PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Monday February 10, 2003

[5.] Distributive Justice (Politics III:9, 12).[1]


Two chapters of Politics III treat the issue of distributive justice (the justice or fairness of the distribution of goods, services, etc.). III:9 covers the distribution of property; III:12 covers the distribution of political power.



[5.1.] Property (III:9). Aris considers and rejects two arguments about the nature of justice and the distribution of property.


The Oligarchs' Argument

Justice is inequality for those who are unequal.

We (the oligarchs) are unequal.

So justice requires that we have unequal amounts.

The Democracts' Argument

Justice is equality for those who are equal.

We (everyone) are equal.

So justice requires that we have equal amounts.

·         In a sense, the two parties agree with regard to their first premise: those first premises are compatible, and in fact are two sides of the same claim: justice is inequality for those who are unequal and equality for those who are equal.

·         But they disagree on the second premises, because each makes a false general assumption:

·         those who are unequal in one way (e.g. wealth) are unequal in all.

·         those who are equal in one way (e.g. being born free) are equal in all (1289a, p.244)


Aris rejects both assumptions and assumes a different conception of desert in the following argument, which begins with his fundamental claim about the function of the polis:


1. The purpose/function/end/goal of a polis is to ensure that its citizens can live a good life. ["...the end of the city is not mere; life; it is, rather, a good quality of life." (1280b, p.245) "What constitutes a city is an association of households and clans in a good life, for the sake of attaining a perfect and self-sufficing existence." (1280b, p.245)]


·         The purpose/function/end of a polis is not: to ensure that its citizens (merely) live; to protect them from injury; to make commerce and property ownership possible; or to permit people to live in close proximity to one another


2. The degree to which one ought to share in the polis' goods is proportional to one's contribution to the end/goal/function of the polis.


3. Therefore, those who contribute most to ensuring the good life for the polis and its citizens ought to share most in its goods.


Those who contribute most to this association have a greater share in the city than those who are equal to them (or even greater) in free birth and descent, but unequal in civic excellence, or than those who surpass them in wealth but are surpassed by them in excellence. (1281a, p.245)




[5.2.] Power (Politics III:12). Aris picks up the discussion of distributive justice again at III:12. Since in III:11, Aris argued that electoral and judicial power ought to be left to the many, it makes sense to interpret this chapter, re: the distribution of political power, as an attempt to characterize those who ought to be elected to political office.[2]


Aris considers (and rejects) the following argument:

1.       When individuals differ in some way, such that some are better than others, then  what they ought to receive is proportionate to their merits. "[W]here people differ from one another there must be a difference in what is just and proportionate to their merits." (1282b, p.248)

2.       Therefore, "offices and honors ought to be distributed unequally on the basis of superiority in any kind of goodness whatsoever." (1282b, p.248, emphasis added) In other words, political power ought to go to whomever is superior to everyone else in any respect whatsoever.


Objection #1: in distributing something (x), we should consider who can make the best use of it. E.g., if we are distributing flutes and don't have enough good flutes for everyone, what is the most just distribution? Suppose there is only one best flute-- who should get it? Not the tallest, or the one from the best family -- that someone is tall or well-born is irrelevant. The one who should get it is the one who can make the best use of it. So even if the best flute player lacks in other qualities (he's ugly, short, bad complexion, etc.) he should still get the best flute -- because ability to use the flute is the only consideration relevant to flute-distribution. In general, ability to use x is the only consideration relevant to the distribution of x.


Objection #2: this argument implies that "every quality will have to be commensurable with every other" (1283a, p.249) -- which is false. I.e., If we accept the argument, we also have to accept that it makes sense to say things like:

·         A is smarter than B is tall;

·         C's complexion is better than D's stature; etc.

But these claims don't make sense, since they imply that one instance of a quality can also be equal to an instance of another quality (e.g., E is just as smart as F is tall).


Based on these objections, Aris concludes: "in matters political there is no good reason for basing a claim to the exercise of authority on any and every kind of superiority." (1283a, p.249)


So on what criterion should we base the distribution of political power? Aris' answer was hinted at in Objection #1, above: In general, ability to use x is the only consideration relevant to the distribution of x. Since the function of the city is to provide the good life for all, political power and honor ought to be distributed among those who can best use it to serve this function: such people…

·         are born free and have some degree of wealth [necessary for the life of the city]

·         are just and are good soldiers [necessary for the GOOD life of the city]


[1] This section is informed by Peter Simpson's A Philosophical Commentary on the Politics of Aristotle, pp.159ff. Aristotle also discusses justice in Nichomachean Ethics V (Cahn pp.202ff.), where he notes that the word dikaiosyne (translated as "justice") is ambiguous between: (1) universal/complete justice (which is the same as virtue in general, only conceived in the context of an individual's social relations) and  (2) particular/partial justice (of which there are two kinds: distributive and rectificatory). In Politics III:9 and 11, Aris is concerned with distributive justice.

[2] I think the chapter headings in the translation that Cahn uses are misleading (no such chapter headings were actually written by Aristotle; they are added by editors and translators). Aris doesn't seem to be concerned here with distribution of wealth or property, but with the distribution of political power, i.e. who should hold office.

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