“For this reason justice, alone of the virtues, is thought to be ‘another’s good,’ because it is related to our neighbor; for it does what is advantageous to another.
…and the best man is not he who exercises his virtue towards himself but he who exercises it towards another; for this is a difficult task.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
Aristotle suggests that we see the virtue of justice as “another’s good.” Remarkably, here he is actually quoting Thrasymachus, the bad-boy of Plato’s Republic, who made this assertion as an attack on Socrates:
“Socrates you are so far from understanding about justice and what’s just, about injustice and what’s unjust, that you don’t realize that justice is really the good of another, the advantage of the stronger and the ruler, and harmful to the one who obeys and serves.”
Thrasymachus is expressing what we so often feel: when I do the ‘just’ thing—which can involve sacrificing my own desires and putting others first—I seem to be the loser and the other person the winner. So my ‘justice’ is ‘another’s good,’ not my own.
Aristotle boldly turns this point on its head. Yes, when I am just, resolutely looking to the advantage of my neighbor, those around me truly gain by my action. And thus my justice is ‘another’s good.’
But it is my good too, even if it doesn’t feel that way.
Somehow Aristotle has seen what the mainstream of modern thought, and many throughout history, have missed.
To be just is my own good, precisely because it serves the good of others.
For Aristotle the root moral disposition is to look to and act for the good of others. Such is the ‘best man.’ Such is the man who has seen what it means to be truly human.
Sometimes I wonder. What gave a man like Aristotle, and Socrates and Plato, this confidence: that looking to the good of others really is what human life is about?
Perhaps in their docility to the truth they sensed the profound generosity that under-girds all of reality. And so they were convinced that acting for ‘another’s good’ is in fact also my own good. Once again the insight of great men, a fruit of their humility and courage, points me toward my own identity and calling.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher. The Nicomachean Ethics is his major ethical work.
Image: by Albert Anker (1831-1910)