2.1 – Aristotle on justice

Western philosophy starts to get substantial about the time of Plato and Aristotle, so let’s start there. Plato saw justice as merely order, which is boring and unhelpful. If a thing was ordered, it was just. So as long as the king as a good king who understood his place and controlled his subjects, who were good subjects who understood their places, things were just. He did make a very astute point though. Social justice within democracy is absurd because it has the ridiculous job of treating freeman, and therefore unequal men, as if they were equals. Think about this and consider how unworkable this situation is. A freeman necessarily makes his own way in the world and therefore will always be unequal to everyone else based on the unique choices he makes and very importantly, merit he thinks he is due. If social justice is then tasked with treating different freemen as equals it becomes absurd. So for the rest of this chapter, let us not forget that we are talking of social justice within liberty and that this is absurd when it tries to create equality, if you agree with Plato that is.

Given the aforementioned absurdity, real justice within liberty means inequality for people who are unequal. And here is where we start with Aristotle. The greatest philosopher of all time, naturally, saw this coming and built it into his theory of justice. For Aristotle, justice is equality “not for everyone, only for equals.” So two people who do roughly the same thing, should get roughly the same outcome. I want you to stop and pause for a second here and ask yourself the following question:

Does the scenario where two people who do roughly the same thing and get roughly the same outcome sound fair to you? What about when two people who do two very different things get different outcomes?  Please remember your answers because I’ll be asking this question again in a later blog.

We have to remember during the discussion on Aristotle that when we talk of justice, we are not talking about his ‘universal justice’. We are talking about the branch of ‘particular justice’ that he calls ‘distributive justice’. I think it is the sort of justice you would use to administer fairness within a society. Within such a context, ensuring that those who contribute the most to society (or as Aristotle would say, had the most virtue) receive the most reward may be good politics. Conversely, giving exactly equal shares to everyone no matter how much they strive on society’s behalf may seem uninspiring for the virtuous.

To Aristotle, a just man takes only what he is due because of his virtue. An unjust man takes more that his due. It is here that we must remember the lines always attributed to Aristotle, “equity according to merit” and “we become just by performing just acts”. Moral virtue and merit in Greek times is different from now. Thanks to Christianity, a homeless man may be as virtuous (or even more so) that a Nobel prize winner. If the homeless man gives a kidney to save a life while the Nobel prize winner commits tax avoidance, we might see the homeless man as having greater virtue. In Greek times, someone who was a really good poet or builder was seen as having virtue because of his great skill. The reason why he chose to be a good builder mattered not, he was considered virtuous and was rewarded based on merit.

Aristotle would make a distinction between two points of justice to help us solve our little castaway puzzle. Go back to what we were saying before, if you accept that people are naturally unequal, then it is just to treat them unequally. Imagine now that a third castaway arrives on our island. Castaway A does a lot of work, castaway B does a moderate amount of work and castaway C does very little work. It is just that A get a lot of wealth, B gets a moderate amount of wealth and C gets very little wealth. Aristotle would say that each castaway had different virtues (their workload in this case) and should receive wealth proportional to that virtue. In fact, Aristotle would say that Castaway A was an aristocrat and should rule the island and that his ruling is just. Why? Because he is the most virtuous. Justice gives wealth to those who deserve it most based on their virtue.

A very interesting point that must be raised at this point is that Aristotle seems to have no idea of human rights as we know them. It seems that if someone contributed zero to society (and so had zero virtue), they are entitled to zero. Today we believe that everyone (even convicted murderers) are owed their basic human needs. Nothing Aristotle says suggests he is aware of this principle. If fact, he believed that some people are intrinsically unable to match their virtue with that of others. Aristotle believes that women simply have less virtue that men and that makes them natural slaves. Clearly this is an enormous concept in modern society. I’ve seen things to suggest that he is wrong. Making some people inherently less than other denies both the natural rights of men and women and liberty for all.

And so we see that to the greatest philosopher of all time, virtue was paramount for a citizen. Wealth and happiness should be apportioned to citizens relative to the virtue they possess. Clearly the virtues in Ancient Greek times are different to modern day virtue, but is his theory all that false? Should we not reap what we sow? It does have the extraordinary benefit that the harder you work, the wealthier you become.

So we leave Aristotle with the knowledge that if justice tries to make individual’s equal within a free society, justice becomes unjust and is therefore absurd. Men should receive wealth based on merit but an unjust man takes more than his virtue merits. It does leave us in the thoroughly uncomfortable position that a person born disabled, and thus unable to serve society as well as someone born healthy, deserves less wealth (if any).

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