Book V, Aristotle
Justice can mean either lawfulness or fairness, since injustice is lawlessness and unfairness. The
laws encourage people to behave virtuously, so the just person, who by definition is lawful, will
necessarily be virtuous. Virtue differs from justice because it deals with one’s moral state, while
justice deals with one’s relations with others. Universal justice is that state of a person who is
generally lawful and fair. Particular justice deals with the “divisible” goods of honor, money, and
safety, where one person’s gain of such goods results in a corresponding loss by someone else.
There are two forms of particular justice: distributive and rectificatory. Distributive justice deals
with the distribution of wealth among the members of a community. It employs geometric
proportion: what each person receives is directly proportional to his or her merit, so a good
person will receive more than a bad person. This justice is a virtuous mean between the vices of
giving more than a person deserves and giving less.
Rectificatory justice remedies unequal distributions of gain and loss between two people.
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, thus restoring a mean.
Justice must be distributed proportionately. For instance, a shoemaker and a farmer cannot
exchange one shoe for one harvest, since shoes and harvests are not of equal value. Rather, the
shoemaker would have to give a number of shoes proportional in value to the crops the farmer
provides. Money reflects the demand placed on various goods and allows for just exchanges.
Political justice and domestic justice are related but distinct. Political justice is governed by the
rule of law, while domestic justice relies more on respect. Political justice is based in part on
natural law, which is the same for all people, and in part on particular legal conventions, which
vary from place to place.
An agent is responsible only for acts of injustice performed voluntarily. We call injustice done
out of ignorance “mistakes,” injustice done because plans went awry “misadventures,” and
injustice done knowingly but without premeditation “injuries.” Ignorance is an excuse only if it
is reasonably unavoidable.
Aristotle reasons that no one can willingly suffer an injustice and that when goods are unjustly
distributed, the distributor is more culpable than the person who receives the largest share.
People mistakenly think that justice is an easy matter, as it simply requires obedience to
laws. However, true justice comes only from a virtuous disposition, and those lacking in virtue
are unable to perceive the just course of action in all cases.
Laws may not always be perfectly applicable. In particular circumstances in which the laws do
not produce perfect justice, equity is necessary to mend the imbalance. Therefore, equity is
superior to legal justice but inferior to absolute justice. It is impossible to treat oneself unjustly. Injustice involves one person gaining at another’s
expense, so it requires at least two people. Even in the case of suicide, it is not the victim, but the
state, that suffers an injustice.
Justice, for Aristotle, consists of restoring or maintaining a proper balance. He hardly
distinguishes the justice that deals with criminal cases and the justice involved in legal commerce
except to call the former “involuntary” and the latter “voluntary.”
It might be difficult to see what a commercial transaction might have in common with a brutal
assault. For Aristotle, they both involve exchanges between two people in which one person
stands to gain unfair advantage and the other stands to receive an equivalent disadvantage. Since
justice deals with maintaining a proper balance, any case that might result in unfair advantage or
disadvantage is a concern of justice.
Though Aristotle considers justice to be a virtue, it is