Nicomachean EthicsV: Justice (Dikaiosune)


This vase, from the Perseus web site, depicts Hephaistos giving Thetis the armor he has made for her son Achilles. The shield, according to Book XVIII of the Iliad, depicts among other things the administration of justice in the case of a man who was killed.

After spending about a book and a half of the Ethics discussing various aretai (virtues or excellences) - courage (andreia), self-control or moderation (sophrosune), etc. - Aristotle now spends an entire book on just one arete, namely dikaiosune (justice). He presents some reasons for giving this one special treatment: there are several senses of dikaiosune, all important for a discussion of arete; one of these senses can be characterized as "complete arete, not in an unqualified sense, but in relation to our fellow humans" (ch. 1, 1129b25; p. 114); dikaiosunetakes on a very important extra sense in a society of free and (in some though not all senses) equal people "who share a common life in order that their association bring them self-sufficiency" (ch. 6, 1134a25; p. 129)(1); dikaiosune is commonly understood to have a clear connection to the idea of a "mean" or middle point, and Aristotle's sketch of the nature of aretein general had proposed that arete "consists in observing the mean relative to us" (Bk. II, ch. 6, 1106b35; p. 43).

These reasons may not make much sense to the modern reader at first, and that may be because Aristotle has left out something important: his working conception of the basic character of dikaiosune and its relationship to the basic needs and requirements of a political society, or its relationship to what makes a society possible and what makes a society viable. To be fair to Aristotle, I would point out that readers in his place and time would not have needed this further information; they would have shared the conception of dikaiosune that Aristotle hints at. For the modern (or post-modern?) reader, then, here is some background that may be helpful.

I. Justice (dikaiosune) and Justice (dike)

A. Grammatical relationship. Greek has two words that are generally translated into English as 'justice.' The words are related in the following way.

Where your text is discussing the arete (virtue, excellence) that translates as 'justice,' the Greek word is 'dikaiosune.' This word refers to the (human) characteristic of being just; a more exact but grammatically less correct translation would be 'justness.'

We use the word 'justice' in another sense, however, when we talk about "the justice system" or getting a degree in "Criminal Justice," or when we say, "No justice - no peace." In those cases we are talking about a fundamental feature of the universe or of a society. 'Dike' can also be translated as 'balance,' 'order,' 'right,' and 'appropriate way' (of something or someone).

Another way of translating makes the difference more clear: 'dikaiosune' is sometimes translated as 'righteousness,' and 'dike' is sometimes translated as 'right.'

A third term connects these two: the word for 'just' or 'righteous' is 'dikaios.' Where your text mentions 'what is just' or 'the just,' or describes something or someone as 'just,' the term it is translating is 'dikaios.'Thus a person who has dikaiosune is one who does dikaiosthings (for the right reasons, and therefore is dikaios him/herself). In doing dikaiosthings and in manifesting dikaiosune, the person is doing what dike requires, and helping his/her society maintain its overall social/political dike (justice, balance, order).

B. Conceptual background.

An understanding of what 'dike' meant to the ancient Greeks can provide some hints as to why dikaiosune would be so central to a discussion of arete, especially in arete's relation to the question of how to maintain a society that would foster the kinds of lives we would value. An understanding of the meaning and connotations of 'dike' will also suggest some reasons for Aristotle's claim that in one sense, dikaiosune is complete arete.

In The Justice of Zeus Hugh Lloyd-Jones remarks that dike is the order of the universe, and this seems to me to be a fine way to sum things up. Dike the goddess enforces dike, enforces the overall balance of the universe as well as the balance within societies (which is ideally, or in principle, a function of the order of the universe). For example, the goddess Dikeregulates the seasons and the cycles of life, so that cold periods are balanced by warm ones (in a specific order, winter-spring-summer-fall), wet periods are balanced by dry ones, birth and growth are balanced by death and decay that feed new birth and growth (plants and animals go through the stages of their lives in a specific order), a given star is in the same position in the sky tonight as it was exactly one year ago tonight, the lengths of the days and nights changes in a regular cycle, and so on. The balance and order thus achieved was called dike. Notice that this means that there is a right time for everything (summer comes after spring and before fall, animals cannot breed at birth or in old age, each crop must be planted at a certain time and no other in order to achieve its potential for growth and fruit). There is also a right way, or perhaps a range of right ways, for each thing to function; a right amount of nourishment and sunlight for each living thing to be able to survive and flourish; a right balance in diet in order to achieve health; a right way to balance the needs of one's livestock with the needs of the plants one cultivates; etc. Failure to observe these "right measures," or failure to enforce them, goes against the principle or standard that Dike puts in place, and in fact results in illness, early death, failure to thrive, soil stripped of nutrients, etc.

Now, Dike was also the enforcer of social or human justice, balance, and order. Cities whose laws failed to manifest dike, or cities where lawbreaking and other unfair or unjust behavior (whatever that would be) was allowed to go on would end in disaster, the Greeks thought. It is not hard to see what they might have had in mind. Homer (Iliad 16.388) suggests that the god Zeus will punish cities that allow lawbreaking (the breaking of laws he set down or approved of) to go on. But other writers suggest a connection between injustice and disaster that is much easier for humans to verify: Hesiod (Works and Days 275-285) says that the mistrust that comes from widespread unpunished breaking of laws and oaths will lead to withdrawal from legitimate commerce (you wouldn't want to trade with someone if there was nothing to prevent that person from cheating you), poverty, and the disintegration of communities and families (and possible capture and enslavement, if you had no one to rely on to help against invaders). Solon fragment 4 proposes a similar scenario. Notice too that the transgressions of the wrongdoers produce an imbalance: one or more parties to an agreement do not keep their promises, so the reciprocity and exchange that support the society are lost, the community cannot maintain itself, etc. Punishing crimes or exacting restitution (a secondary meaning of 'dike' is 'penalty') is supposed to restore balance. Today one sometimes hears the idea that those who commit a crime must "pay their debt to society" by serving jail time or paying fines or doing some sort of community service; this is very much in keeping with the Greek idea.(2)

Thus social dike was supposed to reflect, or to be a function of, cosmic dike, as I have noted. Part of what a society needs is determined by basic human needs, climate, and so on; and if there are any features of human psychology and emotional life that are universal or close to it, standards of social dike must reflect them or else the society will fall apart. For example, it seems that humans the world over like to see that promises are kept, that contributions to the community and obedience to its rules are rewarded or at least acknowledged, that if one risks life or resources for the community this will be honored or rewarded or acknowledged if possible, that friendly relations with other people are possible. Where one or more of these things is not in place, we find that cooperation is lost and hence that its benefits (division of labor and hence efficient production that makes starvation less likely) are lost; communities fall apart or destroy themselves in war or are captured by others; humans live in anxiety and fear all the time. A historical example of the effects of such an imbalance would be the effects of Jim Crow (racially discriminatory) laws in the U.S.

To be dikaios, then, a person would have to observe dike. That would mean trying to act in a way that acknowledged the fundamental order of things as one went about seeking to fulfill one's own and one's family's needs and desires. What acknowledges the fundamental order of things? - Giving each thing and person its/his/her due, for one thing. This was indeed a common Greek formula for being dikaios (see e.g. Plato, Republic 331e). Further, it is partly if not entirely because of dike that we need communities: we are the kind of beings who need help to defend ourselves against wild animals and human marauders, we are such that different people are better at different things so we benefit by cooperation, etc. Dike would also play a role in determining what our needs were and what kinds of life would really be the most beneficial or fulfilling. As Aristotle says in Book V, ch. 1 (1129b15), "in one sense [of the term 'dikaios'] those things are said to be just which produce and preserve happiness (eudaimonia) and the parts of happiness for the political community." (The Greek differs somewhat from Ostwald's translation here.)

II. Aristotle's accounts of arete and dikaiosune

To make sense of the notion that dikaiosune is in one sense complete arete, let us recall Aristotle's descriptions of arete in general and of various aretai in particular. In Book II, ch. 6 (1106b20) he had said that "to experience [fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity, etc.] at the right time, toward the right objects, toward the right people, for the right reason, and in the best manner - that is the median and the best course, the course that is a mark of arete....Similarly, excess, deficiency, and the median can also be found in actions." As we have seen, the fact that there is a right time, right manner, right object, etc., and the identities of these right things, are functions of dike, the order of the universe and/or the order of society. Thus to act from arete is to be dikaios and to act from dikaiosune.

Then in Book III, ch. 7 (1115b15-20), Aristotle characterizes the courageous (andreios) person as one who "endures and fears the right things, for the right motive, in the right manner, and at the right time, and who displays confidence in a similar way." Book III, ch. 11 (1119a20): "all the pleasant things that contribute to one's health and well-being [the self-controlled person] desires moderately and in the way one should, and also other pleasures as long as they are neither detrimental to health and well-being nor incompatible with what is noble (beautiful; kalos) nor beyond one's means." Book IV, ch. 1 (1120a20-25): "a generous person will give - and give in the correct manner - because that is noble. He/she will give to the right people, the right amount, at the right time, and do everything else that is implied in correct giving." Book IV, ch. 5 (1125b30): the gentle (praos) person gets angry "under the right circumstances and with the right people, and also in the right manner, at the right time, and for the right length of time." There are of course other examples of this sort of formulation; I've only included a few, just to show the pattern.

The "right way," "right time," "right amount," etc. would be determined by dike: these would be the way, amount, time, etc. that were appropriate to the situation and the agent, and that would achieve the proper balance in the society. For example, the generous person will be restoring as much as possible the balance of resources; if a person gives more than he/she can afford, that leads to another imbalance that must be righted, and according to Aristotle the giver has not been "generous" but has failed to observe the middle point between stinginess and extravagance. If he/she gives more than the recipient knows what to do with, or more than the recipient needs, this too could have troublesome consequences: the recipient might become overly dependent; other people might become envious; the recipient might never be able to repay the giver and would always be in debt or disadvantage (might be in thrall to the giver for a lifetime), and so on. On the other hand, if the giver can afford to give what is needed but deliberately gives less, this leaves a need and in some sense signals that the well-being of the giver's fellow humans and his/her city are not of great value or priority to the giver. The person who gives to another simply for the sake of honor or reputation is also not generous and also creates imbalance, for this person will not give when there will be no public acknowledgment. He/she will give not when it is needed, but only when he/she will be praised.

When laws have been framed "correctly" (whatever that means), says Aristotle in Bk. V, ch. 1 (1129b25 or so), then whatever they require - courageous acts, generous acts, etc., each under particular circumstances - will be "just." And thus in this case and in this sense, all aretaiwill be forms of dikaiosune. Of course, there is another sense in which dikaiosune is one among many aretai.

III. Dikaiosune and the mean

In chapters 2-6, Aristotle discusses what we would call retributive justice (involving penalties and restitutions for crimes or offenses or lapses in fairness) and distributive justice (making sure exchanges of goods and services are fair or equitable). Note that these both involve finding the right degrees or right amounts to achieve balance. In this way dikaiosune exhibits perhaps more clearly than any other arete the connection with the idea of a mean or middle point.

IV. The "right this," the "right that" - what is "the right thing"?

Aristotle still has not identified anything specific as the "right" action or attitude to take in any specific situation. He also hasn't shown that any such "rightness" exists. But in order to have any kind of social order that will even enable us to try to find out what if anything is the "right thing to do" and the "best way to live," we have to start from the notion that some things are worthwhile and that we can cooperate and agree on (perhaps provisional) rules for trying to obtain those things. Perhaps, as Socrates says in the Apology, if you don't know what is best (or whether anything is best?), the next-best way to live is to investigate the question of excellence and what is best. 

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Nicomachean Ethics V: Justice (Dikaiosune) by Rose Cherubin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


1. See Ostwald's note on the "equality" that Aristotle has in mind. To see what "proportionate equality" might mean, consider that in the kind of "aristocracy" (literally, "rule by the best"), the aristocrats would have to prove their merit as rulers, and with their greater rights and privileges they would have greater burdens and responsibilities: supplying weapons, horses, ships, and training to the poor farmers of their community; leading armies (made up of these farmers) into battle; adjudicating disputes without taking bribes; negotiating treaties; promoting and rewarding brave soldiers and good citizens; etc. In this way the lower strata of the society have fewer rights and privileges (but not none, otherwise they would not be free), but also fewer and less difficult and dangerous civic duties. The upper strata have greater rights and privileges because they are the ones who have shown that they can handle these well; they are rewarded for their greater contributions. But they also have more responsibilities, and more of the fate of the community rests on their decisions and actions. (In principle, in this sort of society, if a person from the lower strata shows great valor or great ability at something else important to the survival of the community, he or she will be honored and compensated, and would be able to be "promoted" to a higher stratum. If this person did not move up socially, he/she would have little or no incentive to use his/her talent in ways the community needs, so it is in the interest of the community to move the person up.)

As for "self-sufficiency," what Aristotle seems to mean is "being independent and self-supporting": a community is "self-sufficient" if it does not depend on other communities or individuals for its economic or political existence.

2. Further references to dike and Dike in earlier Greek thought, references that Aristotle would have been familiar with: Homer, Odyssey 11.218, 19.43, 19.168, 24.255; most of Hesiod's Works and Days is concerned with showing why it is important to follow dike; the Anaximander fragment (cosmic adikia, injustice, must be righted by the paying of dike kai tisis, penalty and restitution); Heracleitus fragments B80 and B94 DK; Parmenides B1.28 and B8.14 DK.