Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics Summary and Analysis of Book Five

Section 1:

The commonly accepted opinion with respect to justice is that it is a disposition to be just, to do what is just, and to wish what is just. A disposition is often only understood by looking at its opposite, and so the discussion of justice will include an examination of injustice as well.

Section 2:

The unjust man is considered to be both someone who breaks laws and also someone who is grasping and unfair; the just man will therefore be a law-abiding and fair man. The unjust man is grasping in the sense that he seeks goods which are not goods in themselves, and often sacrifices higher goods for the sake of lesser goods.

Section 3:

All lawful things are in some sense just. Laws deal with matters that are commonly expedient with respect to virtue or honor; in this sense that which preserves happiness in a political community is called Œjust.' The law orders us to perform the actions of a virtuous man through certain commands and prohibitions.

Thus justice according to the law is complete virtue but not in the unqualified sense. For this reason justice is often thought to be the best of the virtues, since the end of justice is that of complete virtue. The just man acts for what is expedient for someone else. The worst man is one whose evil habits affect both himself and his friends, while the best man is one whose virtue is directed to others rather than himself. This kind of justice is the whole of virtue, and its contrary is the whole of vice.

The difference between this kind of justice and virtue is that justice is defined in relation to something, but virtue in itself is without qualification.

Section 4:

Let us now look at justice as a part of virtue. To be unjust in the specific sense is to act avariciously or to make undeserved gain (not out of intemperence or anger or any other vice but out of some sort of wickedness. Both justice in the specific sense and justice as the whole of virtue are defined in relation to other people, but justice in the specific sense is concerned with honor, property, safety and similar things, while justice in the larger sense is concerned with virtue as a whole.

Section 5:

The just can be distinguished into the lawful and the fair. Now, most lawful things are done by the whole of virtue, since the law orders us to live in accordance with each virtue and prohibits us from living according to vice. Lawful things which produce the whole of virtue are concerned with education for the common good. It is by virtue of education that a man becomes good without qualification. But we have to determine later whether education belongs to politics or to another inquiry, since a good man may not always be the same as a good citizen.

One kind of justice in the narrow sense concerns itself with the distribution of honor and property, another kind regards paying debts and giving just restitution for harms inflicted.

Section 6:

Justice (in the narrow sense) is a mean between two extremes of unfairness. What is just in distribution should be in some way according to merit, but not all agree what that merit should be. Advocates of mob rule say that this merit is freedom, oligarchs say that it is wealth, others say that it is good ancestry and aristocrats say that is virtue. What is just is to distribute things in proportion to merit.

Section 7:

That which is unjust (in the narrow sense) defies the proper proportion, since the person who acts unjustly gets a greater proportion of the good, while the person who is treated unjustly gets a smaller proportion.

The last of kind of justice to be discussed is corrective justice. In exchanges, the just is what is fair. It is a simply arithmetical proportion, since the both parties are treated as equals before the law in exchanges of goods, regardless of their merit. The judge restores equality to unequals. The just is a mean between a gain and a loss in exchanges which violate what is voluntary, and it is the possession of equal amounts before and after the exchange.

Section 8:

Some say that what is just without qualification is reciprocity. However, this definition is not correct with regard to either distributive or corrective justice. With regard to corrective justice, it is necessary to take into account whether it was voluntary or involuntary, and also who is doing harm to whom. Further, in associations that which is just is not based on arithmetical equality but on proportion.

Things that are exchanged need to be somehow comparable. This is why coins were invented. All good which are exchanged should be measured by some sort of standard coin, which represents a measure of human needs. The name coin ("nomisma) comes from the word for law, regulation or convention ("nomos"), since the value of a coin is by regulation. Mutual need is the basis for exchanges of goods. The value of money is also subject to a fluctuation in need.

Section 9:

Justice is a disposition to do what is just and to distribute good equitably, in accordance with an equitable proportion.

Section 10:

A man may act unjustly without being unjust; for example a man who commits adultery because of passion acts unjustly but is not unjust, but rather intemperate.

Justice politically exists among men who are free and equal and share their life for the sake of self-sufficiency. Since a ruler tends to take more than his due or to become a tyrant, we prefer to have rule according to a written document. The ruler by law is a guardian of what is just and a preserver of what is fair. Rulers who act in this way are just and should be given some honor or privilege; those who are unsatisfied with such rewards become tyrants.

What is unjust for a master or father is different, since there is no unqualified injustice towards that which belongs to oneself. A child is like a part of oneself, and no one intends to harm himself. Thus justice in a household is distinct from political justice.

Political justice may be natural or legal. If it has the same power everywhere and is not subject to opinion, is natural. But if it is something like a prisoner's ransom which could take many forms, it is legal.

Some think that the only justice which exists is legal justice, because they observe that the things which are just seem to be subject to change. Among the gods at least, the just is not subject to change at all. But even among us there is something which is just by nature, even if all of what is just is subject to change. To say that something exists by nature means that it is the same all or most of the time. It is natural for a human being to have five fingers, because except for rare exceptions all human beings have five fingers. The things which are just be convention are like standard measures which can vary from place to place, depending on the type of government. There is, however, only one form of government which is the best by nature.

A man acts justly or unjustly when he does just or unjust things voluntarily, but when he does them by accident he is not really acting justly or unjustly. A man is only blamed for an unjust thing when it is done voluntarily. What is done through ignorance, compulsion, or accident is not voluntary.

Voluntary actions can be intentional or unintentional, the difference being whether or not we have deliberated about them. A harm done contrary to calculation because of external source is a mishap; if the harm is unintended but is because of miscalculation, it is an error. If the person is acting knowingly but without previous deliberation, it is an unjust effect. But when a man does harm by intention, he is unjust and evil. Some acts done unintentionally are not pardonable, such as when they are done out of passion.

Section 11:

Is it possible for a man to voluntarily treat himself unjustly? It would seem that the incontinent man voluntarily harms himself. Yet even so, no one wishes to be treated unustly. In the case of the incontinent man, he actually acts against his own wish, for no one wishes what he considers not to be good.

Section 12:

In case of unjust distribution, it is the distributor and not the recipient who acts unjustly. For justice or injustice resides in the voluntarily performs the action.

Section 13:

Because it is easy to act unjustly, many think that to be just is also easy, and that wisdom is not necessary in order to know what is just. Yet they are mistaken. For to know how to be just is a greater task than to know what produces health. To be just or unjust is not simply to act justly or unjustly, but to have just or unjust dispositions.

Section 14:

Equity and the equitable are related to justice but are not the same. The equitable is just, but better than a certain kind of justice (that is, the kind of justice which is according to laws written universally which do not apply perfectly to all specific cases). While all laws are stated universally, in some cases such a universal statement is not correct. The law thus states most is mostly right, and in cases where the statement does not apply correctly it is just for the legislator or the judge to correct for the deficiency of the law, as long as what is done is in accordance with the intention of the lawmaker, even if it conflicts with the exact statement. The reason why some things do not come under the law is that it is impossible to lay down a law for certain things, and in these cases particular decrees may be necessary.

Section 15:

A man cannot act unjustly towards himself, as was previously discussed. When a man commits suicide, he acts unjustly and breaks the law, but he does not really act unjustly toward himself, but toward the state.

Acting unjustly is worse than being treated unjustly. By similarity, justice may present between parts of a man or members of the same household. For the rational part of the soul is distinguished from the nonrational part, and it is by looking at the person in this way that some think a man may be unjust to himself.


This chapter on justice brings together many of the key elements in The Ethics and also has profound implications for Aristotle's political theory. First, the discussion of justice as the whole of virtue implies the unity of the virtues. That is, a person cannot really have one virtue in its entirety without having all of the virtues in their entirety. Further, since the virtues are so united and interconnected, there can be no conflict between them. In certain situations it may seem that the action required by a certain virtue conflicts with the action required by another virtue, yet they are only superficially in conflict, since the virtues are ordered with relation to justice, which encompasses them all.

Another key aspect of this chapter is the distinction between natural justice and legal justice. Natural justice is the same in all times and places. It is, in a sense, comprised by the laws that order the universe and that order beings toward their ends. For human beings, that which is naturally just is that which is in accordance with right reason, that which will lead a person to his natural end of happiness. This was discussed previously in Chapter 1. Aristotle does admit that from observation it may difficult to see the existence of this natural justice. The reason is that governments vary and no perfect regime exists; thus there seem to be different definitions of justice implied by the laws of each regime. Legal justice is that which is just according to law; it ought to be in accordance with natural justice. These distinctions in types of justice are similar to the distinctions made in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas states that the positive law‹that is, the law as written by the state‹must be in accordance with the natural law, which is universal and unchanging. Further, like Aristotle, Aquinas points out that the laws of the state cover only those parts of the natural law which refer to the common good. Natural justice also protects human freedom and makes a person capable of acting well when the rules don't apply.

In theory, then, there exists a universal standard of natural justice which is unchangeable, but in practice there must always be a mix of natural justice and legal justice in the laws of the city. Therefore while the principles of natural justice don't change, natural justice in action varies because in applying natural justice conventional justice needs to be added.

The discussion about whether or not it is possible for a man to act unjustly to himself is highly revealing. Aristotle believes that it is impossible for a man to act unjustly to himself because no one voluntary wishes for anything that is not good. Implied in this belief is the idea that the human will is naturally directed toward the good, and that human beings do not voluntary and knowingly choose something that is an absolute evil, but rather that they choose a lesser good over a greater good. Thus the incontinent man who harms himself by allowing his passions to have free reign is not seeking anything evil, but is seeking goods in a disordered way. Yet the incontinent man does not really wish to do harm to himself; it is simply that in following his passions he is acting contrary to his own wishes by allowing the nonrational part of the soul to rule rather than the rational part which is supposed to direct his actions in accordance with right reason.

Underlying the commentary about laws in this chapter is the idea‹prominent in The Politics‹that laws have an important role in forming virtuous citizens. For this reason, The Ethics and The Politics cannot be properly understood in isolation from one another. Without knowledge of the virtues, and particularly of justice, it is impossible to know what a good regime is, since the end of politics is to live virtuously. Yet politics is important for ethics because it is only within the polis that a person learns how to live virtuously and can attain full virtue and happiness.