Book 05
Chapter 11
Whether it is possible for a person to treat themselves unjustly or not.

Now we are ready to settle the question as to whether someone can do an unjust act to themselves.

Let us consider, generally speaking, the kinds of things that people can do that affect themselves in some way: drink, gamble, and marry, for example. For all these things we can say: (1) people affect themselves by doing them and (2) it is open to question as to whether or not people ought to be allowed to do them, and, if they are allowed, under what conditions they may do them (e.g. they must be of a certain age).

Then we have things like committing suicide (obviously a questionable thing); and, because there is no law which says that it is allowed to happen, ever, that means that it is not allowed.

Now, when a person goes against the law, and harms someone, and does that voluntarily, that person acts unjustly. (We do, though, make exceptions for people that are retaliating against someone that harmed them first.) We say that people do things voluntarily when they know who they are doing the thing to, and with what they are doing it (again, recall that there is a difference between knowing that a weapon is real, and dangerous, vs. thinking it is just a fake). The person that stabs themselves, because they wish to do harm to themselves, is doing the opposite of taking care of themselves: they are acting against the law, and they are acting unjustly. But who is it that is treated with injustice? Someone has to be the one that loses while the other gains. The person committing suicide gets what they want, and no one can truly want injustice or voluntarily receive it. The one that suffers the loss is the state, not the person; and it is the state that punishes a person that does such a thing (e.g. by taking away their right to a burial within the city).

Next, let us consider in what sense we are using the word 'unjust'. Do we mean that the person (1) has a vice of some kind or (2) is all-around wicked?

Now, we could say that a person acts unjustly on the grounds that what they do comes out of an unjust, or wicked, character. So likewise, we could say that giving money is a liberal act if it comes from a liberal character. But, however, in the case of (1), where a person is acting from vice, but is not wicked themselves, that such a person acts unjustly.

No one can ever really take and gain from themselves. No one ever gets charged with theft, because they took their own money. No one ever gets charged with adultery because they slept with their own wife. No, an unjust deed means that there is more than one person involved. The person that does the unjust deed has to be the one that acts first (and that is why retaliation might not be considered unjust; in order for someone to even the score, another person must first do them wrong). But if someone harms themselves, then there is no one that acts first.

Also, even if we suppose that the person in question does have a wicked character, and they really are trying to take something from themselves, how can they do so in an unjust way when they agree to whatever they do to themselves? A doctor who performs surgery cuts someone with a knife and does not get charged with assault, because the patient agrees to be treated. And, again, you cannot steal from yourself, because you give yourself whatever you take.

(And besides, in a previous chapter, we already settled the question whether a person could voluntarily suffer injustice. We said that it was not possible.)

Now, being treated unjustly is the opposite of acting unjustly. Acting unjustly is obviously bad. But does that then mean being treated unjustly is good (since they are opposites)? No, no more than being a coward is good because recklessness is bad and they are both opposites. They are both bad because they mean that things are not as they should be. Things should be just, and justice is an intermediate, in the middle. Staying healthy through exercise is a good thing to do for your body, and the two alternatives are both bad: (1) doing too much to your body and stressing it out and (2) not doing enough, being inactive, and wasting away from doing nothing. So, again, getting unjustly treated is bad, though not as bad as it could be. After all, when it comes to vices, one of them is the worse to have, because it does more damage (e.g. being self-indulgent and drinking too much versus being too uptight and not drinking enough). So likewise it is with acting unjustly vs. being treated unjustly. Acting unjustly is the worse. When you act unjustly you do more damage, because you harm both another person and you harm yourself (viz. by getting blame and hurting your reputation).

(Even though acting unjustly is worse, in principle, it is possible for being treated unjustly to be a greater evil, in practice. Being ignorant of the value of things may cause one to lose a fortune by agreeing to a swindle, and that is a greater evil than, say, being overly competitive, from that, and not justly calling a foul a foul in a game of sport.)

Now, there cannot be justice or injustice between things which are not at all related. There cannot be justice or injustice between peoples faraway from one another, such as the Celts and the Scythians. If there is injustice, then it must be between things that are related.

Now, what about the relations within a person? Here, I mean the relations between the parts of their soul, the rational part and the irrational part. There are those who take the term 'justice' and apply it to what is within the person themselves. They hold that there should be a kind of relation within their soul like the one that is between master and servant or husband and wife. In these relations, there is justice when things stand in a certain ratio to one another, and when there is not then there is injustice. So likewise, there should be a certain ratio between the rational and the irrational part. If no ratio holds, then, (these people think) that it is possible that a person can be unjust to themselves, because the parts will suffer something that goes against what they are truly about. Consider, for example, that the rational part may value law and order, while the irrational part values honor. Next, say that the irrational part goes against the law in the name of seeking honor at any cost, and causes the rational part to suffer. The irrational part has taken an undue proportion of power, like a mob holding sway, taking away powers that ought, justly, to belong to the leaders. The irrational part has also caused hurt to the rational by forcing it to do what it is against doing. There should be justice, they say, within the soul of man, a justice which is like that between ruler and ruled. A just proportion of power is one where each part gets the share of power which it rightly deserves.

And at this point we conclude our account of what justice is, and what the other moral virtues are. In the next book we will continue on with the intellectual virtues.


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