Study Guide

The Nicomachean Ethics Book 5, Chapter 1 (1128b36-1130a13)

By Aristotle

Book 5, Chapter 1 (1128b36-1130a13)

  • This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak—where Aristotle's discussion of moral virtues moves into action.
  • Now we're talking about justice and injustice.
  • Aristotle posits that justice is the "middle term" or golden mean—but we'll have to work a bit to get at the extremes and what sorts of actions are related to justice.
  • He calls justice a "characteristic," something that disposes a person to act justly or to wish for just things.
  • It can be useful to deduce what justice is by opposition (i.e. by looking at what is unjust). So he begins with a description of the unjust person.
  • An unjust person might be: 1) a lawbreaker; 2) a person who wants more than his fair share; 3) an "unequal" or unfair person.
  • A major problem with the unjust is that they always take the smaller share of what is bad. Which means that he always wants the lion's share of what is good.
  • Aristotle deduces that if the unjust disregard the law, what is legal should also be what is just.
  • Laws aim to make people good citizens (by enforcing virtuous behavior). This means that the law is primarily concerned with the common good.
  • Therefore, the law is (or should be) just. Or at least, ready to serve the just cause.
  • If a law is badly made, it'll try to mandate good behavior in bad ways. In ideal circumstances, the law preserves public happiness and safety in the right way.
  • Aristotle calls justice a "complete" or perfect virtue, because it's the highest good in relation to how we live together in a community.
  • Justice requires us to behave fairly even to people outside of our immediate circle of family and friends, which is a huge sticking point for many people.
  • Aristotle calls the person who's able to exercise virtue to the advantage of others in the community not only just, but the very best of people.
  • Justice, then, is virtue in a nutshell. Injustice is all of vice neatly summed up—not just one vice by itself.
  • He mentions that justice can be a larger, general concept (between people in a community) or a more particular characteristic that a person can possess (as a virtue).