Doing something that is just versus acting with the virtue of justice.
Now that we have established what things are just and unjust, let us go over the difference between a just thing being done and a person acting justly. They seem like they are the same. After all, if a just thing is done, then someone must have done a just act, right? Actually, no, that is not always the case. It can be the case that someone does something which happens to be just, though they were not intending for justice to be done. In that case, we do not say that they did a just act. For example, imagine that someone sells a plot of land which they believe to be worthless. They think that they are tricking the buyer, as they talk them into buying the land. As it turns out, the land really is worth how much the buyer pays. So, it really was a fair deal. Still, we cannot say that the seller acted with the virtue of justice when they made their offer.
Likewise also, someone can do something that is unjust to someone else, but it is not an unjust act, because they were not trying to do an injustice to the other person. Here we may imagine someone selling a piece of equipment that is practically new, and it seems like it works fine. The buyer asks if there is anything wrong with it. The seller says no. At the selling price, it seems like a fair (and, just) deal, and so the buyer agrees to pay. But then after the buyer has purchased the equipment, it soon breaks. So, it was not really a fair deal, because it was not worth what the buyer paid, and yet we cannot say that the seller did an act of injustice. True, a court may order the seller to return the money, but, again, we would not say that they acted unjustly if there was no way that they could have known.
It all depends on whether the person who does the thing acts voluntarily or involuntarily. Before we said that a voluntary act is one where: (1) the person doing it has control over themselves, (2) they know what it is that they are doing, including what they are using to do it (e.g. something real and dangerous versus fake and harmless), and (3) they know what should happen as a result of them doing it. For example, let us make up a scenario where someone takes hold of someone else's hand and then uses it to strike the father of that second person. This person, that is being controlled, did not voluntarily strike their own father. So we cannot say that this person did an unjust act, even though something unjust was done. Or let us say that someone struck their father for something that would not normally be against the law (e.g. in defending their honor), but to do it to a father is against the law. Finally, let us imagine that this person does not know that it is their father that they are striking. An unjust thing has happened, but not from someone acting with the vice of injustice. Again, this is not something that they do voluntarily, because they do not know what they are doing. Anything that a person does because they were forced to or owing to their ignorance is said to be involuntary; and what is involuntary is neither virtuous nor vicious.
(And, on a side note, there are even things which are neither voluntary nor involuntary. Here I mean things like growing old and dying and anything else that happens from the course of nature. These do not get called involuntary, because it is not even imaginable that someone could do them voluntarily. In other words, if you do not have the one, then you cannot have its opposite either.)
Now, suppose that someone borrows money, and they have no intention of repaying it. But then they get threatened with harm if they do not repay (i.e. they had better pay up, or else). So, they end up repaying the loan. Now, normally we would say that to promptly repay what you owe is a just act. But here this person is only doing it because they are afraid of the consequences of not doing it. We cannot say that they are acting as a just person. (And we could imagine the reverse scenario, where someone intends to repay, but then is unable to because they need the money to pay the ransom on their parents, say. The non-repayment here is not done as an unjust person, though it is unjust that the lender cannot get their money back.) Here again, we have examples of just and unjust things happening, but not as coming from the virtue of justice or the vice of injustice.
It is important to be right in our praise and blame. We do not want to give praise or blame to those who do not deserve it. So let us next look at the vice of injustice and work out what it means to do an unjust act on purpose. The things we do on purpose are those we choose. Further, the things we do by choice will always be voluntary, but those things that we do voluntarily are not always done by choice. How so? Because perhaps we may react to something that happens and not consciously intend to do what we do.
With this in mind, we can say that any time one person injures another person, it will happen in one of the following three ways and mean one of four things:
First, if the hurt is done without knowing that it would happen, then we usually call it a mistake or an accident. If there was no way that anyone could have known that the thing would happen, and yet a thing did happen which caused it, then it was an accident. (Here we may remember the tale told of Perseus, how it was foretold that he would kill his grandfather, Acrisos. As it turned out, while Perseus was competing at the discus, his throw accidentally struck and killed Acrisos, and fulfilled the oracle.) On the other hand, if a certain person might have known, but yet that person failed to see it or simply was not thinking, then it was a mistake. Here again we recall the example of Theseus, who was told, after he returned from Minos and the Labyrinth, that he was to raise a white sail, so his father would know that he was still alive. Theseus was neglectful of his promise, and, as a result, Aegeus, the father of Theseus thought he was dead, and so Aegeus killed himself out of despair. Theseus was neglectful, it was no accident, but at the same time he never chose to not keep his promise, rather he broke it by mistake.
Now, second, if someone does something without planning to beforehand, but they still know what they are doing, and they do hurt to someone, then it is an act of injustice. But because they did not plan to do it, that probably means that they did it out of some kind of weakness (e.g. a bad temper), and not because they are a wicked person.
Third, if someone does something unjust, and they know what they are doing, and they have it planned out beforehand, then they are unjust and wicked. Because they did the thing on purpose, that means they did as an unjust person would do it, so they have the vice of injustice.
So, people are right to separate out the acts done out of anger from the acts done out of malice (bad intentions). When someone provokes someone else (e.g. by openly insulting and dishonoring them) then the instigator (the one that insults) is the one that sets off the chain of actions that leads to something bad happening. But if someone attacks another person without being provoked at all, then that person acts out of malice: the badness begins and ends within that person and no one else.
In these kinds of court cases, where one person attacks another, they do not dispute whether something unjust has happened, but who should be blamed and punished for what they did. Well, that depends on who caused what happened. The first person to do something unjust from vice (and not by accident) is the cause of the injustice. If the attacker is unprovoked, then they are the one. But if the other person goads them into it, then they did the first injustice.
Now, in court cases about trade deals and contracts they do dispute about whether anything unjust has happened. One person claims that what has happened is unfair (e.g. they say that the other person lied and cheated them) and the other person says that it was perfectly fair (e.g. they say caveat emptor, let the buyer beware).
Again, if a person not only harms another person, but they did it because they chose to (and not accidentally), then it is not only the case that something unjust happened, but it is also the case that that person acted viciously. Similarly, when a person acts virtuously, then they not only do something that is just, but also they also do it intentionally, because they are trying to be just. But if a person happens to do something just (again, makes a deal that is fair), but not because they were trying to be just, then we do not say that they acted virtuously. Virtue and vice always involve choice.
When people hurt others, but not by choice, sometimes we give them a pardon, and sometimes not. If it happens because they do not know what they are doing, then we will likely pardon them. But if it happens because they are not even taking any care to think, if the incident rather happens because they are not only angry, but rather wild and out-of-control and they do nothing to check themselves, then we do not pardon.
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