Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Nichomachean ethics

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Book V

Within the pages of , "The Nichomachean Ethics," Aristotle suggests that there are

very specific characteristics a society must have in order to survive. These characteristics

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are really the eleven moral and intellectual virtues that Aristotle describes within his book.

Of these virtues it can be said that all are very important, however, it can also be said that

the virtue of Justice is the most significant of all. In Book V of the Ethics, Aristotle goes

into a very in depth discussion of Justice and all of its aspects. In order to support this

claim of Justice's supremacy, I will first show the very significance of Justice to Aristotle's

arguments of society and regime success and where it ties in. Next I will show exactly

what questions Justice raises with Aristotle in his book. Thirdly, I will attempt to show

how these questions are answered or are attempted to be answered in Book V.

Aristotle is quick to point out in Book 5 that justice is always present. He says,

"For justice exists only between men whose mutual relations are governed by law; and law

exists for men between whom there is injustice; for legal justice is the discrimination of the

just and unjust."1 What he is saying here is that whenever there is unjust action between

people, there must still be justice present. Reason being is that the differentiation could not

be made between just and unjust actions if there was no sense of justice at all. The law that

a regime must have in order to survive has to be based upon a sense of justice, the

understanding of the difference between just and unjust. With this in mind, it would then

next be important to see that a place of total injustice simply could not exist. Imagine a

regime where anarchy was rampant and there appeared to be nothing but mistrust,

misdeeds and misdirection. Even in a land such as this there would have to be some

justice. Whoever would be in charge would have to have a certain amount of justice in

that they would have to entrust certain powers to a police or military personnel group. So

even those that plan nothing but terror must have even limited justice working within that

system. I use this example to illustrate why the virtue of justice is so significant. It does so

by showing that no matter what type of regime is in place, justice exists, therefore it must

be understood as it will always be present.

As was stated briefly above, the law that governs over people and their lives must

be derived from justice. As a form of justice, Aristotle also lines how the law must be

constructed for people to follow it in order to create a final sense of happiness. "And the

law bids us do both the acts of a brave man..., and those of a temperate men..., and those

of a good-tempered man..., and similarly with regard to the other virtues and forms of

wickedness, commanding some acts and forbidding others; and the rightly framed law

does this rightly, and the hastily conceived one less well. Aristotle says that the law,

although derived from justice, must still be created in a manner that will be integral in

maximizing the happiness of citizens. The law must instruct citizens to follow the other

virtues suggested by Aristotle and only that will lead to a system of law that will be

efficient in creating a stable regime. So with justice being the primary source of law and

with law suggesting that citizens following the other virtues, it would seem as though

justice is the tie that binds them all together. And without law, it is impossible to keep a

regime stable. That is why I would say that justice is key to Aristotle's arguments of

regime success and citizen happiness.

As big on justice as Aristotle is, he still raises some very serious questions as to it's

workability. On of these questions is that of what is right or equitable versus what is just.

For Aristotle, it does indeed seem as though what is equitable and what is just are indeed

very similar. "For on examination, they appear to be neither absolutely the same nor

generically different; and while we sometimes praise what is equitable and the equitable

man..." So for Aristotle they seem on the surface to be similar. However it is the fact that

they are still different that makes Aristotle start to raise some questions. "...at other times,

when we reason it out, it seems strange if the equitable, being something different from the

just, is yet praiseworthy; for either the just or the equitable is not good, if they are

different; if both are good, they are the same."4 So this is where he asks his question, if

what is equitable and what is just are different, then how can they both possible be


Thankfully, Aristotle provides the answer to that very question soon after. He first

says that, "What creates the problem is that the equitable is just, but not the legally just but

a correction of legal justice."5 So although equity is just in a sense, it does not conform to

the law standards of what just is defined as sometimes, and that is where the problem

really lies. An example of this would look much like the case where one man pokes out

another man's eye. The equitable thing to do would be to let the one eye man do the same

to his assailant. However the legal just says this is not correct. If this case were to go to

court, the judge would not say to poke the assailant's eye, he/she would instead suggest

some form of compensation. So here is where the debate begins. Aristotle goes on to say

that a problem with justice is that justice tries to be so absolute and that unfortunately it

cannot correct for that aspect of its existence.

However he also says that it is not the law or the legislators fault for this conflict.

"The reason is that 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. And it is none the less correct; for the error is

not in the law nor in the legislator but in the nature of the thing, since the matter of

practical affairs is of this kind from the start...Hence the equitable is just, and better than

one kind of justice - not better than absolute justice, but better than the error that arises

from the absoluteness of the statement."6 So there is the answer to Aristotle's question, it

is not any fault of equity or justice, it is instead just the way things are. Aristotle says that

equity is not the same as justice, instead, it is just a different kind of justice. No better than

absolute justice, just modified to help in situations where absolute justice has no correct

answer. That in itself he says is the nature of equity, to solve for what justice cannot.

Another question raised by Aristotle in Book V, is the question of can man treat

himself unjustly? It is apparent that one man can be unjust to another man, but Aristotle

asks if a man can truly be unjust to himself. Or more precisely he argues is it just to

commit suicide. To begin his argument of this, Aristotle first states that, "...the law does

not expressly permit suicide, and what it does not expressly permit it forbids."7 So

Aristotle lays it out that because the law does not say suicide is acceptable, it is then

deemed unacceptable. Later, Aristotle claims that when a person commits murder, they

are voluntary acting unjustly upon another without their permission and that is unjust.

"Again, when a man in violation of the law harms another...voluntarily, he acts unjustly,

and a voluntary agent is one who knows both the person he is affecting by his action and

the instrument he is using; and he who through anger voluntarily stabs himself does this

contrary to the right to life rule, and this the law does not allow; therefore he is acting

unjustly."8 So the question with suicide then becomes, can a person treat themselves

unjustly? Aristotle says that this instance is very unique in that you cannot commit

adultery with your own wife, and you cannot break into property that is your own so how

then can suicide be an unjust act upon ones self. He says that although it may not be the

man that suffers, there is something that suffers a loss. "But towards whom? Surely

towards the state, not towards himself. For he suffers voluntarily, but no one is voluntarily

treated unjustly. This is the reason why the state punishes; a certain loss of civil rights

attaches to the man who destroys himself, on the ground that he is treating the state

unjustly." So Aristotle says that although the man doesn't suffer, the state does. How can

it be that the state suffers? With an event such as this, the state does indeed suffer but in a

different way as would a person. The state now loses first and foremost a working hand in

the economy. A piece of he fabric of society who can work and buy goods can now no

longer help the society. Also, the loss of this person might affect other members of society

who in turn would be less motivated to work and less likely to buy goods. So as Aristotle

points out, the state does indeed suffer. So in order to help try and avoid this, the state

says it will punish those who commit this crime.

So For Aristotle, the question then becomes, "Can a man be voluntarily treated

unjustly?"10 For Aristotle, there is never a time when being unjustly treated is permissible.

Being unjustly treated for him means that someone is losing and someone else is gaining in

a manner that is not in line with the moral virtues. However, Aristotle does begin to

explain how it is that suicide could be permissible by saying that the situation is between a

man and certain parts of himself not the whole being as with dealing with another man.

That for Aristotle is the difference. "Metaphorically and in virtue of a certain resemblance

there is a justice, not indeed between a man and himself, but between certain parts of

him;...For these are the ratios in which the part of the soul that has a rational principle

stands to the irrational part; and it is with a view to these parts that people also think a

man can be unjust to himself, viz. because these parts are liable to suffer something

contrary to their respective desires; there is therefore thought to be a mutual justice

between them as ruler and ruled."11 So Aristotle says, a man can be unjust to himself in

that he has a rule over his parts and has the right to make unjust actions against them. For

a man has guidance over his parts, body and soul and if he decides willingly that they

should suffer, then in the end it is allowable to do so.

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