The story of The Nicomachean Ethics appears too good to be true. Aristotle has discovered, it seems, the path to happiness. The only catch: attaining the prize requires a great deal of hard work. Happiness, he tells us, depends on achieving a fair number of virtues, from courage to friendship and everything that lies between. In the midst of his argument, Aristotle turns his attention to justice. For anyone who has been following his account of the virtues, we expect him to repeat a now familiar model: the virtue in question will be discovered as a mean between two extremes. For example, moderation is described as enjoying physical pleasure neither too much (immoderation) nor too little (insensibility), but exactly in the amount that is appropriate to her. In fact, Aristotle signals to us as he begins speaking of justice that he will continue in his usual mode (1129a5).
Aristotle, however, does not fulfill this promise. Justice is described as sharing in the fair distribution of public goods. And, in light of the other virtues, one would think that an unjust person seeks either more or less of these goods than is appropriate. Instead, Aristotle says that justice is the mean between suffering and doing injustice (1133b30). While suffering injustice is undesirable, one does not normally think of the victim of injustice as having committing a wrong or engaging in a vice. Aristotle eventually concludes the discussion of justice by saying that, of course, there is nothing vicious in the person who truly suffers an injustice (1138b35), yet we are left to wonder why he has formulated the mean of justice in this peculiar way.
The description of justice as a mean between suffering injustice and doing injustice is raised in between Aristotle’s description of reciprocity and political justice. Reciprocity finds ways to make things that are in and of themselves different and unequal commensurate. He notes that communities come together because of our need for one another. Our very survival, Aristotle indicates, requires that we find a way to share the outcomes of our different talents and interests. With respect to most goods and services, money is what allows this reciprocity to happen. The shoes I make can be equal to the house you build when we convert them to a monetary value.
Political justice occurs when we recognize that a similar reciprocity is possible among individuals. In other words, the politically just recognize that despite their differences, the freedom of individuals is grounds upon which to treat them equally. Inasmuch as our physical needs must be met, their satisfaction is not truly is not something we voluntarily choose. It is in the recognition and pursuit of our political and ethical needs that we become free agents. Justice, in this circumstance, depends on recognizing that others possess this same freedom.
This recognition of our freedom gives our actions greater weight. They are now the actions of a free person — someone who chooses and acts in full knowledge of what they are doing. The self-sufficient life sought for in community depends on the reciprocal recognition of one another’s worth. An act of injustice is not only a crime against another, but a crime against the whole community and the reciprocity on which it depends. As only a free person can voluntarily act justly, so, Aristotle says, this same freedom make our unjust actions graver.
However, Aristotle also points out that justice occurs in relation to someone else. In a community of free individuals, one might consider not only the disposition or choice of the person acting, but also that of the person being acted on (1136a23).
Tangled up in the midst of these arguments is the example Socrates, who at the end of his life declared that rather than escaping from prison, he would be obedient to the law that condemned him to death. His good friend Crito judges this law to be unjust. Offered the opportunity to leave, but choosing to stay and suffer this injustice, Crito might ask if Socrates, in subjecting himself to an injustice or suffering an injustice, was himself unjust.
Complicating the fact is that Socrates himself suggests the same thing when, in the Apology, he tells the jury that if he has somehow misstepped and violated the laws of the city, that his “punishment” should consist of an education so that he can avoid acting unjustly in the future. In other words, Socrates tells the city that if the accusation against him is true, then for it to justly punish him, he must understood what it is that he did wrong and why. For the accusations to be upheld, the just “punishment” would in the very least include educating him such that he might fully understand freely participate in its execution. In a free society, justice requires the voluntary participation of all members, such that even when the laws are are not in their favour, they voluntarily assent to them.
In the end, Athens does not heed Socrates’s advice. Rather than educate him on the nature of its gods or how to better its young people, the city decides to execute him. Yet, when Crito suggests to Socrates that it would be more just to escape than to stay, Socrates now disagrees. Instead, he focuses his attention on doing for Crito what the city refused to do for him – he seeks to persuade his friend that it is just for him to follow the city’s decision. The city may have indeed erred in convicting Socrates to death, but as Socrates was not able to persuade it of its error, he now voluntarily submits to their decision and seeks to persuade his friends to do the same. As a citizen, Socrates knows that he both rules and is ruled in turn, and so now, submitting to its rule, he at the same participates in its execution, drawing his friends on-side so that they might continue as free participants within its borders.
At the end of the discussion of justice, Aristotle asks whether one can commit an injustice to oneself. In the manner that Socrates is both ruled by the law, but also participant in its rule, one might ask if that is in fact what Socrates is doing by accepting his death. Aristotle concludes that while one might voluntarily do something unjust to oneself, by hurting or even killing oneself, one cannot commit an injustice against oneself. No one, he says, wishes for or willingly suffers injustice. The injustice, Aristotle claims in this instance is against the city that one has freely agreed to support and obey. Socrates, we understand, does not at the end believe he is suffering an injustice, and he willingly accepts his death. As part of the city, he takes on the task of persuading himself and others of the correctness of its decision. If, however, an injustice has occurred, it is by the city and against the city, for it now loses its most able legislator and citizen.
Of course Aristotle does not mention Socrates when speaking of these things. Instead, he is merely thinking through all of the possible complications of an individual and a community seeking to be just. However, he comes to the same conclusion as Plato’s Socrates. If you understand that the foundation of politics lies in the voluntary participation of those involved, then you have to take seriously their political education – both when they are in agreement with you, but especially when they are not.