakers -- for some purpose, for the common good or advantage, at least in some sense.  As Aristotle notes:

in one sense we call those acts just that tend to produce and preserve happiness and its components for the political society.

When the laws have been made well -- and it probably needs to added, when they are being enforced well, and judged well -- they embody a kind of justice.  So, following them means recognizing and doing justice in some sense.  Early on in the book, Aristotle calls this "lawful" or "legal" justice, and what he calls later on "political" justice includes this kind of justice expressed by laws.  Laws regulate relations between those who are more or less equals in society, to determine what is just, to keep them just -- of course, this does still raise the question about what actually is just, and this will involve some reference to justice in another sense of the term.

A second reason why obeying laws is justice in some sense is that the laws -- at least as Aristotle tends to see them -- require action in accordance with virtues, i.e. the kinds of actions that are generally done by someone who has virtue.  They also forbid actions associated with vices, i.e. the kinds of actions a vicious person can be expected to lapse into or to choose.

This also seems to raise some questions, not only about the connections between laws and virtues, but also about the relationship between justice and the other virtues.


Justice as Complete Virtue:

In one important sense, Aristotle says, justice is actually the whole of virtue.  This makes sense, since each of the virtues is a determinate way of doing the right things, being in the right condition, with respect to some sorts of good or bad things, and our actions, emotions, and desires in relation to those good or bad things.  Justice is also by its very nature concerned with right and wrong.  So, a just person would -- precisely because this would be the right thing -- act like a person who is virtuous in other respects, i.e. who has and acts in accordance with other virtues, like temperance, courage, generosity, good temper.

Aristotle makes one important clarification, however:  justice is complete virtue, but practiced in relation "towards another person,"  or "in relation to another person."  Justice in this sense -- doing what the other virtues do -- is beneficial to other people.  It's not exactly clear what Aristotle means by all of this, given that many of the virtues as he has described them would seem already to be directed towards other people -- generosity, good temper, wittiness being prime examples.  This might become more clear if we look at a few other things he says about justice as "complete virtue."
  • the person who is just exercises virtue not only in his or her own personal or private affairs, but also in relations towards another person, socially, more publicly.
  • when one is placed in a position of authority or leadership, a just person will behave virtuously in relation to those who he or she is in charge of, doing what is good for them.
Behaving viciously in relation to other people, not just in one's own affairs (e.g. being cowardly not just in something that is one's own concern, but in some matter where one's cowardice affects others) is in this sense the "whole of vice." 

Aristotle does make an important distinction in working out this notion of justice as complete virtue -- there's also justice as a specific virtue, injustice as a specific vice. The same good or bad action might reflect a given virtue more than justice or a given vice more than injustice, depending on the motivation of the person.

For instance, committing adultery with someone else's spouse might be an act which reflects a viciously intemperate disposition -- a person who desires physical pleasures too strongly and gives in to them when one shouldn't -- if the motive is simply to satisfy desire for sex.  On the other hand, if the motive is a desire to take more than one's fair share -- Aristotle uses the example of someone who gains money by such cheating -- then the adultery reflects a viciously unjust disposition.  This can be generalized to other unjust actions -- when they are done for the motive of gain, they are expressions of an unjust disposition. 

This in its turn opens up a set of other questions, which will lead us into several other senses of justice and injustice:  What does the unjust person desire?  What sorts of things do they want to gain?  And, how much is a fair share? 

Particular Justice:

When he starts discussing what he calls "particular justice," justice which Aristotle claims that there are two main types of this, but in the discussion which follows, it seems clear that he actually treats three distinct kinds of particular justice:  Distributive Justice, Rectificatory Justice, and Reciprocity.  No single one of these entirely encompasses justice, and in fact they support each other. 

As kinds of a virtue, all three of them can be understood in terms of key characteristics of Aristotelian virtue.  Each virtue has its specific subject matter.  Each virtue is a mean between two extremes.  And each virtue is a habitual disposition.

it is plain that just action is intermediate between acting unjustly and being unjustly treated; for the one is to have too much and the other to have too little. Justice is a kind of mean, but not in the same way as the other virtues, but because it relates to an intermediate amount, while injustice relates to the extremes. And justice is that in virtue of which the just man is said to be a doer, by choice, of that which is just, and one who will distribute either between himself and another or between two others not so as to give more of what is desirable to himself and less to his neighbor (and conversely with what is harmful), but so as to give what is equal in accordance with proportion; and similarly in distributing between two other persons.

The sorts of things that justice and injustice are typically concerned with are, as Aristotle tells us, goods "with which prosperity and adversity have to do" -- money, property, and other such tangible goods are one set of these.  Another are all those things falling under the broad rubric of "honor."  Safety or security from, or even a smaller share of, bad things are another sort of goods justice and injustice bear upon.  To these, we might add other goods like time, attention, affection, opportunities, positions or offices, even types of entertainment.

Let's look now at the three main kinds of "particular" justice:  Distributive Justice, Rectificatory Justice, and Reciprocity.

 (a) Distributive Justice:

Distributive justice has to do specifically how good things and bad things are distributed to different people.  It reflects a basic understanding about justice as fairness, namely that right allotments of good and bad things involve a recognition of and respect for equality and of proportion.

This, then, is what the just is -- the proportional; the unjust is what violates the proportion. Hence one term becomes too great, the other too small, as indeed happens in practice; for the man who acts unjustly has too much, and the man who is unjustly treated too little, of what is good. In the case of evil the reverse is true; for the lesser evil is reckoned a good in comparison with the greater evil, since the lesser evil is rather to be chosen than the greater, and what is worthy of choice is good, and what is worthier of choice a greater good.

When the people who are being given good things are more or less equal in whatever respect happens to be relevant -- for instance, as free citizens getting to vote -- then the distribution should be equal.  So, in the case of voting, each person gets one vote.  If everybody contributed more or less the same amount to the success of a project, then everyone should get roughly the same share of credit.  There are many types of case in which assigning or allotting everyone the same amount of whatever good or bad thing is being divided up is the just, the fair, the right thing to do.

If there are relevant ways in which people are not equal, then it would actually be unjust to simply give everyone the same amount.  So, for instance, different shareholders in a company have put different amounts of capital into the company, so they should get different dividends paid out to them.  The key is that the unequal amounts are allotted according to some sort of right or just proportion.

If becoming a doctor requires a much greater investment of one's time and money than becoming an insurance salesman or real estate broker, it is reasonable for the doctor to be paid more for his or her services.  If the person directing an enterprise takes on more responsibility, has to meet tougher qualifications, and has to log in more hours than the workers in the enterprise, it seems reasonable to think that the director not only ought to be paid more, but ought to have more of a voice in what goes on, and get more (perhaps a different kind of) credit for the success of the enterprise.

This kind of justice provides us one criterion for determining whether someone is a just or unjust person.  If a person characteristically takes more than the share that ought to be allotted to him or her, then that person is unjust.  If a person characteristically takes their fair share, that person is just.   It is well worth reflecting on why a person would take more than their fair amount., since this could occur for more than one reason.  They might have a desire to take more than the fair share, and indulge rather than resist that desire.  Over time, doing this will make the person vicious, and they will come to think that they ought to follow that desire.  Another way a person might overreach would be  in deciding that the share taken is the right amount, because they treat some irrelevant way in which they are equal or unequal to others as being relevant.

 (b) Rectificatory Justice

If Justice can be understood as a mean governing distribution of good or bad things -- one which assigns each person a proportionate amount of the good or bad things -- it can also be understood as a way of restoring the right proportion, the mean, when that has been unbalanced or even entirely destroyed through the unjust actions of some person -- or perhaps even through chance circumstances or a mistake on someone's part.  Setting things right is what "rectification" means.

One important difference between distributive justice and rectificatory justice, as Aristotle sees it is that, instead of being governed by some sort of proportion, rectificatory justice has to do with a kind of (almost mathematical) equality.  When one person has harmed another person, the person doing the harm has thereby gained, and has too much, and the person being harmed has lost, and has too little.  Rectificatory justice involves restoring the disrupted equality, typically by taking back from the one who has done harm and giving back to the one who has been harmed.

Another important difference is that rectificatory justice comes into play in what Aristotle calls "relations between people," when some part of that relation -- the goods or bad things involved -- have become unbalanced.   Interestingly, he points out that some of these relations are voluntarily entered into by both parties, while some are imposed by one party upon the other -- in that case, the person imposing it voluntarily enters into the relation, while the other person does not. 

The voluntary relations Aristotle discusses include business transactions like: "sale, purchase, loan for consumption, pledging, loan for use, depositing, letting."  There is no reason to confine this category to just those kinds of relations or transactions.  One might, for instance, think of a friendship as a voluntary relation.  A marriage would be another prime example.  In any of these, one person can take or get more than they deserve and the other person can get less -- or when it comes to bad things, one person might get stuck with too much, the other with too little.

What Aristotle calls "involuntary relations" actually correspond to what we typically call "crimes."  He divides them into two categories, those imposed by fraud and those by force -- which makes good sense, since in his view nobody would willingly choose to have these done to them in a relation with another person, so if someone wants to impose them, they must do so against an unwilling partner.  Among the "clandestine" ones, those of fraud, he includes: theft, adultery, poisoning, procuring, enticement of slaves, assassination, false witness," -- "assassination" meaning killing secretly, and "procuring" meaning what we now call "pimping," "prostituting" or "turning someone out."  Among the "violent" ones characterized by force, he includes: "assault, imprisonment, murder, robbery with violence, mutilation, abuse, insult."

Determining precisely where equality ought to lie in relations  -- and therefore what one ought to take from the person who has taken too much, and to give to the person who has too little -- is fairly easy to do when it is a matter of money or property.  The judge, the one setting matters right, just has to look at the amounts of money or goods that the person who has acted unjustly has taken from the person who has been wronged, and then make the person who took too much give that amount back.  It becomes somewhat less clear-cut when it is a matter of other kinds of harms.

(c) Justice as Reciprocity:

A third kind of particular justice, which Aristotle says is not the same as distributive or rectificatory justice, is Reciprocity -- literally, in the Greek, "the other suffering in return" (antipeponthos).  If someone strikes another, reciprocity would be that the striker be himself or herself struck by another.  If someone is good to another person, giving them a gift, then reciprocity demands that the other person give a gift in return.

The notion of justice as "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" reflects this conception of reciprocity.  When we talk about "poetic justice," i.e. when someone who does wrong in a certain way suffers that sort of wrong from someone else outside of the situation, or from the universe itself, that also expresses our sense of justice as reciprocity.  This is, as Aristotle notes, regarded by many as the essence of justice itself -- though that does turn out to be an oversimplistic view of justice. In some cases reciprocity will be at variance with other types of justice, which ought to be applied instead.

Aristotle does think that Reciprocity plays an important role in human relations and even in holding society together -- often, however, not reciprocity based on equality (one gets exactly what one gives), but based on proportionality.

Men seek to return either evil for evil-and if they can not do so, think their position mere slavery -- or good for good -- and if they cannot do so there is no exchange, but it is by exchange that they hold together.

People do not necessarily need to see exactly the same bad thing done to one who has done something bad to feel that justice has been done, but there is some sensed need that something bad be done to wrongdoers -- and this is different than just the equalization involved in rectificatory justice.

Likewise, as Aristotle notes, economic exchange -- of goods and services for each other -- involves proportionate reciprocity.  Both parties satisfy some demand or need on the part of the other, and they exchange goods and services by comparing them against each other -- interestingly, Aristotle explains the development of money as a means and unit of exchange on the basis of the need to be able to compare goods and services against each other, so as to be able to exchange them (as well as a way to preserve value for future exchange)

Equity and Justice:

A last kind of justice which Aristotle discusses in this book is what gets called "Equity" (epieikeia).  He starts out with a bit of a puzzle about how Equity and Justice are related to each other.  It seems that they're not exactly the same thing, but they are not generically different either.  Both of these states are acknowledged as good states of character -- so how is Equity different than Justice?

The solution to the puzzle is that Equity really is a type of justice, but it is also better than one kind of justice, and in fact opposes, changes, or softens the dictates of that kind of justice.  Equity is actually what Aristotle calls a "correction of legal justice," becoming involved when strictly following the law would produce some injustice, some additional wrong.  The problem, as Aristotle sees it is:

all law is universal but about some things it is not possible to make a universal statement which shall be correct. In those cases, then, in which it is necessary to speak universally, but not possible to do so correctly, the law takes the usual case, though it is not ignorant of the possibility of error. . . .  When the law speaks universally, then, and a case arises on it which is not covered by the universal statement, then it is right, where the legislator fails us and has erred by oversimplicity, to correct the omission, to say what the legislator himself would have said had he been present, and would have put into his law if he had known.

You might think of equity as a sort of principled flexibility, much like the "leaden rule" Aristotle compares it to, a type of flexible measuring device which could conform itself to items that were not exactly straight.  He does see this as a kind of virtuous disposition in a person.  The equitable person is one:

who chooses and does such acts, and is no stickler for his rights in a bad sense but tends to take less than his share though he has the law on his side. . . . and this state of character is equity, which is a sort of justice and not a different state of character.

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