Justice: Plato vs. Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle, arguably the most important philosophers of their time, both made attempts to define justice. Being that Aristotle was a student of Plato, their ideas share many similarities. Both viewed justice as the harmonious interaction of people in a society. However, Plato defined his ideal of justice with more usage of metaphysics, invoking his Form of the Good, while Aristotle took a more practical approach, speaking in terms of money and balance. Although Aristotle’s ideal of justice may seem superior, upon further inspection, Plato’s ideal of justice is the stronger.

Plato defines justice in terms of two types, group and individual. Group justice is a type of political justice and Plato identifies political justice as harmony in a structured political body. Plato’s ideal society consists of three classifications of people: producers, auxiliaries and guardians. Producers are people such as farmers and craftsmen. Auxiliaries are the warrior class whose job is to protect the city and carry out the orders of the guardians. The guardians are the ruling class, raised from an early age to be virtuous. Plato’s ideal of political justice relies on the principle of specialization.

Each person in the society must fulfill the role that he is best suited for, his arete, and not the role that he may desire to fill. According to Plato, individual justice mirrors political justice. He discusses the tri-partite soul in his Republic. The tri-partite soul consists of three parts: the rational, the spirited and the appetitive. The rational part of the soul searches after the truth. The spirited part desires honor and is responsible for our feelings of anger and indignation. The appetitive part is lust, especially for money. Justice in the individual is analogous to justice in the society.

An individual is just when the three parts of his soul are fulfilling their intended roles. The rational part rules the soul, the spirited part supports the rule of the rational part and the appetitive part of the soul submits and follows wherever the rational part leads. Similar to the just society, every part follows the rule of its ruler and justice is achieved. It follows that Plato’s ideal of justice be exemplified in the philosopher-king, since it is only the philosopher that would have the requisite justice in his soul that would make him a just ruler of a just society. Aristotle presents a more practical definition of justice.

Relying less on metaphysics, Aristotle defines justice as the restoration of maintenance of balance. Aristotle breaks down justice into two types, distributive and rectificatory, both dealing with some measure of balance. Distributive justice deals with the distribution of some good, such as wealth, among members of a community. Distribution is done according to what a person deserves, a good person receiving more than a bad person. Rectificatory justice is the restoration of balance when an unequal distribution has occurred. For Aristotle, justice is a virtue but unlike the other virtues he discusses in his Ethics.

Whereas each virtue was defined as the mean between two vices, justice is not the mean of two vices since injustice, the opposite of justice, is but only one extreme. Justice is the mean state of people having what they deserve. Injustice occurs when people have either too much or too little. Following Aristotle’s definition of justice, a theft of one hundred dollars would result in the thief’s gain of one hundred dollars and the victim’s equal and unjust loss of one hundred dollars. Looking at a simple example involving money, it seems Aristotle’s ideal of justice is valid.

However, justice as a restoration of balance is not always so easily applied. In the case of the theft of an item of significant sentimental value, the victim loses much more than the thief gains. In trying to resolve the situation, how does a judge restore balance to both parties equally? What if the item in question is lost or destroyed? How is restoration supposed to be achieved? Simply requiring the thief to pay back an equal monetary value of the item unjustly stolen would put the thief back in balance, but the victim would be severely treated unjustly by such a depraved indifference to their feelings.

By taking the middle road and averaging the victim’s loss with that of the thief’s gain, both parties lose ? the thief must pay more than he stole and the victim can never be returned enough value to compensate for their loss. An equal restoration of balance would be difficult, if not impossible, in this scenario. In regards to safety, it is not always the case that one’s gain is equal to another’s loss as well. For example, the situation may occur where a gapping hole in a sidewalk may come into existence.

How the hole came to be could be another example of injustice that is out of the scope of our discussion here. If someone removes a sign warning passersby of the impending doom they will face if they were to walk into such a hole, the remover of said sign’s safety is not increased by an equal amount of the loss of safety felt by anyone who happens to walk by if even in fact that person’s safety is increased at all. It may be the case, that the removal of the sign, an injustice to those previously mentioned passersby, may not be an action of an unjust nature.

Implicit in Aristotle’s discussion of justice in his Ethics, is the idea that justice involves two parties, one committing an unjust act and another receiving the unjust act. However, as our illustration shows, that is not always the case. His ideal of justice is lacking, full of holes when compared to Plato’s ideal of justice. Plato’s ideal of justice, in its simplicity does not fall short of its own definition. On the other hand, Aristotle’s attempt at a practical explanation of his own ideal of justice creates a well-structured web of holes, strong in its application but weak in certain points.