Suffering, Voluntariness and Happiness in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics


Justice in General

This paper is an attempt to defend the negative position regarding the hanging question: Can someone voluntarily suffer injustice? This puzzling question was raised by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics after adequately defining suffering injustice and doing injustice.[1]

First of all, are those bizarre words of Euripides correct, where he writes, ‘ “I killed my mother—a short tale to tell.” “Were both of you willing or both unwilling?” ’? For is it really possible to suffer injustice willingly, or is it always involuntary, as doing injustice is always voluntary? And is it always one way or the other, or is it sometimes voluntary and sometimes involuntary?[2]

Aristotle later on concludes with the same negative position, but, first, an understanding of his definition of justice and his philosophy is necessary.

Aristotle opens Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics by introducing the questions we must examine about justice and injustice: “What sorts of actions are they concerned with? What sort of mean is justice?”[3] and “What are the extremes between which justice is intermediate?”[4] Aristotle defines justice as a state of character, i.e., “the state that makes us doers of just actions, that makes us do justice and wish what is just.”[5] In contrast, he defines injustice as “the state that makes us do injustice and wish what is unjust.”[6] He distinguishes also the above contrast with the contrast between what is just (what is lawful and what is fair) and what is unjust (what is lawless and what is unfair).

Thus, for him, the unjust person is, concerning with goods, someone who is greedy, who chooses only what is good for him (unfairness), who doesn’t think that what is good unconditionally is always good, i.e., even for him.[7] And what we call just is whatever that produces and maintains happiness and its parts for a political community. And with this, it follows that to be just requires observance of the law; since the provisions of legislative science are lawful, such that whatever is lawful is in some way just. To observe the law is to follow the requirements of the law: to do the actions of a brave person (not to leave or flee from battle); the actions of a mild person (not to strike or revile another); the actions that express the other virtues and prohibits those that express the vices.[8]

For Aristotle, general justice is complete virtue in relation to another. “…and the proverb says ‘And in justice all virtue is summed up.’”[9] Justice is the complete exercise of complete virtue. It is the only virtue that seems to be the other person’s good, for it does what benefits the other. And the best person is the one who exercises it in relation to another, not only to himself.[10] From this general differentiation, he makes it clear that justice is the exercise of the whole of virtue, while injustice is the exercise of the whole of vice.


Special Justice

What has been made clear so far is the idea of general justice as complete virtue. However, it is only in so far as it is a state unconditionally that justice is virtue, but in so far as this virtue is related to another, it is justice, that is, being just. From this typology, it is necessary to distinguish the way for a thing to be just or unjust. “The majority of lawful actions, we might say, are the actions resulting from virtue as a whole. For the law instructs us to express each virtue, and forbids us to express each vice, in how we live.”[11]

Aside also from the whole of injustice, there is also another type of injustice, special injustice. Special injustice is concerned with honor, wealth, or whatever single name will include these. On the other hand, the concern of injustice as a whole is whatever concerns the excellent person.

Justice in Distribution

Since the unjust person is unfair, and what is unjust is unfair, there is clearly an intermediate between the unfair extremes, and this is what is fair. And if what is unjust is unfair, what is just is fair (equal), as seems true to everyone even without argument.[12] What is just, therefore, in distribution, as of honor and wealth, is what is fair and what is equal.

In distribution, what is just requires at least four things: the two people for whom it is just, and the two equal things that are involved. Here we can see that, in distribution, justice is proportionate equality. Since it requires equal shares for equal people, what is just is in some way proportionate.

What is just, therefore, is what is proportionate; and what is unjust is what is counter-proportionate. In an unjust action, one term becomes more, and the other less. The one doing injustice has more of the good, and the victim less.

Justice in Rectification

When things are unequal, the judge tries to restore the unjust situation to equality. For Aristotle, here it does not matter if a decent person has taken from a base person, or the other way around, the law rather looks only at differences in the harm inflicted, and treats the involved people as equals, when one does injustice and the other suffers it, and one has done the harm while the other has suffered it. Here equality is achieved through numerical proportion, that is, the victim’s loss versus the offender’s profit. Rectificatory (or corrective) justice therefore is the mean between loss and profit.

Justice in Exchange

Reciprocity will be secured when things are equalized. However, they must be introduced into the figure of proportion before the exchange, in that way they will be equals and associates. Hence, everything must have a price. Currency, by making things commensurate as a measure does, equalizes them, for there would be no association without exchange, no exchange without equality, no equality without commensurability.

Doing injustice is awarding to oneself too many of the things that, considered unconditionally, are good, and too few of the things that considered unconditionally are bad.

Justice, then, is not simply reciprocity, otherwise we can say one must return also either evil for evil. But justice in exchange (or reciprocal justice) is proportionate equality, that is, in general, from people who are different and unequal and who must be equalized. And, for this, money was designed to secure proportionate reciprocity, by facilitating exchange. Currency measures excess and deficiency, such in the case of a house-builder and a shoemaker: how many shoes are equal to a house.


Justice as a Mean

Virtue is that which stands between two extremes, between the vices. Justice is the virtue that the just person is said to express in the just actions expressing his decision. In contrast, injustice is that which is related, in the same way, to what is unjust. What is unjust is disproportionate excess and deficiency in what is beneficial or harmful. In an unjust action, getting too good is suffering injustice, and getting too much is doing injustice.




doing injustice

doing justice

suffering injustice



having too much


having too little


The Relations among Justice, Injustice,

Just Acts and Unjust Acts

An act of injustice is different from what is unjust, and an act of justice from what is just. One does injustice or justice whenever he does them willingly, but one does neither justice nor injustice whenever he does them unwillingly, except coincidentally, since the actions he does are only coincidentally just or unjust. Something will be unjust without thereby being an act of injustice, if it is not also voluntary[13].

Actions caused by emotion do not result from forethought, and hence do not result from decision, since the origin is not the agent who acted on the person, but the person who provoked him to anger. In this case, the argument is not about whether the action caused by anger happened or not, but about whether it was just, since anger is only a response to apparent injustice.


Can someone voluntarily suffer injustice?

Doing something unjust is not the same as doing injustice, and suffering something unjust is not the same as suffering injustice. The same is true of doing justice and receiving it, for it is impossible to suffer injustice if no one does injustice and impossible to receive justice if no one does justice.

If doing injustice is simply harming someone willingly, that is, doing it with knowledge of the victim, the instrument and the way, with no further conditions, then it would be possible to suffer injustice willingly. But we should, in fact, add to our criteria the condition “against the wish of the victim.” Therefore, someone is only harmed and suffers something unjust willingly, but no one suffers injustice willingly. No one wishes for what he does not think is excellent and what he does not think is right. Also, if someone gives away what is his own, he does not suffer injustice, for it is up to him to give them; whereas suffering is not up to him, but requires someone to do him injustice.


Telos: Happiness

There are cases, however, wherein it seems that one voluntarily suffers injustice from willing persons seemingly possessing injustice as their state of character, such as in the cases of heroic deeds or acts of martyrdom. But since we have made it clear that one only suffers something unjust willingly, and not the general injustice willingly, let us now narrow what could be a possible follow up question into this formulation: What could be the reason as to why a hero or a martyr would will to suffer that which is unjust?

We can only speculate as to what reason such a person has, since most of the time such a person no longer lives on to explain himself after that circumstance which we judge to be unjust happens. But that there are also cases wherein we could still gather accounts from those who suffered the unjust act but survived. The common thing we hear from them or speculate from their suffering of those unjust acts is the sense of an end (telos) or purpose. In the opening lines of the Politics, Aristotle implies the doctrines he believes are of special importance, such as: “human beings have natural ends or functions (the principle of teleology)”; and “the most authoritative good for human beings consists in the fullest possible realization of their nature (the principle of perfection).”[14]

Following this line of thinking, we can conclude that it is only through the motivation of an ultimate end, or at the least a higher end, that one can will to suffer an unjust act. Such willingness to undergo pain, suffering, and even death in an unjust act can only be thought of with the principle of teleology. The ultimate end in mind may, perhaps, be for the sake of justice, to finally conquer the superabundance of injustice.

Ivan Richard F. Deligero

July 14, 2012

[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Ethica Nicomachea, or EN), 1136a10, T. Irwin, trans. (1985), Indiana: Hacket Publishing Company, Inc., 139. Emphasis mine.

[2] Aristotle, EN, 1136a12-18, T. Irwin, trans. (1985), 139-140.

[3] Ibid., 1129a5, 116.

[4] Ibid., 1129a6, 116.

[5] Ibid., 1129a7-9, 116.

[6] Ibid., 1129a10, 116.

[7] Cf. Ibid., 1129b, 117.

[8] Cf. Ibid., 1129b-1130a, 118-119.

[9] Cf. Ibid., 1129b30, 119.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 1130b20-25, 121-122.

[12] Ibid., 1131a10-15, 122-123.

[13] For Aristotle, a voluntary action is defined by the appropriate sort of knowledge. An action is voluntary under these conditions: (1) It is up to the agent, (2) He does it in knowledge, (3) He does each of these neither coincidentally nor by force.

[14] Cf. F. D. Miller, Jr. (1995), Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle’s Politics, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 17-18:

The Principle of Teleology. According to Aristotle substances or primary existents have a nature, i.e. an end or telos (natural end). The natural end is a causal principle used in Aristotle’s strict sciences to explain how a thing comes into being and maintains itself. The end of a thing is also identified with its function (ergon). Further, Aristotle states that everything is defined in terms of its function. Natural teleology also has an important place in Aristotle’s practical science. For example, the definition of the human good or happiness in the ethical treatises proceeds from an analysis of the function of a human being or the function of the soul.

The Principle of Perfection. A second presupposition of Aristotle’s argument is that the best life for human beings consists in the attainment of their natural ends, i.e. in the full realization of their nature. This normative ideal is explicitly endorsed in the Politics: “What is most choiceworthy for each individual is always the highest it is possible for him to attain” (Politics VII 14 1333a29-30; Cf. EN X 7 1177b33-4). This state of full self-realization is perfection or completeness, which is the full normal functioning of a thing relative to the capacities specific to its natural kind. The prescription that one ought to strive for perfection may be called ’the principle of perfection’. Aristotle’s application of this to human affairs may be called ‘the principle of eudamonia’ because he regards human perfection as consisting in eudemonia (happiness or flourishing). Happiness is the activity of the soul according to reason (or not without reason), i.e. activity on accordance with the most perfect (or complete) virtue of excellence. The general principle of perfection has two types of practical application: when human beings act as individual agents, they ought to strive for their own perfection (individual perfection); when they cooperate with each other in a polis, they ought to strive in concert for the perfection of the whole polis (political perfection)….. Aristotle recognizes that a thing may fall short of perfection in varying degrees. He accordingly endorses a related normative doctrine which may be called ‘the principle of proximity’: It is best to attain perfection, but, failing that, a thing is better in proportion as it is nearer to the end.

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