Energy Quality – The missing Piece?

What follows below is a paper that I have written for submission to the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It examines the importance of Energy Return on Investment (ERoI) for advanced societies and suggests methods we can utilise to improve how we measure the quality of our energy sources. This paper was submitted today.

Executive Summary

Energy surplus is destiny. Our sources of energy must not only account for their own production costs but they must return sufficient energy to society for them to be of value. With surplus energy society can provide various services from employment, to healthcare, to entertainment. Having read both the Government’s Call for Evidence: A smart, flexible energy system and the Government’s Industrial Strategy: Green Paper I have observed an omission regarding energy quality. I would therefore like to explain the importance of energy quality, measured as Energy Return on Investment (ERoI), how it correlates with living standards and then offer suggestions as to how systems engineering should be utilised to address this oversight.


  1. Purpose
  2. Quality of Energy
  3. Why Should ERoI Concern Us?
  4. ERoI Data
  5. Sustainable Societies
  6. Alternative Measurements to ERoI
  7. Energy Systems
  8. Conclusion

1.     Purpose

The purpose of this paper is two-fold;

  1. To inform the authors of UK Energy Policy as to the importance of energy quality and its relationship to living standards.
  2. To provide system engineering solutions to address some of the issues raised in this paper.

2.     Quality of Energy

I have written this short paper to address a vital piece of the United Kingdom’s energy jigsaw that I believe has been omitted from the current dialogue – the quality of our energy sources. Recent media articles suggest a growing interest in both smart grid and smart city development. The Government has also recently issued a Call for Evidence on how best to implement a smart, flexible energy system. I believe the current initiative can be summarised as; “The Smart Grid aims to provide consumers with intelligent price signals to reduce the cost of electricity. At the same time it aims to provide the National Grid with an intelligent system balancing mechanism through Demand Side Response to avoid costs and fines.” Demand Side Response enables consumers to adjust demand in real-time which helps the National Grid soften both voltage peaks and troughs.

Complexities of this implementation aside, this paper shall focus on the quality of energy sources available to fuel any future power distribution system. I believe the envisaged power distribution system can be loosely shown as follows;

Image 1

Figure 1 – Simplified Power Distribution System

Having recently read both the Government’s Call for Evidence: A smart, flexible energy system and the Government’s Industrial Strategy: Green Paper I would like to raise a concern that hasn’t been addressed in either of the two papers – Energy Return on Investment (ERoI). ERoI is essentially a measure of the quality of an energy source, i.e. how many Joules are consumed in locating, extracting, refining, converting and delivering that energy source to a consumer compared to how many Joules are available to consume. It is presented as a ratio of the amount of usable energy delivered from a particular resource to the amount of usable energy consumed to obtain that resource. The difference is the surplus energy available to run an economy. It can be expressed as;

Formula 1

Several variations of ERoI exist depending upon how the boundaries are defined. For example;

  • Standard ERoI (ERoIST) is the standard ERoI approach that divides the energy output of a project by the embedded on-site energy costs (e.g. operating and equipment). However, it does not include the refinement, transportation, supporting labour or financial services costs.
  • Point of Use ERoI (ERoIPOU) not only includes ERoIST but also includes refinement and transportation energy costs to the point of use.
  • Extended ERoI (ERoIEXT) includes all of the above plus the ability to actually use the obtained energy, e.g. civil infrastructure such as transmission lines, supporting labour and financial services (debt servicing – e.g. where fiat currency is transacted energy is consumed).

A clearer way to depict this is shown in the Hall et al. (2013) diagram below;

Image 2

Figure 2 – Various Energy Return on Investment (ERoI) boundaries expressed pictorially (Hall et. al 2013)

This can also be expressed in formula terms as shown in Hall et al. (2009);

Formula 2,3 and 4

Lambert et al. (2013) provide a further ERoI methodology that seeks to analyse the ERoI of entire nation states. They call this the Societal ERoI (ERoISOC). The ERoISOC numerator, Energy Return (ER), is composed of a nation’s Gross Domestic Product (in USD) multiplied by the Mega Joule (MJ) per unit of energy used to generate that GDP. The denominator, Energy Investment (EI), the energy invested to produce the energy output, is composed of the total energy consumed by that nation in a given year (in MJ) multiplied by dollars per unit spent in the acquisition of that fuel. I’m assuming that the methodology has been derived in this manner because financial data is more readily available than energy data. Expressed in formula;

Formula 5

3.     Why Should ERoI Concern Us?

In Lambert et al.’s same paper, entitled “Energy, ERoI and Quality of Life”, they chart a number of indices against both Societal Energy Return on Investment (ERoISOC) and energy consumed per capita. These indexes include the Human Development Index (used by the United Nations to determine life expectancy, education and living standards), female literacy rates, gender inequality and % of children under 5 years old who are underweight. In order to maintain these indices at levels currently observed in developed nations the paper demonstrates that a minimum ERoISOC of 20:1 is required along with a minimum energy consumption of 120 Giga Joules per capita per annum. As a point of reference the UK consumed 125.06 GJ per capita in 2013. Should the ERoISOC for the United Kingdom fall below 20:1 and the energy consumed per capita per annum fall below 120 GJ then we should expect living standards to decline.

Image 3 & 4

Figures 3 & 4 – ERoISOC plotted against both Human Development Index (HDI) and % of children under 5 years old who are underweight (Lambert et. al 2013)

4.     ERoI Data

Given the target ERoISOC figure of 20:1 it is worth listing how our current energy sources perform. I have provided data from Raugei and Leccisi (2015) as their paper presents the range of electricity generation technologies deployed in the United Kingdom. The table is used for indication purposes only as the values within are by no means a consensus (see Hall et al. 2013). In fact, Raugei and Leccisi vastly overstate the ERoI for solar photovoltaic cells when compared to the EROIEXT analysis of Ferroni and Hopkirk (2016).


Electric Energy Source ERoI – Raugei and Leccisi
Coal 3.6#
Natural Gas Combined Cycle 14
Nuclear 30
Hydroelectric 58
Wind 18 (off-shore), 17 (on-shore)
Solar (PV) 8.6*

# Note: The UK generated just 2% of its electricity in the first half of 2017 from coal.

* Note: Solar photovoltaic systems perform poorly in areas of moderate insolation (which includes the United Kingdom). A comprehensive study by Ferroni and Hopkirk (2016), together with a defence of their original assessment, Ferroni et al. (2017), concludes that solar photovoltaic systems currently deployed in European countries north of the Swiss Alps are actually an energy sink with an ERoIEXT of 0.82:1.

As a means of comparison I have also included the Thermal ERoI for Oil and Gas (World) and Coal (US & Australia) from Hall et al. (2013). The purpose is to illustrate how efficient fossil fuels perform when consumed directly (e.g. inside internal combustion engines) as opposed to conversion into electricity. It should also be questioned as to whether or not environmental factors are included in the figures below.


Thermal Energy Source ERoI – Hall et al.
Coal (US & Australia) 46
Oil and Gas (World) 20

Of further importance to this analysis is that only 14.2% of the energy that the United Kingdom consumes comes in the form of electricity. Most of our energy sources are consumed directly, e.g. petroleum in car engines and natural gas in boilers and cookers.

It is not the purpose of this paper to paint one source of energy in a more favourable light than any other. Although hydrocarbon fuels have traditionally been higher quality energy sources compared with most renewables Hall et al. (2013) show a declining ERoI trend for Global Oil and Gas which peaked prior to the millennium before trending downwards (Figure 5).

Image 5

Figure 5 – Global Oil and Gas ERoI Values and Trends (1990 – 2010), (Hall et al. 2013)

Reviewing the younger Norwegian Oil Fields confirms the trend – global oil and gas ERoI is in decline (Figure 6).

Image 6

Figure 6 – ERoI Values from Various Countries (1990 – 2010), (Hall et al. 2013)

This declining trend poses challenges for our high ERoI societal demands. With the pivot from fossil fuels to renewable energy clearly in focus it must be understood how shifting from our traditionally reliable, high ERoI sources to intermittent, low ERoI sources will impact the quality of life in the United Kingdom. The graph I have produced below from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy June 2016 highlights global consumption of energy by type (Figure 7). The purpose is to demonstrate how reliant our current living standards are on fossil fuel consumption and the potential impacts a transition to renewal energy might impose. (Note: I have separated hydro-electric from renewables to better represent current electricity generation from wind, solar, tidal and biomass);

Image 7

Figure 7 – Annual Global Energy Consumption per Type of Energy Source (Source: BP Annual Review)

To further cement the relationship between ERoI and living conditions the table below provides some examples from the Lambert et al. (2013) paper. It is a list of nation states matched against their corresponding ERoISOC;


Nation State EROISOC
Brazil 18:1
Mexico 13:1
Pakistan 5:1
Nigeria 4:1

5.     Sustainable Societies

One might ask the question, “Why is a high ERoI important for high living standards?” The answer is simply that the surplus energy must be used to run the economy. That is, it must provide hospitals, medicine, safe drinking water, edible food, clothes, houses, law enforcement, prisons, pensions, transportation links, cancer research, education, electronic goods and so on.

Hall et al. (2009) ask the question, “What is the minimum ERoI that a Sustainable Society must have?” and conclude the following, Of course the 3:1 minimum ‘extended EROI’ that we calculate here is only a bare minimum for civilization. It would allow only for energy to run transportation or related systems, but would leave little discretionary surplus for all the things we value about civilization: art, medicine, education and so on.”

 Lambert et al 2013 adapted Maslow’s hierarchy of needs by mapping each level against a corresponding ERoI value (Figure 8). The values for the first three levels; Extract Energy, Refine Energy and Transportation are measured. The remaining values are estimates taken from Charles A.S. Hall’s Energy Return on Investment – Lecture Notes in Energy, 2017 (ISBN 978-3-319-47820-3).

 Image 8

Figure 8 – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs adapted by Lambert et al. 2013

6.     Alternative Measurements to ERoI

It is reasonable to expect challenges to the importance of ERoI in determining Energy Policy. One common challenge to the ERoI methodology is that future Energy Policy should focus on the monetary cost of alternative sources. In determining suitable energy sources for exploitation it is believed that the trending dollar costs ought to be the key metric. For example, the 2017 International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) Rethinking Energy paper makes the claim that “Since 2009, the prices for solar PV modules and wind turbines have fallen by up to 80% and 40% respectively.”

However, this follows the 2008 Global Financial Crisis which triggered deflation in the G7 nations – often referred to as the ‘Credit Crunch’ as private credit plateaued. This had the effect of decreasing the value of all commodities priced in US dollars including the world’s master resource, oil. Figure 9 from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shows the US dollar cost per barrel of oil from 1990 to 2016. Particular attention should be drawn to the period between 2007 and 2015 where the cost of oil dropped from a high of $130 per barrel to below $40 per barrel. This has the effect of lowering the cost of oil dependent products including photo-voltaic modules and wind turbines.

Image 9

Figure 9 – Cost of Brent Crude Oil priced in US Dollars from 1990 – 2016 (Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis)

As can be seen, using private credit stagnation and the resulting commodity price deflation as a metric to exaggerate efficiencies in solar panel and wind turbine production falsely represents the benefits that solar and wind power offer to society.

Another claim, made in the Executive Summary of DNV-GL’s 2017 Energy Transition Outlook paper, declares that energy use will ‘decouple’ from Gross Domestic Product due to accelerating energy efficiencies on a global scale – mostly through renewable sources. Figure 10 shows how the paper represents this graphically with the decoupling occurring in 2016.

Image 10

Figure 10 – A graph showing a GDP metric (global or regional?) decoupling from energy supply (DNV-GL)

Prior to 2016, DNV-GL’s position agrees with the position supported in this paper – i.e. that GDP and energy consumption are highly correlated. Figures 11 and 12 clearly show the correlation between higher energy consumption and higher GDP. Figure 11 compares global GDP to global energy consumption from 1969 to 2013 whereas Figure 12 plots the energy each nation state consumed against its GDP for the year 2000.

Image 11

Figure 11 – Global GDP vs Global Energy Consumption 1969 – 2013 (Gail Tverberg)

Image 12

Figure 12 – National GDP vs National Energy Consumption in 2000 (American Physics Society using Energy Information Administration data)

By making the case that GDP will ‘decouple’ from energy consumption due to global efficiencies it also implies that the following statement is true, “because energy consumption and GDP did not decouple at any point between 1969 and 2013 no global energy efficiency was realised”. Perhaps the authors of DNV-GL’s Energy Transition Outlook are unaware of the global switch from incandescent light bulbs to energy saving LED lighting…

The claim made in the DNV-GL Energy Transition Outlook paper ought not to pass without scrutiny – to quote, “Over the last few decades, we have seen developed countries succeed in decoupling economic growth from increased energy use.” Would it raise an eyebrow if this paper were to declare that the longevity of Homo Sapiens had decoupled from oxygen intake? The issue here is what we mean by the term ‘growth’. Typically it is defined as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which is a measure of all the goods and services a nation state produces within a given timeframe. However, this measurement does not give context to the debt structure which underpins it. Currently, the G7 nations have a combined debt burden (public and private) of $92.855 Trillion – this figure is derived from the Bank for International Settlements database comprising of credit to general government and credit to private non-financial sector from all sectors. Figure 13 shows the steady increase in debt necessary to sustain this alleged ‘growth’, doubling from $46.436 Trillion in 2000 to $92.855 Trillion at the end of 2016.

Image 13

Figure 13 – Combined Public and Private Debt of G7 Nations since 2000. Public debt is defined as ‘Credit to General Government from All Sectors’. Private debt is defined as ‘Credit to private non-financial sector from all sectors – households, non-profit institutions serving households and private non-financial corporations’. (Source: BIS total credit statistics.)

The purpose of reviewing common alternatives to the ERoI methodology is to highlight just how damaging they can be to Energy Policy decisions. By using ERoI as a foundation for Energy Policy we can be assured that our measuring stick remains constant, i.e. we are simply measuring Joules in vs Joules out to determine quality. This will allow the United Kingdom to develop a robust and efficient Energy Policy.

7.     Energy Systems

If those who determine the United Kingdom’s Energy Policy are convinced as to the importance of energy quality the next step is to define a method for addressing the problem. Energy availability and distribution is fundamentally a systems problem. Our most basic model, the ecological system, is a relationship between biotic and abiotic components. Biotic components, such as plants and bacteria, interact with abiotic components, such as water, light and radiation. Biotic components that are able to secure an adequate abiotic surplus are able to reproduce, whereas those which do not become extinct.

The energy system of Homo Sapiens’ civilisation is much more complex. Not only must we secure an abiotic surplus to survive we also require access to abstract agreements such as debt, crop enhancers such as fertilisers and a vast distribution network in the form of transportation links and power lines. Therefore, whenever we talk about power distribution systems we are really talking about debt, energy and infrastructure. Without these components none of it works. Whilst it is beyond the scope of this paper to analyse the components of industrialised civilisation in further detail it is clear that energy distribution is a systems problem.

It is within the scope of this paper, however, to recommend a number of actions that, if undertaken, would ensure that the United Kingdom utilised the highest quality of energy sources available. With that goal in mind Energy Policy could be used as a tool to improve both the reporting mechanism for energy quality and enforce a minimum ERoI threshold that each energy source shall meet before acceptance for national distribution. The purpose of this is to ensure that the power distribution network complies with the observations referenced in this paper – chiefly that high ERoI energy sources result in a higher standard of living. This would be achieved as follows;

  1. Determine a universal method for ERoI calculations which incorporates all energy inputs
  2. Ensure energy providers accurately report ERoI figures to the Regulator
  3. Set a minimum ERoI figure for acceptance by the national power distribution network
  4. Penalise energy suppliers which supply the national power distribution network using energy sources which fall below this ERoI value

If Energy Policy cannot prevent low quality energy sources from being made available to the national power distribution network then we must give serious examination to the effects upon society that a lower ERoI powered system will cause.

8.     Conclusion

From the data presented in this paper it is clear that the quality of our traditional energy sources are in decline and that renewable sources aimed to replace them are of even lower quality. With our high standard of living dependent upon high quality energy sources the need to accurately measure ERoI has never been greater. Systems analysis should be used to define the boundaries of ERoI analysis to provide a universal point of reference as a means of comparing various energy sources. Once established, this can be used to assess the quality of the energy sources available to the United Kingdom’s power distribution network. It may well be the case that the UK cannot attain an ERoISOC of 20:1. If that is the case we must engage in serious discussions about the implications to society and pay particular attention to the functions that a lower ERoI can afford.



Homo Sapiens and Energy (Part 1)

It should not come as a surprise to any, I hope, that Homo Sapiens are dependent upon energy for survival. The National Health Service recommends that a man needs around 10,500kJ (2,500kcal) a day to maintain his weight and that a woman requires around 8,400kJ (2,000kcal) a day to maintain hers. That, of course, only takes into account fuel consumption to maintain our weight. It does not include the energy consumed to keep us warm, to cook our food, to build our shelter, to fabricate products and transport those same goods (and ourselves) to market. From 0 Common Era to 2000 Common Era the Homo Sapien population has expanded like this;

Chart 1

That means a whole lot of energy consumption. And look at that spike beginning just before 1800 CE – coinciding nicely with the Industrial Revolution. Not only did the Industrial Revolution (starting around 1760) replace hand production with machine production it also demanded that Homo Sapiens shift their energy dependence from wood to coal to power the machines. The following graph not only shows the alterations in energy type per year but also the quantity consumed (chart from the excellent website run by Gail Tverberg drawn from information by Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions);

Chart 2

But why should coal consumption translate into an increase in world population? After all, the people weren’t eating coal. Prior to the Industrial Revolution came the British Agricultural Revolution (beginning around 1700) brought about by the most unlikely of heroes – the turnip. The turnip went where most other crops dare not venture, deep under the soil. The point, of course, is crop rotation. Crops of various root depth and nutrient demands could be rotated annually to improve soil fertility. This in turn increased land productivity which increased crop yields allowing the population in England and Wales to grow from 5.5 million in 1700 to over 9 million by 1801. The increase in productivity allowed a share of the farm labour force to move to urban centres finding work in the predominantly textile industries. Water and steam powered machines were then developed which increased the productivity of the labour force thus commencing the Industrial Revolution. This fed back not only into the creation of industrialised agricultural practices, but also allowing imports of various fertilisers from abroad by steam ship to improve soil quality. The point of all this is not simply to recite history but to show both Homo Sapiens’ dependence upon energy and display the types of fuel we consume.

Chart 3

Chart 4

So where are we today?

Judging from the last graph it is obvious that Homo Sapiens can add numbers to its population far easier that it can increase energy available for consumption. The question now becomes, ‘what next?’

The dip in energy consumption per capita between 2006 – 2009 coincides with both the 2007 – 2008 Financial Crisis and the Great Recession of December 2007 – June 2009. Indeed the inability to grow global energy consumption per capita across the globe resulted in reduced Gross Domestic Product thus exposing the banking system to the fragility (dare we say stupidity?) of the loans it had made to clients who could no longer afford to repay them. With the crisis ‘ending’ in 2009, the world has resumed a steady increase in energy consumption per capita, albeit at a much slower rate – most likely due to the lowest interest rates in financial history, even negative in some nations.

The point of all this is that our financial system cannot survive under a prolonged period of energy contraction. This, as a biological species, should not surprise us. Our Fate is intrinsically linked to the energy available to us.

Up until 1800 CE Human societies consumed mostly biofuels. With the introduction of steam powered machines Human societies consumed coal in increasing quantities until it overtook biofuel consumption around 1910 CE. If both our biofuel and fossil fuel reserves are reaching the point of exhaustion then what type of society will we live in when the remaining energy available is mostly nuclear with a dose of renewables? Will it even be a biological civilisation? For, if without natural gas products to fertilise our soils, how will Homo Sapiens continue to prosper? Just as Humans utilised steam powered machines to usher in the Industrial Era, will the Industrial Era utilise nuclear powered machines to usher in the Post-Human Era?

And why should we make this assumption – that our soils will no longer be able to sustain 7.5 billion Homo Sapiens (let alone the 11.2 billion that the UN expects by 2100)?

The ability to grow our population itself lies upon one of two assumptions;

  • Our soils can sustain this increase in population
  • We can find other methods to supplement our dependence on soil

Currently our plants are heavily reliant on artificial fertilisers to improve both plant health and yield to feed the current population of Homo Sapiens. Were this not the case fertilisers would not be needed at all as plants could extract all of their nutrient requirements from the soil. Fertilisers provide the three main macronutrients that plants require for healthy growth;

  • Nitrogen (N)
  • Phosphorous (P)
  • Potassium (K)

Nitrogen fertilisers are typically produced from ammonia (NH3) using natural gas (CH4) and nitrogen (N2) from the air. The ammonia is then used to produce nitrogen fertilisers such as ammonium nitrate. Sodium Nitrate (NaNO3) can also be used as a nitrogen fertiliser where it is mined in the Atacama desert in Chile.

Phosphate fertilisers are typically made from phosphate rock. It is necessary to convert these phosphate rocks into water-soluble phosphate salts by treating them with either sulfuric or phosphate acids.

Potassium fertilisers (usually referred to as ‘potash’) are a mixture of potassium minerals such as potassium chloride, potassium sulfate, potassium carbonate and potassium nitrate.

Fertiliser use has increased 34.4% from 2002 to 2014 with an average annual growth rate of 2.54%. The growth rate of the Human population over the same period is 1.2%.

Chart 5

So why should we think that this trend will reverse? After all, all dips (e.g. 2009) have been temporary. The only means of reversion will come through reduced extraction of the core resources. This can happen when resource scarcity drives cost above what the consumer can afford. Part 2 will explore the resource contraction that awaits Homo Sapiens.

Machine Gods

Firstly, apologies for the extended absence – most of my writing time has been directed into finishing my 2nd book Machine Gods – Prelude to the Wodanian Ethics. Given that it sets the stall for what I am attempting to develop on this blog I felt it pertinent to complete and thus set a framework that I intend to follow.


The novel itself is a part fiction, part philosophy crossover – others can judge how successful my attempt was. The plot follows the protagonist through two worlds; one called the ‘Pleasure World’ and the other taken to be the ‘Outside World’ on account that it contains more of Humanity’s failings than the former. In the Pleasure World is where the character develops insights into the nature of perception, liberty and legitimacy. Whereas in the ‘Outside World’ such concepts are put to the test as various challenges arise such as conflicts with other ideas and the isolation of progression.

The book is set during the decline of Humanity’s civilisation as a more powerful and coherent model arises – that of the Machine’s. The book does not follow the established practice of Humans battling Machines for survival – in most part because the story starts later than said event and Humanity lost. Nor does it attempt to describe how a hero arises against all odds to fell the dominant, evil Machine empire – that one has already been told as well. Rather it explores the concept of developing legitimacy and purpose in the shadow of overbearing authority.

The book begins with the redundancy of Humanity in our Age of Excess; that is – we become evaluating agents rather than a participating entities. In effect, passive rather than active. And when faced with the collapse of Human civilisation a madman steps forth and constructs a world of pleasures for the majority of people to play out their final days. Except not all find joy in this zoo of indulgence. And that is the quest of the book, as surmised in the second chapter;

“Mankind has always progressed through a series of inequalities – a higher quality of necessity. My declaration, indeed my sum total of being, is to state that the Pleasure World is not the highest type of quality. And so I wander in search of this higher type of quality.”

Should your curiosity make its way to the book please let me know what you think.

All the best,



Review and Critique of Book 5 of the Eudemian Ethics

Intellectual Virtue

Aristotle’s Book 5 from the Eudemian Ethics focuses on the matter of intellectual virtue. As we have seen in Books 2 and 3, Aristotle has defined virtue as the relative mean in between excess and deficiency. The mean he prescribes as following the process of correct reasoning. In Book 5 Aristotle explores the meaning of correct reasoning. In his own words, “Recall that we said earlier that one must choose the mean and not the excess or the defect, and that the mean is what is prescribed by correct reasoning. It is this we should now make precise.”

To begin with his enquiry Aristotle wishes to divide the various parts of the intellect. Firstly, he separates the virtues of the soul, “We made a distinction among the virtues of the soul and said that some were virtues of character and others of the intellect.” Aristotle now wishes to address the part of reason, but before doing so he gives a preliminary observation about the soul, “It was said earlier that there are two parts of the soul, one that involves reason and one that involves the other non-rational. Let us assume that there are two parts that involve reason, one that enables us to contemplate the kind of things whose originating principles are incapable of variation, and another by which we contemplate the things that are variable. Let us call one of these the scientific faculty, and the other calculative faculty. We must, then, work out what is the best state of these two faculties, for that will be the virtue of each, and the virtue of a thing is relative to its proper task.”

So from the virtues of the soul Aristotle has given us character and intellect. Now from the intellectual virtue he wishes to address scientific faculty and calculative faculty – one being the study of things unalterable and the other being the study of things to be deliberated on.

Truth and Right Desire

Aristotle now investigates the devices which control people’s conduct and how they rationalise their experiences and, by extension, their existence, “There are three things in the soul that control conduct and truth: sensation, intellect, and desire.” Aristotle dismisses sensation as having any relation to virtuous conduct owing to the fact that brutes exercise sensation but do not seek to limit their behaviour by exercising virtuous restraint. One might add that the brute only exercises restraint when either his desire has been filled or he has expended himself – only to return later with desire and energy renewed. Instead Aristotle turns to the relationship between desire and intellect, “What affirmation and negation are in thinking, pursuit and avoidance are in desire: so that since a moral virtue is a state that finds expression in choice, and choice is deliberative desire, it follows that if the choice is to be good, both the reasoning must be true and the desire must be right, and the latter must pursue just what the former asserts.” And furthermore, “Hence, there is no choice without intelligence and thought or without a moral state of character: for good conduct and its opposite cannot exist without both thought and character.”

Aristotle is once again referring to deliberative choice for the basis of all ethical action – if we recall from Book 2, “It is clear that purposive choice is deliberative appetition of things within one’s power.” What becomes clearer is Aristotle’s reluctance to enforce a universal ethical code. If we remember from Book 1, “Everybody able to live according to his own purposive choice should set before him some object for noble living to aim at – either honour or else glory or wealth or culture – on which he will keep his eyes fixed in all his conduct.” Now add to that what he has just said in Book 5, “Hence, there is no choice without intelligence and thought or without a moral state of character.” The question we must now ask ourselves is whether Aristotle believes this moral state of character is inherent within one’s person or whether it is a trait which can be learnt and subsequently practised. From following the text I take the former opinion that moral character is inherent within the individual and cannot be installed by education. Please reconsider a repetition of the above passage with the sentiment highlighted in bold, There are three things in the soul that control conduct and truth: sensation, intellect, and desire. What affirmation and negation are in thinking, pursuit and avoidance are in desire: so that since a moral virtue is a state that finds expression in choice, and choice is deliberative desire, it follows that if the choice is to be good, both the reasoning must be true and the desire must be right, and the latter must pursue just what the former asserts.” So if the desire forms moral conduct and it exists within the soul how can it be installed? And if desire is what pursues reason then what incentive exists to exercise reason if the soul has no desire to do so?

Let us now continue with Aristotle’s inquiry into intelligence.

Aristotle adds two further points to intelligence. Firstly, “Hence choice is intelligence qualified by desire, or desire qualified by thought, and to be the originator of this is what it means to be human.” Secondly, “The task of both intellectual parts, then, is truth. It follows that the virtues of the two parts will be states that make them achieve the maximum of truth.” From the first quote it seems that Aristotle has a fairly concise view of what constitutes a human being, thus separating him from the thoughtless beast. I am uncertain whether the distinction is purely between homo sapien and other species or whether Aristotle views humans incapable of ‘desire qualified by thought’ to be beasts. Given Aristotle’s stance in his work, ‘The Politics’, I suspect it is the latter. Please consider from Politics Book 1, 1254b16-31, “Therefore whenever there is the same wide discrepancy between human beings as there is between soul and body or between man and beast, then those whose condition is such that their function is the use of their bodies and nothing better can be expected of them, those, I say, are slaves by nature. It is better for them, just as in the case mentioned, to be ruled thus. For the ‘slave by nature’ is he that can and therefore does not belong to another, and that he participates in reason so far as to recognise it but not so as to possess it. The use made of slaves hardly differs at all from that of tame animals: they both help with their bodies to supply our essential needs. It is, then, nature’s purpose to make the bodies of free men to differ from those of slaves, the latter strong enough to be used for necessary tasks, the former erect and useless for that kind of work, but well suited for the life of a citizen of the state, a life which in turn is divided between the requirements of war and peace.”

Common Sense in Ethics

But returning to the subject of intelligence, Aristotle is keen to suggest that those who possess intelligence exercise good judgement. “The gift that is called ‘sense’, in the way in which we speak of people being sensible and having common sense, is a matter of sound discrimination in the sphere of the equitable. An indication of this is that we say that an equitable judge is an especially sensitive person, and equity is a sensitive judgement in particular cases. Sensitivity is a discriminative sense that delivers correct verdicts about what is equitable, a correct verdict being one that delivers truth. All these dispositions, reasonably enough, converge on the same point: for when we speak of sense and judgement and wisdom and intelligence, we attribute the possession of sense and intelligence to the same people and regard them as having wisdom and judgement.” And yet, for me, this is not an exhaustive account of intelligence. I think this is a rather limited view both of sensitivity and intelligence. With these traits one could feasibly lead others astray, such as with confidence tricks or exploiting other people’s misery for use as a political platform, whereas without such traits the very opportunity would not be recognised – let alone realised. Aristotle seems to realise that intelligence alone does not grant moral conduct. He therefore enquires into the nature of cleverness, “There is a faculty that is called cleverness: it is the power to hit upon and perform the steps that lead to the goal we have set ourselves. If the goal is a noble one, then cleverness is laudable; if not, it is mere smartness: hence we call both wise and smart people clever. Wisdom is not the same as this faculty, but it does not exist without it. It is a kind of eye of the soul: as is evident and has already been said, it does not achieve its proper condition in the absence of virtue.” From this passage it suggests to me that Aristotle is creating a hierarchy of characteristics; at the apex lies intelligence with two contrasting sub-components – wisdom and smartness.

Book 5 EE pic

To further qualify please consider the following extract; “But the acquisition of intelligence makes a difference in conduct, and the characteristic will turn into the true virtue it previously only resembled. So that just as in the belief-forming part of the soul there are two types, cleverness and wisdom, so in the moral part there are two types, natural virtue and true virtue, and the latter cannot occur in the absence of wisdom.” The acquisition, or inheritance, of intelligence does not make one immediately noble; indeed it may never do so. It is only intelligence combined with moral character which grants birth to wisdom.

And finally, “That is why some people say that the virtues just are forms of wisdom, and why Socrates was partly right and partly wrong in his inquiries: he was wrong to think that all the virtues were nothing but forms of wisdom, but he was right to say that there are no virtues in the absence of wisdom. Evidence for this is the fact that even now everyone when defining virtue, after naming the state of character and its sphere, goes on to say ‘in accordance with correct reasoning’, and reasoning is correct if it is in accordance with wisdom… It is evident, then, from what has been said that it is not possible to be truly good without wisdom, nor wise without moral virtue.” I feel that this is the most important passage in regards to intellectual virtue. Aristotle is explaining that wisdom is a necessity of moral behaviour because it allows one to deliberate about what they ought to do in accordance with correct reasoning. And he is also saying that one needs to have moral virtue to exercise this wisdom or he will fall foul to smartness – which, I suspect, Aristotle would attribute such vices as deceit and manipulation which do not occur in his previous table of virtues expressed in Book 2.

Concepts Present in Book 5 Not Immediately Related to the Current Discourse

I found a number of quotes in this passage to be worthy of referencing which fall under two headings;

  • Was Aristotle the First Recorded Environmentalist?
  • The Nature of Knowledge

Please consider the following;

Was Aristotle the First Recorded Environmentalist?

“We say this because it would be odd to think that political science or wisdom is the most excellent form of knowledge, given that man is not the best of the inhabitants of the universe. What is healthy and good for human beings is not the same as what is healthy and good for fishes.”

“It is evident that philosophical understanding is not the same as political science; for if you call concern with what is beneficial to yourself philosophy, then there will be many different philosophies. There will not be a single one concerned with the good of all animals, but a different one for each.”

“Wisdom is concerned with conduct; so we need to have both forms of knowledge, universal and particular – the latter, perhaps, more than the former. And here, too, there will be a kind that has a supervisory role.”

The Nature of Knowledge

I find Aristotle’s insight into the nature of knowledge to be amongst the most illuminating passages in this chapter. Again, it is the conundrum that every serious philosopher must address – is there an absolute truth to be attained; or, put differently, what is the nature of our certainties? Can there exist an absolute truth?

“We all suppose that what we know is not capable of being otherwise; for when things are capable of being otherwise, we cannot tell whether they are the case or not once they pass from view. Whatever is known, therefore, is necessary. Therefore it is eternal, for things that are unqualifiedly necessary are all eternal, and what is eternal neither comes to be nor passes away.”

“A person knows something when he has a certain kind of belief and when he is aware of the principles that support it; for if they are not better known to him than the conclusion, then it is only coincidentally that he has knowledge.”

I think the last quote sums up the closest we can possibly get to realising absolute truth given the limits of our perception; that is – we assume correlation proves causation only when it conforms to an underlying principle providing it cannot be refuted with our current tools and systems.

Critique of Book 5

Let us start with the conclusion of this Book; one must exercise intelligence morally, that is – in accordance with correct reasoning, for it to be considered a virtue. This we call wisdom as it conforms with the relative mean in virtue when applied to a noble end. No choice would be right without both wisdom and virtue for virtue makes wisdom perform the acts which lead to a just end. Yet, what have we made of nobility in our Age of Pity? What worth will nobility retain in the successive Ages of both Mediocrity and Nihilism? If the will of the people is to remain docile and ignorant then why would this aversion to truth embrace honesty and thus nobility? Does our current desire for a more pleasurable existence actually cast scorn upon all noble ventures? For exploration, even of stars and systems, would be deemed a waste of resources that could otherwise improve the lives of those trapped in poverty? Or at the very least be extended towards modern medicine to extend our existences? For the sake of what? The simple act of consuming?

I find this to be the strongest case for Aristotle’s Ethics; it deplores mediocrity. And so is Man’s misery, or the relief thereof, now the goal which Humanity has set itself? What about everything else which must bow before this Homo Superior? All habitats and ecosystems, indeed all understanding and knowledge, which must be lost, shed or obliterated simply to sustain the Ego of Man? How does Humanity reconcile that injustice?

It will be observed that this is not actually a critique of Book 5. That is because I cannot find fault with what has been put forward. Intelligence, in and of itself, is not what causes ill or suffering, or increased wellbeing, it is the manner in which it is exercised which performs such acts. This is governed by the moral systems (may we say individual traits?) within each person. And thus only the wise can exercise moral virtue for they both deliberate upon intentions and will the outcome, otherwise it is just an accident where the result was acquired in the pursuit of something else. What I would add though is this, if wisdom is dependent upon moral character how can it be freely-willed by an agent who does not possess this characteristic? I suspect that in limiting morality to the wise Aristotle must abandon the notion that free-will exists. Whether he did or did not is not my place to say.

Why do I study philosophy?

First let us ask ourselves what is philosophy? Philosophy is the critical categorisation of all appearance in relation to perception. What do we mean by appearance? It is the representation of the external world relayed through our sense organs. Through the study and categorisation of these phenomena as they appear to our senses we seek to explain the behaviour of objects with immutable laws. These immutable laws are deemed science – the practice of verifying theories through observable and repeatable experimentation. Philosophy is the mechanism through which science expresses itself – what do I mean by that? It is the law to which science itself must conform if it wishes to maintain its validity. Yet, surely if science itself is concerned solely with the proof of theories through observable and repeatable experimentation what else must it answer to?

Theories are proffered by people, people are agents of will and imbue theories with emotions. To quote the German scientist Max Planck, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Yes, science contains bias. But then so does philosophy, one may compare the difference between Plato’s Theory of Forms with Aristotle’s Empiricist Natural Sciences. So what purpose does philosophy serve? Science is critical of phenomena – philosophy is critical of science. Without this criticality it is possible, as history proves, for people to accept incorrect theories as science and, by extension, truth. E.g. the plum-pudding model of the atom or, perhaps more profoundly, the Ptolemaic System. More dangerously, a sect may be led astray by the ‘irrefutability of science’ into committing acts they would not normally commit. We would say at this point that science itself aims to disprove what is false rather than to prove what is true. Further to this, it is philosophy itself which places these theories into a coherent narrative as they relate to the perceiver. If the perceiver does not contain this criticality they too may enter into ridicule and madness. It is this danger which philosophy seeks to guard against for it must even doubt that science itself can explain everything; or whether science is limited by the sensory organs available to the perceiver and the experiences of his interaction with the external world.

So why do I study philosophy? To remain critical. What is the purpose of remaining critical? To live life by the will and not submit to an external authority which seeks to justify itself through mistaken categorisations of external appearance. For liberty’s sake, we must dissent!

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.