Aristotle’s Ethics

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In this essay we will be looking at Aristotle’s Ethics most importantly book v of his Nichomachean Ethics, which is concern with Justice. As a virtue theorist Aristotle believes that the best form of life is to cultivate virtue. There are different virtues and the way Aristotle defines virtue as the means between excess and efficiency. Aristotle begins by giving us varieties of justice, ” All men mean by justice that kind of state which makes people disposed to do what is just and make them act justly and wish for what is just; and similarly by injustice that state which makes them act unjust and which for what is unjust.

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( 1129a9) For Aristotle we can see from the above text that what he means by justice is this notion of having the character of justice is to occupy a kind of state like a state of being in which one is disposed to do just things and to act justly. We yet do not have a clear definition of what Aristotle means by justice, instead we are given a dose of what justice means in Aristotle’s society. He operates with a common conception of justice and during his time at the platonic school before he broke off the notion of justice was central to the discussion. We yet do not get a clear definition of what justice is but Aristotle does set a small side that the notion of sciences deals with contraries but ” a state of character is one of two contraries which does NOT produce the contrary results; e.g as a result of health we do not do what is the opposite of healthy, but only what is healthy.. (1129a13) In the same manner you have to notice the distinction between things which are just and which are unjust. What Aristotle is talking about when he talks about the contraries is the recognition that somethings are generated out of their contraries. What he argues is that this is not the case for the virtues or the case for justice. Aristotle also notes that it is possible to discriminate contrary conditions of character, so we can recognize that there are parts of our characters which are just and parts which are unjust, but there is a contrary relationship between the unjust and the just is not the same as that between hot and cold. The reason being is because you can’t have hot without cold and vice-versa.

Aristotle, seems to suggest that you don’t generate justice out of injustice even though you can discriminate these contrary conditions within character. Aristotle states ” if the one is vague or ambiguous then the contrary will also be vague or ambiguous. Meaning that justice depends to a certain degree on what character traits are recognized and being able to also recognize those contraries. Aristotle makes another distinction which says that the contrary between the just and the unjust is ambiguous. Where the just seems to be aligned with that which is lawful and the unjust with that which is unlawful. That is one way in which we can distinguish it but as book V continues Aristotle wants to be able to tighten his discussion and begins to get at the problem of being able to distinct between the just and the unjust. Aristotle states that there are different ways of looking at justice, on the one hand, we can think of justice as a complete excellence not as an absolute but in relation to others. Therefore, justice is a complete virtue but not a complete virtue in an absolute sense, rather it is a complete virtue or a virtue in relationship with others. What this means is that in Aristotle’s perspective justice requires that we have relationships with other people. Without the relationship of the other justice won’t be able to manifest or in a way exist. As stated in 1129b24 as follows; ‘ And therefore justice is often thought to be the greatest of excellence and neither evening nor morning star is so wonderful; and proverbially in justice is every excellence comprehended. There seems to be another notion of justice, that justice is a complete excellence in so far as to have justice in a full sense you must also have a variety of other excellences at play. Justice is an ultimate virtue I believe for Aristotle partially because it’s this idea of manifestation which requires a whole range of virtues which are already at play. So it seems to be quiet complete in that sense and complete in the final sense because remember the goal for Aristotle seems to be political science and social existence and justice is the virtue closely associated with that. Now we can make a clear distinction between what is general vs special justice and the question we might ask is what justice in the one which is a part of every excellence, or virtue? Aristotle recognizes that in order to act honestly is also to act justly. Since, even being honest is just how can we distinguish the notion of the complete general sense of justice as a virtue versus those particular forms of justice that are within the other virtues. Well since there seems to be two types of justices: Justice as an excellence in its entirety and there is justice which is a part of another excellence or part of a virtue.

We are also asked to consider the differences of vice. Aristotle gives us two different cases, on the one hand, imagine you have an adultery who makes money meaning that the receive compensation for acting wrongly, basically some pays someone else to have intimate sexual desires, or whatever we may call it. Then the second scenario is an adultery who looses money but is a person who acts out of self-indulgence and appetite. So from both scenario which seems to be the worse one? Well in scenario one we have someone who is being paid to commit adultery and in the second scenario we have someone who commits adultery but loses money, yet this person acted out of self-indulgence and appetite meaning that they had lustful desires and so forth. So who is worse? In scenario one we seem to have a case of injustice, since someone is receiving gain for acting wrongly all the while in scenario two we have a case of moral vice. That is one way in which we can split the difference between justice within the virtues. All in all this seems to make it clear that there are multiple forms of justice. Here we have a distinction of Aristotle on which we have divided the unjust into the unlawful and the unequal and the just into the lawful and equal. These distinctions become to be known as the distinction between particular justice/particular injustice vs justice in the full sense and the unjust in the full sense. What it seems to be here is that Aristotle keeps or wants to keep the notion of injustice in order to talk about the particularity of the unjust acts, so therefore, a person who is unjust is a person who is in a state of being which is not disposed towards justice but rather towards the vice justice. Ultimately we have a distinction between that which is particular and that which is universal? Maybe this is the distinction between the general and the particular and not the universal.

Aristotle maybe stated that the distinction is between the general and the particular and not the universal. The reason being is that he seems to be talking about the genus and the species. Let us look at one particular part of justice which concerns itself with the distribution of good or in other words what can be called distributive justice. Particular justice is about this scenario or that scenario or this or that relationship that two people may have with one another, or relationships that multiple people have with each other. Let us look at it this way, the particularity is concerned with the distribution of things, so Aristole introduces this distinction between the voluntary distribution and the involuntary distribution. The voluntary is talking about things like: sales, purchases, usury, pledging, lending, depositing, etc, but with reagrds to the involuntary we talk about things such as clandestine: theft, adultery, poisoning, enticements of slaves. One interesting thing to note here is the fact that When Aristotle looks at voluntary distribution he seems to be thinking in terms of economics, which would make sense since he is talking about the distribution of goods which is what economics is mainly concerned about. When thinking of voluntary he thinks mainly of things like sales and selling things and they’re all either neutral or positive terms, but when Aristotle talks about involuntary he doesn’t give us neutral examples of involuntary distribution of justice but maybe an example of involuntary would be taxes? Taxes could be an example of involuntary because it is voluntary when the law to tax is created by voluntary people but it is involuntary because it forces people to pay taxes.

Now distributive justice we can say is that part of justice which is concerned with the distribution of things and persons right. Now the just will be the intermediate between the more or less of equal distribute distribution. What Aristotle is thinking here is that our relationship to others is seen as critical to our thinking about justice and he seems to think this is correct. He lays out what he calls the four terms of justice that is in justice you seem to always have a relationship at least structurally between two people and then in relationship to two objects. Meaning that you seem to have one of these four terms person A, person B, object C, and object D in this notion Aristotle seems to be very informed from the platonic school as he goes into a mathematical relation which is determined by merit, that is figuring out what one deserves and what one does not deserve. Let us look at an example, for instance of being paid fairly, so if you work at a restaurant you have a relationship between yourself and the owner and then between there capital and your paycheck this seems to be a relationship in which you’re treated equally by those terms but to be justly is always determined by the merit of how long you worked or how good of a job you did. The problem though it how we determine merit. Aristotle seems to say that democracy seems to be concerned with merit insofar as it concerns the freemen and the multitude of people or freedom; Oligarchys merit is concerned with wealth, and aristocracy merit concerns excellence of virtue and self, Aristotle believes in Aristocracy.

Aristotle then goes on to talks about the proportionate nature of justice and here Aristotle thinks that they’re geometrically proportionate and proportion for him is concerned with the equality of ratios, Aristotle lays it out for us and says from A to B and from B to D and so forth. The way I understand it is that you can say that A and B are persons and C and D are objects and there is always an equality of relationship between them, however, that gets determined by merit. What we can say is the unjust is that the unjust is what violates the proportion. So what happens when justice violates the proportion? For Aristotle this is when we have to turn to rectificatory justice.

The notion of rectifying injustice. Aristotle does not use the notion of retribution because the goal of justice isn’t to punish for punishments sake or to punish the person as such but the goal of justice is to rectify the violation of proportionate equality. This is what injustice does that which breaks the proportion bonds that we have with other people. So this is why you talk about justice in terms of rectifying the loss of equality, since the just concerns equality and the unjust concerns inequality. Aristotle does make a distinction to talk about the fact that the just isn’t aligned with the law nor isn’t aligned with the ruler. “The law treats the parties as equal (1132a4). Meaning that even if there is someone who has a higher rank or a higher income than another, though they have a dispute with them the whole notion and them being wronged by another person such that no longer we are treated equally we go to the law. Then the judge adjudicates this and Aristotle’s notion is quote ” the judge tried to equalize things by means of the penalty, taking away from the gain of the assailant’ (1132a9). So if someone wrongs another financially and they go to civil court then the person who was wronged may get money from the person who wronged them. This seems to be notion of trying to balance the scales of justice. This is why in matter of dispute a judge is sought as intermediate. Now we can see that insofar as justice is a virtue it is the intermediate state between excess and deficiency in the same manner we have the judge who occupies an intermediate position between we can say the assailant and the victim. We can clearly see how Aristotle’s thinking on justice is really ruled by a sort of overriding tendency towards consistency. He states ” The equal is intermediate between the greater and the lesser according to arithmetical proportion. (1132b19). What he is trying to get at here is that the just in intermediate between a sort of gain and a sort of loss. Now with difficulty there is some crimes that are committed or some injuries that cannot be rectified, for instance someone who is raped that cannot be rectified because do you (1) have the other person raped, or (2) something else, but typically in justice we do not play fire with fire. The right thing to do would be to take that persons freedom to do other things since he or she raped someone. So the rectification of injuries happens in a multitude of ways and it seems to depend upon merit, circumstances, capacity and a whole sorts of other things. A person who gets murdered that cannot be rectified, either the person who committed the act must go to prison or they take their own life, so things don’t get rectified for the individual with the victim in the case of murder but there is a rectification procedure.

Here we may ask another question of what is justice in exchange. Some believe that justice is simply about having the reciprocity or reciprocal relations meaning an eye for an eye and this is what the Pythagoreans held is that ultimately this is what all justice is. For Aristotle, justice is an excellence and a virtue. Aristotle does recognize though that when we talk about associations of exchange reciprocal justice is what seems to bind the community, therefore at the core of economic justice there seems to be a sort of reciprocally. Reciprocal Reciprocity has to be in accordance proportion because remember Aristotle’s notion is that justice this mathematical proportion and so the reciprocity is clearly linked with this. Aristotle then gives us the shoemaker example ” Now proportionate return is secured by cross conjunction let A be the builder, B the shoemaker, and C a house, and D a shoe. The builder then must get from the shoemaker the latticework and must himself give in return his own if then the first is proportionate inequality of goods and then reciprocal action takes place the result we’ve mentioned will be affected but if not the bargain is not equal it does not hold for there is nothing to prevent the work of the one being better than that of the other they must therefore be equated. (1133a8-14). We can see that he takes the example we had before of the diagram and he plug and plays into this notion of exchange in order to make a strong case for it being a mathematical proportion. Basically bargains must be reciprocally equal and without reciprocity there can be no association of parties.

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Aristotle's Ethics. (2020, Mar 07). Retrieved from