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Aristotle’s Justice Interpretations

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In book V of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the entire theme of this section is directly dedicated towards the different aspects of justice. It seems odd, considering justice isn’t listed in the virtues that Aristotle underlines, that it gets its own book dedicated toward its importance. Aristotle says that Justice is special in this aspect. Justice is the compilation of all of the virtues working in accordance with one another. It is the ultimate virtue. Aristotle categorizes different kinds of justice and explains what each consist of and how they impact interactions between individuals and society. He talks about justice in terms of distribution, correction, and finally reciprocity. Although, there are two distinct forms of justice, being universal and particular. Universal justice is concerned with obeying laws and with virtue as a whole, while particular consists of two parts.

There are different forms of particular justice: distributive, correctional and reciprocity. Distributive justice deals with the distribution of wealth among the members of a community. It employs geometric proportion with its practice. What each person receives is directly proportional to his or her merit, so a good person will receive more than a bad person will. This justice is a virtuous mean between the vices of giving more than a person deserves and giving less. This form of justice is underlined with the geometrical sense, and coinciding with proportional aspects. “The just in this case, then, is the proportional; the unjust is what is contrary to the proportion”(Aristotle 1131b 17-18). It would be unjust to give someone else more than another person, when their merit represents that they should be treated the same. This implies that an unjust person in the distributive sense, would distribute money or goods or whatever it may be, not in accordance with the individuals merit; making the distribution unjust by giving more to the bad person than the good person. Someone in society who portrays better and more just merit and preservation of virtue should always receive more

than the person who does not preserve these morals and uphold their merits. Can this form of justice be flawed in some sense? The way this may seem problematic is when you input the aspect of law and the intention of laws into this same scenario. Aristotle claims that the law is supposed to be made to urge people to do the right thing (roughly speaking). The only problem with this is that what if a person were to not uphold merit or perform just actions, but they still get away with it. They aren’t punished by the law, therefore tragically disrupting the system of distributive justice. This is where the aspect of correctional justice can perhaps set things straight.

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Correctional justice remedies unequal distributions of gain and loss between two people and is underlined by arithmetic aspects rather than geometrical, unlike distributive justice. “The just in transactions is a certain equality, and the unjust a certain inequality, yet not in accord with the proportion just indicated, but in accord with an arithmetic one”(Aristotle 1132b 33-35). Rectification may be called for in cases of injustice involving voluntary transactions like trade or involuntary transactions like theft or assault. Justice is restored in a court case, where the judge ensures that the gains and losses of both parties are equaled out, therefore restoring a mean. So when this injustice of taking from another person, and benefitting from this gain does happen, there is a form of justice to combat this. The law’s treatment of differences through harm inflicted and its attempt to restore a situation to equality. In such cases like these, something must be taken away from the one who has more and given to the one who has less. This is a prime example of how Aristotle’s definition of justice is in direct relation to your interaction between other people, and how your other virtues all collimate to shine light on the justness of your personality. The whole purpose of this correctional form of justice is to achieve a state of equality among individuals and society. The final verdict of the transaction that took place will make the fortunes of the people involved equal in all of its power. Though this may seem hard to do in every case scenario, it is a very thought provoking and realistic aspect of justice that Aristotle emphasizes with this form of justice. The only conflicting idea with this thought process is one that we see in a lot of cases and verdicts even in present day. Say someone is convicted of murder, and they are sentenced to life imprisonment. Is this an equal exchange? Some would say yes, and others no. Perhaps other people would like to murder the original offender in exchange for the life they took from society in the original murder. It is a very touchy subject, but a real one none the less. Overall, this aspect of correctional justice is a very important part of achieving justice amongst a society.

The third aspect of justice worthy of discussion throughout book V would definitely be justice through reciprocity. This is also a form of particular justice, but is a topic that consists of even more conversation in order to understand and explain. To better understand what Aristotle understands about reciprocity, it is important to look at how he introduces it mathematically. Perhaps he is stressing that people tend to abide by the practice of “lex tallionis” or an eye for an eye. He may be implying that this is a very natural way of thinking amongst individuals, and it promotes a just manner in behavior. When thinking of this term it makes me reflect on another coined phrase to “treat others the way you’d like to be treated”. This sense of giving back to those who you are in debt, seems to quantify this sense of equality, much like the correctional form of justice. Although it does seem this can be followed with some discrepancy between reciprocity and what is actually just. “If a ruler strikes another, he ought not to be struck in return; but if someone were to strike a ruler, he ought to not only be struck but also punished”(Aristotle 1132b 29-31). But it also may be that the reason Aristotle introduced the Pythagorean approach is to show that justice IS reciprocity. He also goes onto demonstrate how reciprocity does not fit into either distributive or correctional, although it may seem similar. But like distributive and correctional forms of justice, reciprocity is only a species of some sorts regarding justice. He shows how reciprocity cannot cover all aspects and cases of justice. One example to bring to light is the doctor and the shoemaker. This relation between the two comes from the need of certain things throughout society. If one person needs something, then they are willing to engage in a trade of some sort to reciprocate the value of the good they received. The analogy of the doctor and the shoemaker underlines the issue Aristotle points out with the value of reciprocation with areas of expertise. If the shoemaker needed a heart transplant, and in return he would give the doctor 1,000 pairs of shoes, does that truly equate? The doctor doesn’t truly need that many pairs of shoes, and that isn’t worth as much as a heart transplant. So in this case scenario, the aspect of reciprocity is flawed. Aristotle then shows how an issue like this one can be solved, when he brings about his views on money and its importance in a society. Something that makes this concept even more confusing is how something like reciprocity is even considered a form of justice. Is it even a form of justice like the text in book V would suggest? Or is reciprocity merely a basic law of economics within society? It seems quite improbable that you can compare different quantities of goods in relation to one another through some mathematical equation.

In terms of relation to other philosophers on how they define justice, I think it is interesting to evaluate Aristotle in relation to Socrates. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates also talks about justice as being a form of salvation for a society when he brings about the ideas of the just city. It seems Aristotle is also describing justice on a larger scale than just an individual standpoint. This leads to the thought of justice only being possible through a cooperation from society as a whole. It also leads me to consider how important laws and regulations are for a society when trying to pursue justice in this sense. The main difference between these two philosophers is Aristotle takes a much more mathematical approach as compared to Socrates, as he derives justice from a pure philosophical point. Both bring about very interesting viewpoints, but in my own opinion I feel it is hard to calculate something as abstract as justice through mathematical proportions. This is where I would side with Socrates, but Aristotle does seem more precise with his different forms of justice that I feel Socrates was a bit too vague with only one pure form of justice. So it seems both have their strengths and weaknesses when assessing which one of the two provides a better explanation of what justice truly is and how to accomplish it.

In conclusion, Aristotle brings an entire new way of thinking about justice in the ways that he does so. He doesn’t only evaluate it from a philosophical standpoint, but also incorporates aspects of mathematical proportions to further prove his explanations. He is very precise with the different forms of justice in which he categorizes on different aspects of distributions and transactions that take place within a society. This it seems, is what truly sets Aristotle apart from the rest when considering the detail his explanations truly entail.

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Aristotle’s Justice Interpretations. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/aristotles-justice-interpretations/
“Aristotle’s Justice Interpretations.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/aristotles-justice-interpretations/
Aristotle’s Justice Interpretations. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/aristotles-justice-interpretations/> [Accessed 3 Feb. 2023].
Aristotle’s Justice Interpretations [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2023 Feb 3]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/aristotles-justice-interpretations/
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