Aristotle draws a distinction between general and particular justice at the start of Nicomachean Ethics, V. Can anyone explain this distinction to me? General justice seems like merely all-round moral rectitude and to have no connection with what we would specifically call 'justice'. I cannot see how it connects with particular justice; and if it doesn't, why is it considered along with it.

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    The question is to broad as written. Can you cite to a specific passage from Aristotle that prompted your post? Sep 9, 2018 at 20:13
  • I agree that this needs more context so that an answer can be useful. A specific passage as Mark Andrews mentions would be helpful. Welcome! Sep 9, 2018 at 21:11
  • Sounds like someone needs help with their homework :) Sep 9, 2018 at 22:03
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    @GeoffreyThomas I think there are some individuals who refuse to participate in hw questions, but it never became a set universal policy. And no individual is required to do anything in particular here -- since it's all voluntary.
    – virmaior
    Sep 20, 2018 at 22:50

1 Answer 1


▻ Quotations are from the J.A.K. Thomson, H. Tredennick, J. Barnes translation listed under Reading.

In Nicomachean Ethics ('NE') V, Aristotle first distinguishes what is usually translated as universal justice. This equates justice with complete virtue but not absolutely, only 'in relation to somebody else' (NE, V, 1129b27-8). The just person is the holos spoudaios (1129a26 ff.), the completely good person in their dealings with others.

As a social virtue in this sense justice (diaiosune) contrasts with virtues such as temperance (sophrosune) and courage (andreia), which are individual virtues in that their exercise does not necessarily involve other people. I can be courageous (andreios) in facing a wild beast; I can be temperate (sophron) by keeping all my appetites in moderation. No-one else need be part of the situation.

Aristotle spends little time on this sense of 'justice', though he does add that justice in this wide sense can be given a juridical interpretation : the just person is the person who acts according to the laws of the polis (state : better 'city-state') - the law-abiding person. Aristotle attaches slight philosophical significance to this interpretation - after all, the laws may not be just by the criteria of justice as moral virtue (NE V.1129b11-1130a13). The main discussion is taken up with distinguishing three kind of particular justice : justice in the more specific senses of fair dealing, which covers distributive justice, corrective justice, and justice in exchange.

Justice is throughout for Aristotle a virtue (arete), a hexis or state of character - 'an established habit of feeling and reacting rightly' (H.H. Joachim : 72 - see Reading below). Its area of operation can be outlined as follows.

Distributive justice (dianemetikov dikaion) centres on the allocation of 'honour or money or such other assets as are divisible among the members of the community (koinonia)' (NE V. 1130b30 ff.). To allocate assets (benefits) on the basis of merit is the defining feature of distributive justice, though Aristotle recognises that the criteria of merit will vary between different kinds of polis - democratic, oligarchic and so on (NE V.1131a25 ff.). If I distribute a benefit according to need, I distribute justly at least in some contexts. If I allocate an honour to the undeserving, I distribute unjustly.

Aristotle's qualifier, 'among the members of the community', is important. Justice is political in the sense that it 'obtains between those who share a life for the satisfaction of their needs as persons free and equal' (NE V.1133a25 ff.). If this appears to describe a somewhat ideal condition, the key point is for Aristotle the moral community, within which justice fulfils its role, coincides with the political community of the polis. Aristotle had slight if any sense of a moral community that extended beyond the bounds of the polis.

Corrective justice (diorthotika dikaia) focuses on the rectification of harm. If I break a contract with you, I will be punished in an appropriate way. Either I will be compelled to fulfil the contract or I will be required to compensate you to the extent of the loss or inconvenience I have caused you. Ideally, corrective justice restores you to your condition before the harm was done.

Lastly there is justice in exchange, commutative justice, justice as reciprocity (antipeponthos) - various translations are used. Aristotle's gnomic formula, "Then as a builder is to a shoemaker, so must x shoes be to a house' (1133a22-24), offers a slight clue. The idea is basically that certain exchanges violate a proper ratio or proportion (analogia), however hard such a ratio may be to calculate or determine. It infringes reciprocal justice if, say, and this is not Aristotle's example, you will only give me the medication I urgently need, medication that costs you almost nothing, if in return I pass over to you the ownership of my house. The precise example is non-Aristotelian but it exactly illustrates Aristotle's appeal to proportion.

Equality and proportionality

Aristotle observes that distributive and corrective justice are importantly linked to equality. Distributive justice does not mean everyone is to get the same share or quantity of some good, say. Rather, as indicated above, their share is to be equal to their merit or entitlement. But Aristiotle introduces a complexity. He characterises distributive justice as involving geometrical proportion : A : B = C : D. If A and B are two persons of equal merit then they will have equal shares of the benefit to be distributed.

Equality is also integral to corrective justice : (a) the parties involved are treated as equals (with no privileges for one or the other) and (b) the aim is to 'equalize' the situation of the injured party to its condition before the offence occurred. (NE, V. 1132a-1132b10. 'What the judge does is to restore equality' (NE, V.1132a25). A different proportion is involved here : arithmetical proportion. If I have disadvantaged you to the extent of -5 (of whatever asset) then you must be compensated to the extent of +5 : your situation before and your situation after are equal.

In the case of justice in exchange, Aristotle settles for 'reciprocal proportion' (NE V. 1133b5 ff.). Neither geometrical nor arithmetical proportion will quite work because the goods or services concerned may be incommensurable (beds and houses in Aristotle's example). There is no fixed, objective standard by which the value of houses can be compared with the value of beds. Here money saves the day. Each type of item has a money value : and reciprocal proportion can be worked out. The money value of a house may be taken to be (say) 10,000 times that of a pair of shoes. An exchange of a house for five pairs of shoes would not observe reciprocal proportion.

Endnote : justice and friendship (philia)

Aristotle is notable for the much-discussed view that 'Between friends there is no need for justice' (NE, VIII.1155a24-8). Delba Winthrop defines the foundation of this view as follows (references are to NE):

Each human being has affection for what seems good to him or her (1155b 23-25), and what seem to be good are the good, the pleasant, and the useful (1155b 18-19), so friendships can exist for the sake of any of these three ends. The good, who love the good, befriend others like themselves because of their goodness. If to be good is good for human beings, then in loving a friend as good, one not only loves him or her for himself or herself, or essentially, but one promotes his goodness, and thus his good, for a friend will prize the affection which is affection for his goodness (1156b 7-11, 1159b 4-7, 1170a 11-13, 1172a 8-15). Since a friend becomes dear to oneself, one secures one's own good in intending his or hers (1157b 33-35). Since the friendship of the good is also pleasant and useful to both parties (1156b 13-15, 1157a 1-3), their association secures to both the comprehensive good or happiness that the law claims to secure to political communities. Because their association is by a choice, born of disposition as well as passion (1157b 28-32), it will be stable and long-last- ing without the convention and law needed to stabilize associations for utility or pleasure. The good who are friends can and do trust one another (1156b 28-29, 1157a 20-24), so injustice need not be anticipated and the institutions and procedures to minimize it need not be established.(Delba Winthrop, 'Aristotle and Theories of Justice', The American Political Science Review, Vol. 72, No. 4 (Dec., 1978), pp. 1201-1216 : 1213.)



Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy). ISBN 10: 0521635462 / ISBN 13: 9780521635462 Published by Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, rev. ed. J.A.K. Thomson, H. Tredennick, J. Barnes, ISBN 10: 0140449493 / ISBN 13: 9780140449495 Published by Penguin Classics, 2004.

H.H. Joachim, Aristotle : The Nicomachean Ethics, ed. D.A. Rees, Oxford : OUP, 1966.

Delba Winthrop, 'Aristotle and Theories of Justice', The American Political Science Review, Vol. 72, No. 4 (Dec., 1978)12, 1201-1216.

Geoffrey Thomas, An Introduction to Political Philosophy. ISBN 10: 0715626442 / ISBN 13: 9780715626443 Published by Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, 2000 : 106-8.

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