Book 05
Chapter 09
The question of whether or not it is possible to voluntarily suffer an injustice.

Consider the following strange fragment from a play by Euripides:

A: I slew my mother: that is all there is to say.

B: But tell me, were you both willing or unwilling both?

It brings up the question: Can anyone ever want to be treated unjustly? Has there ever been a case of someone voluntarily being treated unjustly? Or is it that: although some people want to do unjust acts to others, no one wants to be treated unjustly, themselves?

Recall that it is possible for something unjust to happen by accident. In that case, although an action took place, no one person took an unjust action. For someone to act unjustly means that they are being vicious, and vice always involves choice. Whatever is by choice is also voluntary, which means that unjust acts are voluntary. But, again, if something unjust happens by accident, then we say that the outcome was unjust, but not the action causing the accident, itself. This may not seem like it should be the case, but it is. For instance, if someone pays good money for a product, and the product turns out to be defective, then we have an unjust outcome; but we do not have an unjust action if the person selling had no idea that the product was defective. It would be absurd to imagine the clerk being taken to court for selling the product, for they themselves did nothing unjust.

People do suffer injustice involuntarily; people wish for bad things not to happen to them, and yet sometimes they do. And what goes against one's wishes is involuntary. But there is a question as to whether suffering injustice is always involuntary, and never by choice. Is it ever possible to voluntarily suffer an injustice? Can anyone ever wish for something bad to be done to themselves?

This turns out to be a hard question (and it has implications relating to suicide); we will spend the rest of this chapter coming at this question from different angles.

So, first, let us look at the case where someone does justice unto someone else (that may be the easier and more obvious way to go). Well, doing just acts is always voluntary. Why? Because doing justice is virtuous, and virtue always involves choice, and we do what we choose, voluntarily. But is receiving justice from someone else always voluntary? While we know that it is possible to receive justice without making any conscious choice (which we shall see shortly), we do not know whether it is possible to have justice if it goes against one's own wishes.

It seems like the answer for both will be the same. I mean, it should be that either (1) to have justice done to you and to have injustice done to you can both sometimes be voluntary or (2) to have justice done to you and to have injustice done to you must both always be involuntary.

Well, it is obvious that it is possible to voluntarily receive justice; for example, someone offers another a fair deal and they take it. Suppose that in this example the person receiving the fair deal thinks the person offering made a mistake and does not try to correct it to make the deal be fair. In this case, while we cannot say that the person wanted fairness, they did want what they got. So we can say that people can receive justice both voluntarily and involuntarily. And based on what we said in the last paragraph, since it is possible to receive justice involuntarily, it now seems like it is going to, somehow, be possible that some people suffer injustices voluntarily.

What you get and what you give may happen to be just, even though justice was not the aim of the act. Likewise also, what you get and what you give may happen to be unjust, even though injustice was not the aim. Again, two people can make an unfair split of goods because one person keeps insisting on what is unfair to themselves. To make an unfair split is to do something unjust, and to give someone less than what they deserve is also to do something unjust, but in this example it is not an unjust act. If the second person keeps insisting, such that the first person is forced to agree against their will, then it cannot be said that the first person did an injustice to the second. It is the same with doing things that are just and just acts. In both cases, the difference is between the thing that is done and what the one person does to the other person by doing the act (justice, injustice, and neither). This point may be hard to grasp.

Let us again try to make this point clear: when something unjust happens, that is not right. But that does not mean the person doing the act has to be involved in an injustice (if it is an accident then the real cause is outside of the person). A person is involved in an injustice because choice is involved. Because there is choice, the cause of injustice is the person. (And it is the same with justice.) So, having (1) something unjust happen to you (e.g. agreeing to an unfair deal which neither person knew was unfair) and (2) suffering an injustice (e.g. being intentionally cheated) are not the same thing.

Now, if doing injustice means hurting people, because that is what you want to do (voluntary), and doing what you want to means knowing what you are doing, then what does that say about people with no self-restraint (i.e. incontinent people)? It says that if they hurt themselves by getting what they want (e.g. drinking too much), then they voluntarily suffer injustice. It means that it is possible for someone to do an injustice to themselves.

Again, someone with no self-restraint (incontinent) might want something that will hurt themselves, and then another person gives it to them, and we then have a case of someone voluntarily suffering injustice by another. Say, for example, one person is pushing the other to have more to drink, and the other person cannot say no. They do want to drink more, and so they do, and they suffer for it.

Well, this line of thinking does not seem right. Why? Because the person suffering the injustice, even though they cannot stop themselves, may wish to stop themselves. That seems like it should matter. If something hurts a person, and that person does not wish to be hurt, then how can we say, at the same time, that the person hurt themselves voluntarily? In the case of drinking, someone can want to drink more, but at the same time wish that they could stop, because they wish to avoid the bad consequences. Surely this is different from another person who does not at all wish that they could stop.

So, it is clearly impossible to voluntarily suffer injustice.

We still have two more questions to go over here: (1) When people split things up into shares, is it the person that does the splitting unfairly or is it the person that agrees to that split the one that causes the unjust division? (2) Is it possible to treat yourself unjustly?

First, let us say that the person that makes the unfair split does the unjust act, and also that they give themselves less than what they deserve. If that is so, then they will have treated themselves unjustly. For example, perhaps there is one more piece of food left in a dish, and two people are looking at it. The one that has had less to eat offers it to the other person. Moderate and equitable people often do this. But then again, do these people really do an injustice to themselves if they also gain a good name for themselves?

And let us remember how we said that injustice is suffered only if what happens goes against the wishes of the person. But if it is what the person wishes, then they are not suffering an injustice. So, if a person wishes to make a split where they get less than what they deserve, then they cannot be said to suffer an injustice (though perhaps it may be said that they harm themselves).

There are many senses of the word "do" which can make things be confusing. Think here of how it is said that weapons do not kill people, people do. Or think of when someone might say: "I was only doing what I was told to do." There is a difference between someone or something being involved in some action, and that someone or something being the cause of it. Now, we could say that a weapon or a slave did something that made for an unjust outcome (e.g. wounded someone), but we could not say that a weapon itself or a slave themself acted unjustly or did an act of injustice (there is no choice involved). Rather, we trace the real cause back to what started it all. It was the person that used the weapon or the master that commanded the slave that did the act of injustice: they are the ones that made the choice, and they are the ones that displayed the vice of injustice.

But is it always the case that (1) a choice is made and (2) that choice causes an injustice, the person who made the choice acts unjustly? Well, suppose that an army takes a city, and the general is going to decide how the spoils are divided up. Some they will take for themselves, and some they will give to their men. Let us suppose further, that the best soldiers among them do not get what they deserve. An injustice is done. Now, there is no law at play here. So, the general does not act unjustly in a legal sense, but still it is an injustice. If this general knows that people are not getting their due, even though the general has the power to do whatever they want, still they act unjustly. It does not matter if they take extra for themselves or give extra to their friends: they did not give people their due, so they did an act of injustice to them.

Many people think that since they easily could act unjustly if they felt like it, it also means that they could easily act justly if they felt like it. Yet, that is not so. To sleep with someone else's spouse or raise your hands against another or to slip a bribe -- these things are not hard to do, so you can choose to do them if the opportunity comes; but to do these things naturally, as being the kind of person that does them, that is not so easy, nor is it always within one's power to.

People also think that it is easy to know what is just from what is unjust, because the law says what is not allowed; it is not that hard to understand what is illegal, so therefore it must not be that hard to understand what is just (just avoid breaking the law). But what is legal and what is just are not the same thing. To do justice, you have to know how things are to be done, so that they are done just right, and how to divvy up things in the right way. That is quite hard to do, harder than practicing medicine even. And most people know that being a doctor is not easy, and they try to make sure they get a good doctor (for if medicine were easy enough that anyone could do it, all doctors would be good). Consider also, how a doctor could, if they wanted to, do harm to their patient. After all, knowing how to make for health means knowing how to make for illness (which is why the Hippocratic Oath requires physicians to do no harm, because they could if they chose to). It is the same with the just person and the doing of injustice. A just person has the ability to do all kinds of unjust things (to do violence and cheat and steal), but they do not because they choose justice instead.

Again, if an unjust person happens to do something just, that does not mean that the unjust person is a source of justice, in the way that a judge is. Suppose someone, who normally tries to cheat people, offers someone up (whom they cannot cheat) a fair deal. They do not do a just act, except incidentally. Likewise also, a just person simply does not do unjust acts even though it appears as if they have the potential to do so. Being a just person, they do not have the potential to do so, because they do not possess such a character as would choose injustice. It is like with a doctor; when a doctor performs surgery, they do not just start slicing the patient up with a knife in any old way, and maybe sometimes they get it right and sometimes they get it wrong. No, they rather perform surgery in certain ways only, ways that doctors are trained to do, which is what makes them be doctors.

People can do just acts when it is possible for them to take and have the right amount of something. Consider again, for instance, when an army sacks a city and they must divide up the spoils of war. One portion should be set aside and dedicated to the gods, and these one could never give too much to, and so we cannot say that they do justice to the gods, though we can say a right amount is dedicated to them, and those who do it, act piously. Another portion is given to the men, and to those good men who both deserve what they get and will make good use of it, a just act is done; but to those bad men who manage to get for themselves a portion which they neither deserve, nor will do anything good with (i.e. whatever they get, they waste), these do not receive justice, because anything they do get is more than what they ought. But again, for good people, there is some amount that they ought to receive, and it is a just one.


« index »

« subscribe »

« home »