Justice and philia

[W]hen men are friends they have no need of justice, while when they are just they need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is thought to be a friendly quality.

Nic. Eth. VIII c. 1

Mere justice in the sense of an impersonal system of giving what is rationally due to persons often leads leaves a growing mass of resentments from those who feel shortchanged and which threaten to undermine the esteem for those who impose justice. Without such esteem, however, one can’t have justice at all. Even an ideal and rational system of justice therefore is inherently unstable.

One weakness of political discussions is assuming that justice has a sufficiency which it cannot have. To read Hobbes or Locke easily leaves one with the impression that a just regime is simply a matter of getting the system of justice right, and as a teacher of political theory I usually spend most of my time trying to explain what various systems of impersonal interaction – sovereignty, property rights, hedges against government encroachment – should look like. But politics can’t be an impersonal system, and what looks like such a working system in theory will be unlivable in practice.

The truest justice is friendship, where debts are never fully paid but serve as sources of unity among persons. One always owes his friends something and is happy that he does. The “system” of justice is the opposite of this: the goal is often to dispense the debt between persons and so to dissolve any need they have to deal with each other.

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