Aristotle and justice


WE come now to justice. A specific habit differs from a specific faculty or science, as each of the latter covers opposites, e.g. the science of health is also the science of sickness; whereas the habit of justice does not cover but is opposed to the habit of injustice. Justice itself is a term used in various senses; and the senses in which injustice is used vary correspondingly.

Injustice includes law-breaking, grasping and unfairness. Grasping is taking too much of what is good only; unfairness is concerned with both what is good and what is injurious. But in the legal sense, whatever law lays down is assumed to be just. Law, however, covers the whole field of virtuous action as it affects our neighbours, so that in this general sense justice is an inclusive term equivalent to righteousness. We, however, must confine ourselves to the specific sense of the terms. Grasping is, in fact, included in unfairness, which is the real opposite of specific justice; it includes law-breaking only so far as the law is broken for the sake of gain.

The justice with which we are concerned has two branches: distributive, of honours and the like among citizens by the State, and of private property by contract and agreement; and corrective, the remedying of unfair distribution. There are always two parties, and justice is the mean between the unfairness which favours A and the unfairness which favours B.

Distributive justice takes into consideration the merits of the parties; corrective justice is concerned only with restoring a balance which has been disturbed. The distribution is a question not of equality, but of right proportion; and this applies to retribution, which is recognized as one of its aspects, e.g. the retribution for an officer striking a private and for a private striking an officer. Proportional requital is the economic basis of society, arrived at by the existence of a comparatively unfluctuating currency which provides a criterion.

In the State, as such, justice is obtained from the law and its administrators; justice is the virtue of the magistrate. Since he has nothing to gain or lose himself, it has been supposed that justice is 'another's good,' not our own. In the family, justice does not come in, the whole household being, in a sense, parts of the pater familias; and as you cannot be unjust to yourself, you cannot be unjust to your household. In the State, what is just is fixed partly by the nature of things, partly by law or convention.

As to individual acts, injury may arise from a miscalculation, or from an incalculable accident; it becomes a wrong when it was intentional but not premeditated, an injustice when premeditated. An act prima facie unjust is not so if done with the free consent of the person injured. It is the agent of distribution, not the recipient, who is unjust (when they are different persons); and similarly, the agent, not the instrument. And even the agent of unjust distribution is not really unjust unless he was really actuated by motives of personal gain.

The performance of a particular act is easy. To perform it rightly as the outcome of a right habit, is not; nor is it easy to be confident as to what is right in the particular case. The man who is just, having the habit, does not find it easy to act unjustly.

What we must call equity may be opposed to justice but only in the legal sense of that term. It is justice freed from the errors incidental to the particular case, for which the law cannot provide. Injustice, again, is found in self-injury or suicide; which the law penalises, not because the individual thereby treats himself unjustly, but because he does an injustice to the community. It is only by metaphor that a man may be called unjust to himself, an expression which means that the relation between one part of him and another part of him is analogous to the unjust relation between persons.

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