Study Guide

The Nicomachean Ethics Book 5, Chapter 9 (1136a10-1137a31)

By Aristotle

Book 5, Chapter 9 (1136a10-1137a31)

  • Aristotle opens with "perplexities": whether a person can suffer injustice (or justice) voluntarily, or if everyone who suffers something unjust suffers injustice (same for justice).
  • Also, is it possible to do an injustice to yourself?
  • Back to the first question: can a person suffer injustice voluntarily—say, by bad behavior on his part—by someone who is also acting voluntarily?
  • Aristotle wonders if we shouldn't add another dimension to his definition of injustice: that it has to be done voluntarily and against the other person's wishes.
  • He thinks it is a good addendum, since no one really wishes to be harmed, even if he acts self-destructively.
  • He concludes that it's not up to the person suffering to determine whether or not he's been a victim of injustice.
  • And so Aristotle answers his own questions: suffering injustice cannot be voluntary, since no one wishes to be harmed.
  • Also, if an act is to be unjust, it has to have been voluntarily committed by a second party.
  • Two more picky details to consider: 1) Can a person who gives someone more than he deserves be unjust; 2) Or is it the person who receives more than he should the unjust one?
  • Aristotle answers these questions by engaging the earlier question about whether we can be unjust to ourselves.
  • He says that if giving more of our own goods than is deserved is unjust, then we are unjust to ourselves.
  • But since an unjust act must be against the person's wish—and the giver gives voluntarily—there can be no self-inflicted injustice.
  • Neither is the receiver unjust, though it's technically an unjust thing to receive more than you're worth.
  • And yet, the giver does do an unjust thing by distributing more than what a person deserves. As you can see, Aristotle does lots of fence-sitting here.
  • Ultimately, it depends on the giver's intentions. If he has made an error in judgment, then he himself is not an unjust person, though the act of giving too much is unjust.
  • If he has judged correctly, he's perhaps giving too much in the hopes of gaining more than his fair share of honor. And that's somehow bad.
  • One thing is really clear from all this hemming and hawing: doing the just thing isn't as easy as it seems.
  • It's not simply choosing the right thing to do. We also have to have the right intention.
  • It's also difficult to discern between the just and unjust things, because the law tells us how to behave.
  • But as Aristotle says, the law is merely the tip of the justice iceberg.
  • Aristotle makes a final observation: justice is human.
  • Wherever there can be excess or deficiency of good things, that's where the principles of justice apply. (Hint: not with the gods).