Friday, March 23, 2012

Aristotle and Justice

These days when we talk about "justice" we either mean the "Justice!" of the left, the overturning of oppression, or the equable workings of bourgeois justice, the disentangling of the mess of bankruptcy or the curbing of single young men with the criminal justice system.

But it is obvious from the Nichomachean Ethics that justice was a rather different concept back in ancient Greece.  For instance, Aristotle starts right off in Book V with his virtue-as-mean approach when he asks "what sort of mean justice is, and between what extremes the just act is intermediate."

These days, we don't talk about a "just act," except when discussing an Act of Congress.  But Aristotle says that by "justice" we mean "that kind of state of character which makes people disposed to do what is just and makes them act justly and wish for what is just".  What is he talking about?

He continues by defining the unjust man, as "grasping and unfair", as men that "pray for and pursue" the things they should not.  So on this argument we are talking about justice in relation to our neighbor.   Indeed he goes on to define justice as "another's good", doing "what is advantageous to another".  Thus the "worst man is he who exercises his wickedness both towards himself and towards his friends, and the best man is not he who exercises his virtue towards himself bu he who exercises it towards another; for this is a difficult task."

Then Aristotle goes on to discuss the two divisions of institutional justice: "in distributions of honor or money" and in "a rectifying part in transactions between man and man."  In distributive justice he calls for a distribution of equal when the parties are equal and unequal when the parties are unequal.  And the distribution must be "according to merit".  The only trouble is that people disagree about merit.  Democrats identify is "with the status of freeman", oligarchs with wealth or noble birth, and aristocrats with excellence.  Thus the just is "proportional; the unjust is what violates the proportion."

When we come to rectificatory justice, the idea of proportion is different.  Here we have an inequality created by a injury.  The job of a judge is to try to restore a damaged equality with a penalty.  The man who has committed the injury has made a gain, and the other party has suffered a loss.  The idea is to rebalance gain and loss, penalizing the man who has made an unjust gain: "therefore corrective justice will be the intermediate between loss and gain."

Some think that justice is "reciprocity," and Aristotle finds that the normal exchange of goods and services is inspired by this kind of justice.

But what about political justice, the relation of all this to men as citizens?  It requires, Aristotle says, "men who are free and... equal."  Given their propensity for injustice "we do not allow a man to rule, but rational principle, because a man behaves thus in his own interests and becomes a tyrant."  So in Aristotle's time as in our own, people wanted a government of laws, not of men.

The Marxists have made a big deal about "reification" the objectivification under capitalism of ideas and social relationships into things and commodities.  You can see their point.  Justice in our time is a much heavier and ponderous thing than it seemed to be for Aristotle.  And the blame for that must lie mostly with the Left, beginning with the Marxians, who want to make everything into a matter of justice and "reify" every issue into a monster government bureaucracy.  There is something in Aristotelian justice that is still ethereal and light as air.

That is a spirit that we should try to recapture for ourselves in the long journey to escape the ponderous mechanisms of justice under modern big government.

No comments:

Post a Comment