Review and Critique of Book 4 of the Eudemian Ethics

Aristotle’s Book 4 on the Eudemian Ethics focuses on the matter of Justice. Aristotle explains that Justice is a desire to do what is just. In this sense it eclipses the previous virtues because rather than exercise a virtue solely in relation to himself, as is the case with the Relative Mean in Virtue, a man who seeks Justice does so in relation to his neighbour. Such that, in this sense of the term, Justice can be said to be “someone else’s good”.

Aristotle then reviews the types of Justice available;

  • Distributive – Justice dispensed in geometric proportion to a determined ratio, usually in relation to stature such as honour or wealth
  • Rectificatory – Justice dispensed in arithmetical proportion as a mean between loss and gain
  • Reciprocity – tit-for-tat exchange of either ills or pleasantries to either break or bind communities
  • Natural – that there is a natural law universal to all
  • Legal – that there is a conventional law agreed between parties

Finally Aristotle clarifies the difference between a just man and a man who commits just acts as well as examining the problem of voluntary being treated unjustly.

To task, then!

The Just as the Lawful

Aristotle begins his enquiry into Justice with the following statement about what it actually is, “We see that everyone means by justice a state of character such as to make people disposed to do what is just, and to make them act justly and to want to do what is just; and similarly by injustice a state that makes them act unjustly and want to do what is unjust.” Yet this alone is not a sufficient definition of what is either just or unjust, for it only describes which act conforms to which state. Aristotle continues, “Let us start, then, by asking in how many senses a man may be called unjust. Both a lawbreaker and a covetous cheat are regarded as unjust, so clearly both a law-abiding person and a fair-minded person will be just. Hence what is just is what is lawful and fair, and what is unjust is what is unlawful and unfair.” This fairness must be in relation to some principle or some person for there to be any transgression or retention of the rule. Again Aristotle provides further clarification, “This justice, then, is complete virtue, considered not in the abstract but in relation to one’s neighbour. This is why justice is often regarded as the greatest of virtues… and it is complete virtue par excellence because it is the actual exercise of complete virtue. And it is complete because a person who possesses it can exercise his virtue not just by himself but also in relation to his neighbour, unlike the many people who can exercise virtue in their own affairs but not in their relations with their neighbour.” Also, please consider, “This, too, is the reason why justice, alone of the virtues, is thought to be someone else’s good; for the just man acts in a way advantageous to someone else, whether a ruler or a comrade.” And to surmise, “Virtue is the disposition considered in the abstract, and justice is the disposition considered in relation to one’s neighbour.” It is easy to see why Aristotle rates justice so highly as it complements his theory that virtue must be practicable and justice is the pinnacle of practical virtue. And through its practicality it is beneficial to other people as opposed to meditating on the Forms of Good as offered by Plato. So we may say that justice is not only a Relative Mean in Virtue between loss and gain but it is also the act of benefiting a neighbour through application.

Distributive and Rectificatory Justice

Aristotle views Justice as a settlement of lots and begins by describing two separate techniques, these are Distributive and Rectificatory. In Distributive Justice the outstanding lot is distributed according to merit or what Aristotle gives as “according to desert”. Please consider, “Quarrels and complaints arise precisely when equals get unequal shares, or equal shares are awarded to people that are unequal. This is clear from the very expression ‘according to desert’.” He continues, “Justice, then, is a kind of proportion. Proportion is not a property only of the arithmetical numbers in the abstract, but also of number in general; it is an equality between rations, and involves at least four terms.” The four terms relate to the two parties and the two sets of goods between them. Aristotle consolidates his point with, “This, then, is what the just is, namely, what is proportional; the unjust is what violates the proportional. One share becomes too great and the other too small, as happens in practice; the man who acts unjustly has too much of what is good, and the man who suffers injustice has too little.” Aristotle describes a system of division by ratios but he does not say how these ratios are devised or who should enforce them. Aristotle even alludes to the point with his entry, “Even though not everyone means the same thing by desert. Democrats identify it with being born free, oligarchs with being wealthy or alternatively of noble stock; aristocrats identify it with virtue.” As a consensus is not given, nor is it stated how one should be reached, I must reject Aristotle’s Distributive Justice as a means to administer either Law or Justice. Therefore, it has no value in this discourse.

The other form of Justice is Rectificatory Justice. Aristotle states that Rectificatory Justice occurs in both voluntary and non-voluntary interactions but before we reach that stage we shall understand what Aristotle means by the term “Rectificatory”; “Since this kind of injustice is an inequality, the judge tries to equalise it. When one person has been struck and another struck the blow, or one person has been killed and another did the killing, doing and suffering have been unequally distributed, and the punishment is an attempt to restore equality by depriving the wrongdoer of his gain.” And to further cement the point, “Rectificatory justice, then, is the mean between loss and gain… What a judge does is to restore equality.” With regards to the voluntary and non-voluntary aspect Aristotle has this to say, “These terms, ‘loss’ and ‘gain’, come from voluntary exchange.” Followed by, “What is just, then, is a mean between one kind of gain and one kind of loss, namely those that are non-voluntary.” I do not see what relevance this has into the discourse on Rectificatory Justice but apparently it has significance to Aristotle. The choice of the word ‘namely’ even suggests that voluntary acts do occur as a mean which renders the whole statement nonsensical. What is clear from his enquiry into ethics is that Rectificatory Justice is a mean between loss and gain in relation to an injustice and administered by a judge in which equality is restored.

Justice in Exchange, Reciprocity

Aristotle now describes a third case of Justice, separate from both Distributive and Rectificatory. He alludes to the fact that the Pythagoreans maintained that the abstract of justice was ‘reciprocation to another’ but Aristotle rejects this, and declares that reciprocation is incompatible with either Distributive and Rectificatory Justice, on the basis that certain instances require no equalisation. The example he gives is thus, “If a public official strikes someone, he ought not to be struck in return, whereas if someone strikes a public official, he should not only be struck but also suffer punishment in addition.” Yet I find this hard to equate with any merit of Justice as a public official, in the context of ancient Greece, should only be striking a person who has been convicted of wrongdoing. If he freely strikes a man who has not been found guilty of a crime then the public official himself is liable to be struck and face further disciplinary action. I can only assume that in Aristotle’s aristocratic ideal a public official would not strike without reason but that is not what the text says. I find the next point helpful in understanding Aristotle’s views on reciprocity. Aristotle’s enquiry into reciprocity actually expresses itself to be a self-regulating arrangement; for example, please consider, “Proportional reciprocation is what holds a city together. There are two alternatives. Men may seek to return evil for evil, and if they cannot do so it feels like slavery. Or they may seek to return good for good, and if they cannot do so there is no such thing as commerce, and commerce is what binds them together.” Also, “When someone does you a favour, you should do one in return, and next time you should take the initiative by doing a favour yourself.” This self-regulation reads like an egalitarian society providing cohesion through honest commerce.

Also, please consider Aristotle’s account of money in this section, “If things are to be exchanged, they must somehow be capable of comparison. This is why money was invented, and it has become a kind of mean. For it is a measure of all things, including excess and defect: it tells us how many shoes are equal to a house or a ration of food.” And again, “Money, then, acting as a measure, makes goods commensurate and equalises them. Without exchange men would never have come together, and without equality there would never have been exchange, and without commensurability there would never have been equality… There must therefore be a unit, laid down by convention, and it is this that makes everything commensurable, since all things are measured by money.” What would Aristotle make of our current fiat currency that continuously devalues all previous settlements on human labour paid for in this increasing worthless currency? Regardless of a dead man’s perspective on current affairs his point on proportional return is reciprocal and binds the various parties together, “If there is first of all proportionate equality, and reciprocation takes place, then what is required will be achieved. If not, the bargain is not equal and the parties are not bound together, for the product of one may well be more valuable than the product of another, so that equalisation is called for.” Thus are people able to administer just transactions through transparency, and through transparency comes trust.

This is how Aristotle sums up his views on Justice, “So we have said what it is for something to be unjust and what it is for something to be just. Once these matters have been determined, it is clear that just action is a mean between acting unjustly and being unjustly treated; for one is having too much and the other too little. Justice is a kind of mean, but not in the same way as the other virtues; it is so because it hits the mean, while injustice reaches the extremes. Justice is the state that makes a just person do just deeds out of choice, and make just distributions, whether between himself and another, or between third parties. That is to say, he will not allot to himself what is desirable and less to his neighbour, nor will he do the reverse in the case of what is harmful.” In Aristotle’s eyes simply doing just acts is not enough, one must be a just person through deliberative choice and not by accident and demonstrate this by consistently distributing in accordance with the equalisation of what the victim has lost in comparison with what the aggressor has gained.

Natural and Legal Justice

Here Aristotle attempts to distinguish between Natural and Legal Justice. The distinction appears to be that Natural Justice occurs everywhere which grants it universality and that Legal, or Conventional, Justice is something which is agreed upon. The only example given for natural law is that fire burns in both Greece and Persia, as there is nothing implicit relating to justice in this statement I shall abandon the enquiry into Natural Justice. Instead, Aristotle has this to say about Conventional Justice, “Things whose justice is established by convention and utility are like units of measurements… Likewise, arrangements that are just not by nature but by human devising differ from place to place, since even political constitutions differ, even though there is only one that is everywhere by nature the best (aristocracy in Aristotle’s opinion, Politics IV.7-8).” Given that I deem the examples given insufficient to exonerate the inclusion of Natural Justice I shall state that Legal Justice is the only form available to us. Legal Justice codifies the rules of participation and equalisation as administered by a Judge. This Judge acts in accordance with Justice as a mean such that he is not only just with his distributions but validates his position as a Judge by undertaking just deeds.

It is important to Aristotle that administrators not only possess the necessary character to exercise impartial judgements but that they are also governed by law. Please consider his notes on tyrants, “That is why we do not allow a human being to be a ruler, but enthrone reason instead, because a human being acts in his own interests and turns into a tyrant. A ruler, on the other hand, is a guardian of justice and therefore equality also.  A ruler, if he is just, is seen to have no more than his share, for he does not allot to himself any greater share of what is good in the abstract, unless such a share is proportional to his merits. It is for others, then, that he labours, and that is why – as we said before – people say that justice is ‘someone else’s good’. For this reason a ruler must be recompensed, and his reward is honour and prestige, but those who are not satisfied with that turn into tyrants.” This statement leads to some contradictions, which may be a owing to the translation, as Aristotle declares that a ruler should not be a human being but then states the ruler as the guardian of justice. Instead, I believe that Aristotle wishes to include two checks on power; the first is to appoint the person least likely to abuse the position of Judge, the second is to govern his conduct by law – hence the term ‘enthrone reason instead’.

Justice and Choice

In this next passage Aristotle mentions the importance of choice in relation to justice and the various degrees of wrongdoing. Please remember that Aristotle is trying to distinguish between a person who is just and those who only display just actions. The distinction is made in reference to the difference between what is voluntary and what is choice. If we remember choice requires deliberation to which an end is set whereas voluntary is an act that is not deliberated upon. When a man acts voluntarily his action is just but when he acts deliberately the man himself is just. Allow us to begin with, “If what is just and what is unjust is as we have said, then a man acts unjustly if he does the appropriate acts voluntarily. When his action is not voluntary, it is neither unjust nor just save coincidentally, in the sense of doing some things that simply happen to be just or unjust.” Again he defines his stance on what is voluntary, “By voluntary I mean, as was said earlier, something within his power that a man does knowingly, making no mistake about the person his action affects, or how it is to take effect, or what will be its upshot. He must know, for instance, whom he is striking, with what and with what effect.” With a final note on choice, “Of our voluntary acts we do some with, and some without, choice; there is choice when we have deliberated beforehand, and otherwise there is no choice.” And yet I would argue that it is impossible to derive motive simply from the action (which is why courts prove people to be ‘guilty beyond all reasonable doubt’ and not ‘guilty in the absolute’). I think Aristotle believes that natural law is reason, yet this reason is reliant on education and formal examination to prove an understanding of it. Such institutions are not natural although it may be said that the laws they seek to describe, i.e. relating to the physical world, are. This does not answer our second problem which is how to measure a person’s acts by their intent. For Aristotle to be certain that an individual was leading a life in accordance with a self-declared aim that individual would have to submit a formal contract between himself and those who administered his conduct detailing his exact intentions, yet nowhere have I seen this mentioned thus far in Aristotle’s Ethics.

Let us now examine the various degrees of wrongdoing. Just as Aristotle debated over just actions versus just character he does so in relation to injustice. Please consider, “A misadventure is when injury takes place contrary to reasonable expectation; if the injury could have been foreseen, but takes place without malicious content, it is a mistake. When a man acts with awareness, but without deliberation, his act is an injustice. The actions I mean are those that are due to anger or other passions that are necessary or natural to human beings. When people do such harmful and wrongful acts, they do act unjustly and their deeds are unjust, yet this does not mean that they are themselves unjust or wicked, since the injury does not originate in depravity. But when a man inflicts an injury out of choice, then he is an unjust and depraved man.” Aristotle is willing to forgive an error but he is not willing to forgive a deliberative act designed to harm another. Again, I have no problem with Aristotle’s sentiment but it all comes down to a matter of proof. No one convicted of an unjust act is going to admit that it was part of a deliberative attempt to cause injury unless they wish to gain notoriety for the act. Therefore, it is impossible to establish whether or not each and every unjust act was committed in accordance with some plot and retain 100% accuracy.

In summary, Aristotle offers this closing statement into just and unjust acts, “But if a man harms another by choice, he acts unjustly; and it is unjust acts of this kind, where there is a violation of proportion or equality, that make the man that commits them an unjust man. Similarly, to be a just man you must act justly by choice; if you act merely voluntarily, then it is only your action that is just.”

Can a man be voluntarily treated unjustly?

This I hold to be Aristotle’s most interesting discussion in the chapter for in it I believe lies a contradiction. In this section Aristotle is seeking to defend the victim from the accusation that they voluntarily wished to be mistreated by saying that it is the originator of the action who is unjust. He begins by asking the question, “Can one be willingly treated unjustly, or is all suffering of injustice involuntary in the way that all doing of injustice is voluntary?” In this discourse Aristotle covers self-harm and suicide to defend his position, but rather curiously he does not mention slavery in the same sense. He has this to say about self-harm, “Suppose, further, that the incontinent person voluntarily harms himself: in that case he will be voluntarily the victim of unjust treatment, and thus it will be possible for a man to treat himself unjustly. But is it possible to treat oneself unjustly?” Aristotle answers his own question thusly, “For it is not the person to whom what is unjust happens who is the wrongdoer, but the person whose role is the voluntary performance of what is unjust, i.e. the originator of the action.” I agree with Aristotle’s premise and conclusion; self-harm is not the cause so the act is not voluntary – it is a response, an effect, to some other grievance. In this sense it is not willed but nor is it in line with incontinence – instead the origin is external to the individual. Rather interestingly Aristotle elaborates on his own definition of how injustice is inflicted. Please consider, “Perhaps our definition is inadequate: should we after ‘harming with knowledge of the victim, the means and the manner’ add ‘against the wish of the victim’?” Here Aristotle adds the concept of consent to suggest that the victim did not authorise the injustice in the first place. Yet this directly conflicts with his views on slavery, “What is just for a slave-owner or a father is not the same as justice between citizens, even though it resembles it; because there can be no injustice towards things that are one’s own.” That last statement, “there can be no injustice towards things that are one’s own,” invalidates any concept of consent Aristotle may claim to hold. Thus it appears to me that Aristotle considers consent an afterthought as long as it does not conflict with his concept of ownership.

Lastly, Aristotle speaks on the matter of suicide as injustice because although a man has not necessarily wronged himself he commits an injustice against the state, “A person who in a rage voluntarily cuts his own throat is acting against the bidding of reason and doing something that the law does not permit, and so he is acting unjustly. But unjustly to whom? To the state, surely, rather than himself.” The state? Why does the state lay claim to the happiness of man? Is this not a little perverse and pervasive? And what if a man lives in solitude? Who to then? But Aristotle isn’t the only moral philosopher to do this. Immanuel Kant too has the same views on suicide from the perspective that if suicide were a universal maxim all life would be destroyed (as we shall see later). What is it about our moral philosophers that prevents them from empowering consent? Is it that all these moral philosophers did not wish to take responsibility for such a grand liberation of ethics and instead passed such mandate over to the gods or a universal agreement? Did they even have courage for morality? As it existed in themselves? As a means of consent?

Equity, a corrective of legal justice

Lastly, in Book 4, Aristotle reviews the instance when a law is insufficient, “That is the essence of equity: it is a corrective of law when law is defective through universality. That is why not everything is regulated by law, because for some things it is not possible to lay down a law and instead there is need of a decree.” In response to this deficiency in law Aristotle notes that it is necessary to grant a means to act in accordance with the facts of the case and this requires an equitable man to distribute fairly, “That is the way in which decrees adapt themselves to the fats of the case. It is now evident, then, what equity is: it is itself just and is superior to one kind of justice. It is obvious also what kind of person the equitable man is: a person who chooses and performs equitable acts.”

Critique of Book 4

I find myself in agreement with Aristotle’s definition that justice is a superior virtue to all the other relative means thus far presented for the reason that it benefits others. And we must not confuse justice with charity for justice is a restoration of what has been lost whereas charity is a gift one has yet to possess. It returns esteem rather than grants it.

With regards to the three types of justice; Distributive, Rectificatory and Reciprocity I have the following to say: the only one that consistently requires a legislator is Rectificatory for that has a condition in need of equalisation in the courts. Regarding the other two; Distributive is an agreement of distribution based upon status and agreed between parties and Reciprocity is an equalisation through mutual benefit. Only when Reciprocity results in a disagreement or fraud is a legislator required, and then it becomes Rectificatory.

My views on natural justice not acquiring any merit into ethical law have already been mentioned and that conventional law, as agreed between peers, is the only thing to stand as law for no other can hold precedent over another by referring to a ‘natural law’ he himself cannot define and impose that on an unwilling individual – this amounts to tyranny.

On the matter of Justice and choice it has already noted that I don’t exercise free-will; I act in accordance with taste based upon my genetics (intelligence, disposition, health, happiness) and my external environment (language, culture, geography, parental guidance) all of which come before me which cannot be freely chosen before my birth. Yet, this does not mean I do not support the notion of deliberative action, I just assert that it takes places with reference to taste rather than free-will.

As stated above, my only major criticism of Book 4 is the contradiction concerning consent. I cannot fathom why this isn’t forefront in any dialogue concerning ethics. How can I be treated justly if my consent is not taken into consideration? It is the only means by which I can legitimately state my aversion and declare under which conditions I want to be engaged. Is it because it conflicts with Aristotle’s premise that Aristocracy is the best form of government, or Kant’s assertion that duty-bound ethics overrides any esteem I have? It is ridiculous to think such ethical systems exist that refute the importance of consent and instead mandate justice as some kind of ownership of the individual which he himself has not authorised.

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