John F. Kennedy’s famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” perfectly illustrates Aristotle’s definition of justice. The Greek philosopher himself described justice as a “public virtue,” one that implies each member of a community must uphold some individual obligations to the community at large, and in turn, means each person receives what they deserve for their actions.
In this way, justice is every bit as private as it is public. Because this goal is about proper behavior in society, it also requires proper behavior as an individual. It necessitates internal virtues.
For example, each person owes living with temperance to the community. Each person owes a level of respect to their neighbors, such as not infringing on privacy or trespassing. “This sort of justice, then, is complete virtue, though not simply but in relation to someone else,” Aristotle said in Book V of his “Nicomachean Ethics.” “And for this reason, it often seems that justice is the greatest of the virtues, and ‘neither evening’s nor dawn’s light is so wonderous,’ and we say proverbially ‘in justice all virtue is together in one.’”
One of the fundamental features of justice is good laws. Not everyone will do good on their own without the incentive of law. Thus, a just society implements virtuous laws to orient itself and its people toward the good.
“Good laws are laws that command the practice of the virtues,” Dr. Larry P. Arnn said during his free online lecture on Aristotelian justice at Hillsdale College. “And the practice of the virtues are good for the people that practice it, and it’s good for the society.”
While justice requires the individual to act virtuously, an overwhelming majority of virtuous people must take on that responsibility in order to achieve justice throughout society. America is a just society because the overwhelming majority of individuals do not kill and steal, for example.
Aristotle said in “Ethics,” “But for this same reason, justice, alone among the virtues, seems to be someone else’s good, because it is in relation to someone else, for one does things that are advantageous to another person, either to one who rules or to one who partakes in the community.”
Of course, not all people strive toward justice, and some even work against it.
The greatest act of injustice in a society is tyranny. Modern science, Arnn said, has given tyrants the ability to kill millions in their acts of oppression under totalitarianism, such as under communist and fascist regimes. In classical accounts of tyranny, however, tyrants do not last long. This is evidence of people’s hatred for injustice and their desire to fight against such tyrannical regimes to strive for the good. Though contention will always exist in society, requiring an enforcement of criminal and civil justice, tyranny cannot stand for long.
But when societies of virtuous people enact just laws, those laws protect entire communities. Individuals who violate the law are punished, ensuring justice as well as protection for the rest of society. When society is oriented toward the good, justice maintains that aim by punishing evil.
Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn pondered a punishment that cut deeper than those society imposed. Committing external crimes destroys the actor as much as the victim, Solzhenitsyn realized. Individuals receive punishment in their souls for the evil they commit.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky noted a similar trend in his “Crime and Punishment.” The protagonist thought he could commit acts of evil and live untarnished. His external corruption, however, wreaked havoc for him internally, adulterating his soul. He could not escape his own evil.
This is why Aristotle teaches virtue. The pursuit of virtue is necessary for the well-being of society as well as the well-being of oneself.