The Concept of Justice

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Socrates and Aristotle both have contrasting views of the concept of justice which serves to influence their notions of an ideal constitution. The abstract, speculative ideas of Socrates will be compared and contrasted with the practical, sensory ones of Aristotle in matters concerning justice and politics. Both Aristotle and Socrates disagree with regards to the definition of justice and what qualities are attributed to a just person. According to Aristotle, a just person must follow the law and refrain from greed. In the opinion of Socrates, greed consists of taking more than what is required to survive. He stresses the importance of prudence and temperance in the lives of a just person. Aristotle, however, states that a greedy person is someone who does not understand the difference between taking what is good and what is not good. A wealthy person can also be just. Aristotle provides two different types of justice which he labels distributive and rectifactory justice. Distributive justice is concerned with the distribution of money, honour, and other resources amongst those who have a share in public organization. Equality is of the greatest importance when distributing goods. Rectifactory justice concerns transactions between individuals in which both parties mutually exchange goods or services. Through both of these means Aristotle seeks to provide justice in the written law of his polis which is devoted to the advantage of all. However, Socrates views justice as the harmonious parts of the person or of a city. A just man, therefore, is in just the right place and doing his best to perform his function. He claims that the function of a human being is deliberation, ruling, living, and taking care of things. The ideas of Aristotle differ greatly from this perspective. He states that the human function is to perform activities that express reason. Socrates views his ideal city in which every person performs his or her function. His views pertain to the community in which a person lives while Aristotle’s views are more individualistic as someone who expresses reason in his logic can do so without other people or his community. In the Republic, Socrates attempts to illustrate his views with the parable of the ship. The unjust city is like an open ocean crewed by a powerful but drunken captain (representing the ignorant common people), a group of untrustworthy advisors (politicians), and a navigator (the philosopher). The only way the ship will reach its destination, the good, is if the navigator takes charge. Philosophers, who are lovers of wisdom, should rule because they understand what is good and just. It is also the opinion of Socrates that people who have been the victims of injustice are more likely to become unjust themselves. He disagrees with the notion that returning debts owed, helping friends, and harming enemies are not suitable reasons for doing injustice: “So if someone tells us it is just to give to each what he is owed and understands by this that a just man should harm his enemies and benefit his friends, the one who says it is not wise. I mean, what he says is not true. For it has become clear to us that it is never just to harm anyone” (Plato, Republic, 335e).

A wise person would understand that it is not beneficial to his soul to do injustice only to his enemies. A wise person, according to Socrates would never harm anyone. He maintains that a kind just ruler judges what is best for his people and holds their interests in greater esteem than his friends or family: “... No one in any position of rule... considers or enjoins what is advantageous for himself, but what is advantageous for his subjects” (Plato, Republic, 342e). A ruler who performs acts of injustice is, by nature, more prone to corruption and tyranny. In this way he gives increased support to his argument concerning philosophers as rulers of the polis. Socrates and Aristotle also differ in their...
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