The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy

By Bernard Williams; Myles Burnyeat | Go to book overview

THIRTEEN
Justice as a Virtue

I shall consider some points in Aristotle's treatment of justice in Book 5 of the Nicomachean Ethics, in order to raise certain questions about justice as a virtue of character. I am concerned with what Aristotle calls “particular” justice, that is to say, with justice considered as one virtue of character among others. This disposition is said to have two basic fields of application, the distributive and the rectificatory; this distinction will not concern us, and almost all the discussion can be referred to the first of this pair. Particular justice and injustice are concerned with a certain class of goods—“those which are the subjects of good and bad luck, and which considered in themselves are always good, but not always good for a particular person” (1129b3–5). These are listed at 1130b3 as honor, money, and safety: these are “divisible” goods, which are such that if one person gets more, another characteristically gets less.

From the beginning, Aristotle associates particular injustice with pleonexia—variously, greed, the desire to have more, the desire to have more than others: pleonektes ho adikos 1129b1. This characteristic Aristotle treats as the defining motive of particular injustice:

If one man commits adultery for the sake of gain, and makes money
by it, while another does so from appetite, but loses money and is pe-
nalized for it, the latter would be thought self-indulgent rather than
pleonektēs, while the former is unjust and not self-indulgent: this is
obviously because of the fact that he gains. Again, all other unjust acts
are ascribed in each case to some kind of vice, e.g. adultery to self-
indulgence; deserting a fellow soldier, to cowardice; assaulting some-
one, to anger. But if he makes a gain, it is ascribed to no other vice but
injustice. [1130a24 f.]

This passage occurs in chapter 2 where Aristotle is concerned to find the distinguishing mark of particular injustice. It seems clear that the reference to “unjust” acts is to acts that are unjust in the general sense—that is to say, roughly, wrong—and a similar interpretation is given to adikei at 1130a17.1 Aristotle's point is that the way to pick out acts that are

1 So commentators, e.g. Joachim and Gauthier-Jolif, ad loc.; W.F.R. Hardie, Aristotle's
Ethical Theory
(Oxford, 1968), p. 187.

-207-

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