While, to me, the definition of justice originally fell along the traditional, Hesiodic conception, I have come to consider this definition of justice to be far more elusive. Although, I’m not the only one who has arrived at a similar definition. In Book I of Plato’s The Republic Cephalus, a rich, well-respected elder of the city, gives a simplistic definition of Justice that I now feel falls along the lines of what Justice is not, but instead is a definition of justice that is commonly construed in modern society. He declares justice to be those each getting what is owed to them, and that justice means living up to your legal obligations and being honest.
While this definition of justice may seem correct, Socrates defeats this formulation with another example: returning a weapon to a madman. If a man who previously asked you to hold his weapon were to return in a state of madness demanding that weapon, would you return the firearm to the man? You owe the madman his weapon in some sense, it belongs to him legally, and yet this would be an unjust act, since it would jeopardize the lives of himself and others. This refutes Cephalus’s definition of justice, as it cannot be the case that justice is nothing more than honoring legal obligations and being honest.
At this point, Cephalus excuses himself to see to some sacrifices, and his son Polemarchus takes over the argument for him. Polemarchus proceeds to provide another regularly perceived definition of justice, that justice means that you owe friends help, and you owe enemies harm. Socrates goes on to refute this definition as well, claiming that, because our judgment concerning friends and enemies is fallible, this may sometimes lead us to harm the good and help the bad. We are not always friends with the most virtuous individuals, nor are our enemies always the scum of society. Socrates points out that there is some incoherence in the idea of harming people through justice. While, Aristotle says that virtue differs from justice because it deals with one’s moral state, while justice deals with one’s relations with others.
Justice is applied by Plato’s Socrates to both the societal and individual levels. Plato defines political (societal) justice as being inherently structural. A society consists of three main classes of people: the producers, the auxiliaries, and the guardians. The just society consists in the right and fixed relationships between these three classes. Each of these groups must do the appropriate job, and only that job, and each must be in the right position of power and influence in relation to the other. To Socrates, justice isn’t just something external that is used in societies, but is an internal – or even natural – condition that can be found almost anywhere.
Aristotle, who was tutored by Socrates’ student Plato, believed that justice can mean either lawfulness or fairness, since injustice is lawlessness and unfairness. In his view, laws encourage people to behave virtuously so, the just person, who by definition is lawful, will necessarily be virtuous. Aristotle’s equation of justice with lawfulness can create a problem since laws can be unjust too. However, Following Socrates’s example, Aristotle refutes this idea by separating political justice, governed by the rule of law, from domestic justice, which relies more on a certain level of respect among the individuals in a society.
Reflecting on the previously mentioned definitions of justice, my own definition of what justice is has certainly changed. Socrates argued that to be just takes time, morality, and perseverance. However, to be unjust takes shrewdness, deceptiveness, and manipulation. I would agree with these aspects of justice and feel they are important in understanding my own final definition of justice, that justice is the various elements of society working in perfect harmony with one another, and these elements of society work to benefit the society as a whole, rather than acting with their own, individual interests in mind.