In his book The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the concept of justice in Book V. Justice is used with its many different connotations. However, in order to explain the statement that justice can only be found in the laws established by the state I would like to point out the last two types of justice and the notion of equity Aristotle refers to in his book. The first is natural justice, true for everyone, and next to that there is conventional justice which can differ in different societies and there is the notion of equity that works in unusual cases. With understanding these three concepts we can reach to the conclusion that according to Aristotle justice can not only be found in the laws established by the state and he is right in claiming such an idea. Anyone who is a virtuous person can also be just. But not everyone who is just is also virtuous.
Would you consider someone who kills the murderer of his wife a murderer? Would you put him in the same position as Jack the Ripper? Do you think justice is protected by the law? Is it just to stone adulteresses to death even if it complies with the law? Which law is just and which is not? What are the criteria? Are the laws of the state enough to maintain justice?Such questions can be boosted up to thousands if one starts to think about justice, itsconnotations and the relation between justice and law.
The debate is a long-lasting one. In his book The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the concept of justice in Book V. Justice is used with its many different connotations. There is particular justice, distributive justice, reciprocal justice, political and social justice, domestic justice, natural and conventional justice. I would like to point out the last two types of justice in order to understand Aristotle’s idea of law and justice relation in a state. According to Aristotle, there is natural justice, true for everyone, and next to that there is conventional justice which can differ in different societies.
Natural justice is the kind of justice that can be applied to every human being regardless of nation, race, religion, etc. It has the same validity everywhere and do not depend on acceptance. Aristotle argues that “the things which are not just by nature but by human enactment are not everywhere the same, since constitutions are not the same, though there is by one which is everywhere by nature the best” (124). Accordingly, the conventional justice is set by the society and in some cases by the rulers of the society.
However, Aristotle suggests that, for the laws established by the state, a law can be just whether it is for the advantage of the law makers or the rulers or the dominant class. In The Nichomachean Ethics, he says that “the laws…on all subjects aim at the common advantage either of all or of the best or of those who hold power…” (108). He adds that every kind of conventional justice is created in one way from the natural justice and it is normal that they may differ from one society to another. For instance it is by the law to drive on a certain side in Turkey and in Britain people drive on the other side of the road.
Both laws are created to maintain justice and order. However there are laws which are created by the state such as the law that women have to wear veils which seems to us not just but what is important to Aristotle is not what we think but how that society with that particular law is affected. As long as the law works for the society, regardless of its rightness, it maintains justice. Let’s give an example, at the times of Roman Empire the gladiators fight with each other or with lions, they know that they are going to die at the arena but they do not show any fear, they fight with their honors and they die with an honorable death.
Mentioning that laws are created to be functional, to stabilize and control the society, Aristotle talks about the “equitable justice” in which he stresses that there are cases in which the universal law or justice does not suit to the case in hand. He suggests that laws guide people in the direction of justice but they do not encompass all the cases about justice or injustice. In such conditions he suggests that the judge interferes and corrects “the law where it is defective owing to its universality” (133). Equity means the correction of the law when it is too abstract for the situation in hand. Aristotle here suggests that the judge or the legislator should find the balance and give the right decision in such situations. Taking these ideas into consideration, according to Aristotle, the laws of the state are enough to maintain justice for their people only to a certain extent because in some cases the decision making authority is not the law but the judge.
I think Aristotle is right in making such a claim because of many reasons. First of all, if the conventional laws are the extensions of natural laws and the natural laws are universal and do not change in any situation but still there are circumstances in which the natural law is tooabstract for the case and the judge and the legislator is the one who is to adapt the law to the case, we can not say that either the natural laws or the conventional laws (the laws established by the state) maintains the justice.
Furthermore, if there arecases in which the law does not work, we can not say that the laws established by the state maintain the justice at all times unless we see the starting argument as a generalization. However it is also not possible to know the qualities of the judge whether he is biased toward the case that he balances with the law. Accordingly there may be some cases in which justice may not be maintained because of the origin (in Aristotle’s words “universality”) of the law does not cover the case or because of the judge’s personal qualities.
Consequently if the conventional laws are the extensions of natural laws and the natural laws are universal and do not change in any situation but still there are circumstances in which the natural law is too abstract for the case and the judge and the legislator is the one who is to adapt the law to the case, we can not say that either the natural laws or the conventional laws (the laws established by the state) maintains the justice.
The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle