Aristotle on Justice and Politics
This lecture takes a look at Aristotle’s general ethical theory and the ideas that will influence later natural law thinkers. Koterski admits that Aristotle isn’t really a natural law theorist. Aristotle doesn’t articulate his views on ethics in terms of law, but in terms of virtue.
Koterski discusses Aristotle doctrine of the mean and four central virtues: Prudence, Courage, Temperance, and Justice. He focuses on the contrast Aristotle draws between our nature and our second-nature—that is, between natural dispositions and virtue. We are born with natural dispositions to act and to be certain ways. Virtue requires that we take those natural dispositions and develop them with the goal of being excellent at what we do.
In this way, for Aristotle, virtue is natural in that it is the development and ultimate fulfillment of our nature. Ultimately, these virtues are explainable by reference to our natural function. According to Aristotle, this is rationality. It is what makes us what we are; and so, to be most truly what we are, we need to perform our function excellently. This means that all our actions and activities have to be informed by the principle of reason. This understanding of our function directs us towards the outlines of ethics and politics.
This leads Koterski into a discussion of Aristotle’s view on justice. Justice is, for Aristotle and most of the classical thinkers, what is due, what is fair. The virtue of justice is, then, the virtue of behaving in ways that appropriately gives and takes what is fair. Aristotle argues that we have a natural sense of what is due and what is fair and that this natural justice needs to inform and stand behind the positive law created by communities.
In this sense, Aristotle is coming close to a natural law theory. He even talks of the common law of nature that can be known by all and that needs to be the basis for judging positive law. Next up, the Stoics.