Nicomachean Ethics - Book V Summary & Analysis

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Aristotle next turns to the topic of justice and what constitutes just or unjust actions. The state of justice in an individual is commonly thought of as the state where a person performs just acts and wishes for just things, Aristotle claims, and injustice is the opposite state. His discussion of justice will begin from these popular notions of the term. Here, as elsewhere, Aristotle uses already common beliefs to ground his philosophy in the practical world. He is very careful to ensure that his ethics does not violate any widely accepted notions lest it be rejected as impractical. He remarks that both justice and injustice are spoken of in many ways. An unfair person is sometimes called unjust, for example, as is a greedy person.

There are two types of justice, Aristotle claims, general justice and special justice. General justice is related to laws. Laws aim to provide for what is just in most circumstances, and deal with how one should properly act toward others according to the virtues. Furthermore, general justice is a complete virtue as it is the practice of not only what is proper in regards to oneself, but also toward others.

Special justice is the term Aristotle uses to refer to justice on a practical level, in particular justice as it is opposed by injustice and as it describes the actions of individuals. Aristotle once again raises the distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions regarding justice, which he will expand on later in the section.

Aristotle addresses the matter of fairness, first suggesting that what is fair is also just, and that what is unfair is unjust. Fairness is a kind of justice, and here Aristotle refers particularly to the distribution of things of worth. Using examples from geometry, Aristotle introduces the idea of proportion in fairness. What is fair is also proportionate and what is unfair is not proportionate.

This sense of proportion is carried over into another kind of justice that deals with transactions between people. Aristotle calls this "rectification," referring to the act of restoring proportion between two people. It is the role of a judge to restore proportion in the disputed transactions between two people. In the case where one person has taken more than he should from another, the judge's role is to properly restore what was taken to reach balance in the transaction.

Another type of justice applies to the value of things that are exchanged. This addresses the relative values of things that are exchanged for one another and the process of equalizing them through evaluation. For instance, a house is worth more than a shoe, but a large enough quantity of shoes would be equal to a house. Currency came about in order to facilitate this kind of evaluation and exchange, Aristotle writes.

Having demonstrated that justice and injustice are naturally concerned with proportion and balance, Aristotle turns to political justice. Before he begins, he suggests again that whether an action is voluntary or not is important to the question of justice. It is possible to perform an injustice without being unjust, he remarks. It is not the action itself that is unjust, he suggests, implying that motivation and knowledge play a role.

Political justice refers to how people within a community relate to one another justly or unjustly. Just relations between people are conducted in accordance with law, but Aristotle points out that the law and the judicial processes that uphold it exist because it is possible for injustice to occur. However, he repeats, just because something unjust occurs it does not always mean that an injustice exists.

Aristotle further divides political justice into natural and legal justice. Natural justice is universal and applies in all cases. Legal justice may vary from place to place and is based on law. Aristotle adds that natural justice may also be changeable, however. The main point of this section is to draw a distinction between what is unjust and what is an injustice. There are things that are "naturally" unjust without having actually occurred. It is when one of these things occurs that an injustice exists. Here again, Aristotle is drawing on abstract ideas and pulling them into the real world for applying them to real behavior. The same is true for the concept of a just thing and a just action.

Aristotle now returns to the notion of intent. An unjust thing only becomes an injustice when the person performing the unjust act does it willingly. If he performs an unjust act out of ignorance or by mere coincidence, it cannot mean that he himself is unjust, or even that an injustice has occurred. He cannot be blamed. Besides knowing what he is doing, a person must also know the person upon whom the unjust act is being perpetrated. It is a special crime in Aristotle's time to strike one's father, for instance. If a person strikes his father, but does not know the person is his father, then he cannot be blamed for his act. It might also be possible to do an unjust act with knowledge, but without consent, for example if someone takes your hand and forces you to strike someone else with it. This is also not injustice on the part of the person whose hand is actually striking the other person, because he is not doing it willingly.

Aristotle also introduces the kind of intent a person has in performing a potentially unjust act. It may be that a person strikes another with one outcome in mind, but a different outcome is achieved. This is also not injustice as Aristotle defines it. He discusses the act of deliberation as it applies to injustice. An unjust act performed without prior planning may still be an injustice, he states, as of course is one that is done with the plan to harm. Part of the judicial role is to determine the amount of blame based partly on the kind of intent and the amount of forethought.

Wishing not to contradict what can be observed in real life, Aristotle turns to some conceivably inconsistent ideas that might arise from his definition of justice and injustice. The first "puzzle" is whether an unjust act is an injustice if the person on the receiving end of the act receives it willingly. He concludes that nobody would willingly be harmed, and that injustice involves harm. By this definition, then, nobody can voluntarily suffer injustice.

Aristotle raises another puzzle. What happens when someone gives to another more than is just? If a person gives most of his money to another keeps less for himself, does he do injustice? On the other hand, perhaps the recipient does an injustice by accepting more than is due to him. Aristotle answers the puzzle with another question, which is whether it is possible to do injustice to oneself.

To explore this question, Aristotle uses the example of suicide. It is against the law to kill oneself, and this law is based in virtue. Murder performed willingly is an injustice if it meets the criteria Aristotle sets out earlier, and self-murder would seem, then, to be an injustice if it is carried out intentionally, is planned, and is done willingly. However, in this case, it is not the person who receives the injustice, but his community. Aristotle adds that if it were possible to do injustice to oneself, then it would be possible to suffer injustice willingly. This is not possible, however, as he has already shown, so therefore he concludes a person cannot do injustice to himself.

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