Book 5: The Several Moral Virtues and Vices—Concluded. Justice.

Chapter 9: Sundry questions about doing and suffering injustice

But it may be doubted whether we have sufficiently explained what it is to suffer and to do injustice. First of all, are these terms applicable to such a case as that which is described in those strange verses of Euripides?—

A. I slew my mother: that is all my tale.

P. But say, did both or neither will the deed?”

Is it really possible, I mean, to suffer injustice [or be wronged] voluntarily? or is suffering injustice always involuntary, as doing injustice is always voluntary?

Again, is suffering injustice always one way or the other (as doing injustice is always voluntary), or is it sometimes voluntary and sometimes involuntary?

Similarly with regard to having justice done to you: doing justice is always voluntary [as doing injustice is], so that one might expect that there is the same relation in both cases between the active and the passive, and that suffering injustice and having justice done to you are either both voluntary or both involuntary. But it would surely be absurd to maintain, even with regard to having justice done to you, that it is always voluntary; for some that have justice done to them certainly do not will it.

Again we may raise the question in this [more general] form: Can a man who has that which is unjust done to him always be said to suffer injustice [or be wronged]? or are there further conditions necessary for suffering as there are for doing injustice?

Both what I do and what I suffer may be (as we saw) “accidentally” just; and so also it may be “accidentally” unjust: for doing that which is unjust is not identical with doing injustice, nor is suffering that which is unjust the same as suffering injustice; and similarly with doing justice and having justice done to you. For to have injustice done to you implies some one that does injustice, and to have justice done to you implies some one that does justice.

But if to do injustice means simply to hurt a man voluntarily, and voluntarily means with knowledge of the person, the instrument, and the manner, then the incontinent man, who voluntarily hurts himself, will voluntarily suffer injustice, and it will be possible for a man to do injustice to himself—the possibility of which last is also one of the questions in dispute.

Again, a man might, through incontinence, voluntarily suffer himself to be hurt by another also acting voluntarily; so that in this case also a man might voluntarily suffer injustice.

I think rather that the above definition is incorrect, and that to “hurting with knowledge of the person, the instrument, and the manner,” we must add “against his wish.” If we define it so, then a man may voluntarily be hurt and suffer that which is unjust, but cannot voluntarily have injustice done to him. (For no one wishes to be hurt,—even the incontinent man does not wish it, but acts contrary to his wish. No one wishes for anything that he does not think good; what the incontinent man does is not that which he thinks he ought to do.) But he that gives, as Glaucus gives to Diomede in Homer—

“Gold for his bronze, fivescore kine’s worth for nine,”

does not suffer injustice; for the giving rests with him, but suffering injustice does not rest with one’s self; there must be some one to do injustice.

It is plain, then, that suffering injustice cannot be voluntary.

There are still two questions that we purposed to discuss: (1) Is it the man who assigns or the man who receives a disproportionately large share that does injustice? (2) Is it possible to do injustice to yourself?

In the former case, i.e. if he who assigns and not he who receives the undue share does injustice, then if a man knowingly and voluntarily gives too much to another and too little to himself, he does injustice to himself. And this is what moderate persons are often thought to do; for the equitable man is apt to take less than his due. But the case is hardly so simple: it may be that he took a larger share of some other good, e.g. of good fame or of that which is intrinsically noble.

Again, the difficulty may be got over by reference to our definition of doing injustice; for in this case nothing is done to the man against his wish, so that no injustice is done him, but at most only harm.

It is plain, moreover, that the man who makes the unjust award does injustice, but not always he who gets more than his share; for a man does not always do injustice when we can say of what he does that it is unjust, but only when we can say that he voluntarily does that which is unjust; and that we can only say of the prime mover in the action, which in this case is the distributor and not the receiver.

Again, there are many senses of the word “do,” and in a certain sense an inanimate instrument, or my hand, or again my slave under my orders, may be said to slay; but though these may be said to do what is unjust, they cannot be said to act unjustly or to do an act of injustice.

Again, if a man unwittingly gives unjust judgment, he does not commit injustice in the sense of contravening that which is just according to law, nor is his judgment unjust in this sense, but in a certain sense it is unjust; for there is a difference between that which is just according to law and that which is just in the primary sense of the word: but if he knowingly gives unjust judgment, he is himself grasping at more than his share, in the shape either of favour with one party or vengeance on the other. The judge, then, who gives unjust judgment on these grounds, takes more than his due, quite as much as if he received a share of the unjust award; for even in the latter case a judge who awards a piece of land would receive, not land, but money.

Men fancy that as it is in their power to act unjustly, so it is an easy matter to be just. But it is not so. To lie with your neighbour’s wife, or to strike your neighbour, or to pass certain coins from your hand to his is easy enough, and always within your power, but to do these acts as the outcome of a certain character is not an easy matter, nor one which is always within your power.

Similarly men think that to know what is just and what is unjust needs no great wisdom, since any one can inform himself about those things which the law prescribes (though these things are only accidentally, not essentially, just): but to know how these acts must be done and how these distributions must be made in order to be just,—that indeed is a harder matter than to know what conduces to health; though that is no easy matter. It is easy enough to know the meaning of honey, and wine, and hellebore, and cautery, and the knife, but to know how, and to whom, and when they must be applied in order to produce health, is so far from being easy, that to have this knowledge is to be a physician.

For the same reason, some people think that the just man is as able to act unjustly as justly, for he is not less but rather more capable than another of performing the several acts, e.g. of lying with a woman or of striking a blow, as the courageous man is rather more capable than another of throwing away his shield and turning his back and running away anywhere. But to play the coward or to act unjustly means not merely to do such an act (though the doer might be said “accidentally” to act unjustly), but to do it in a certain frame of mind; just as to act the part of a doctor and to heal does not mean simply to apply the knife or not to apply it, to give or to withhold a drug, but to do this in a particular fashion.

Justice, lastly, implies persons who participate in those things that, generally speaking, are good, but who can have too much or too little of them. For some—for the gods perhaps—no amount of them is too much; and for others—for the incurably vicious—no amount is beneficial, they are always hurtful; but for the rest of mankind they are useful within certain limits: justice, therefore, is essentially human.


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