Superphysics Superphysics
Chapter 1b


by Adam Smith
6 minutes  • 1084 words
Table of contents

13 According to Plato’s system, justice is the last and greatest of the four cardinal virtues.

Justice took place when:

  • reason, the irritable, and lustful parts of the soul each confined itself to its domain without encroaching on the domain of others,
  • reason directed and passion obeyed, and
  • each passion:
    • performed its proper duty, and
    • exerted itself towards its proper object:
      • easily and without reluctance, and
      • with the suitable force and energy for what it pursued.

Plato called this ‘Justice’, after some of the ancient Pythagoreans.

Justice was the complete virtue.

  • It was the perfect propriety of conduct.

Justice as Restoring Balance

14 The word justice in Greek has several meanings.

In one sense we are said to do justice to our neighbour when we=

  • abstain from doing him any positive harm
  • do not directly hurt him in his person or estate or reputation.

This is that justice I mentioned in Part 2, Section 2, Chapter 2.

Its observance may be extorted by force. Its violation exposes one to punishment.

This first sense coincides with what:

Aristotle and the Schoolmen call commutative justice Grotius calls it justitia expletrix

It consists in [self-command]:

  • abstaining from what is another’s, and
  • doing whatever we can with propriety be forced to do.

In a second sense, we are said not to do justice to our neighbour unless we feel all the love, respect, and esteem for him which is suitable to his character, situation, and his connection with ourselves.

It is in this sense, we are said to do injustice to a good man who is connected with us, if we do not exert to serve him and place him in that situation in which the impartial spectator would be pleased to see him, even if we abstain from hurting him.

This second sense coincides with what:

  • some have called distributive justice

Grotius’ justitia attributrix

It consists in proper beneficence, in:

  • using what is ours
  • using it for the charity or generosity most suitable in our situation

In this sense, justice comprehends all the social virtues.

In a third sense, the word ‘justice’ is more extensive than the two, though very much similar to the second one.

This sense also runs through all languages.

It this sense, we are said to be unjust when we do not value or pursue any object with that degree of esteem or ardour that the impartial spectator feels it should deserve

Thus, we do injustice to a poem or a picture if we do not admire them enough.

We do them more than justice when we admire them too much.

In the same way, we do injustice to ourselves when we do not give enough attention to our objects of self-interest.

In this sense, ‘justice’ means the same thing with exact and perfect propriety of conduct.

It comprehends:

  • commutative and distributive justice
  • every other virtue, of prudence, fortitude, temperance

Plato understands justice in this last sense.

According to him, justice comprehends the perfection of every virtue.

15 According to Plato, virtue consists in that state of mind in which every faculty:

  • confines itself within its proper sphere without encroaching on that of any other
  • performs its office with that strength which belongs to it

His account coincides with what I have said on the propriety of conduct in Part 2, Chapter 1.

Aristotle’s System: Virtue is in the middle ground of feelings

16 According to Aristotle, virtue consists in the habit of mediocrity according to right reason. According to him, every virtue lies in a middle between two opposite vices.

  • One vice offends from being too much affected by objects.
  • The other vice offends from being too little affected by objects.

Thus, the virtue of courage lies in the middle between the opposite vices of cowardice and rashness.

Cowardice offends from being too much affected by the objects of fear. Rashness offends from being too little affected by them.

Thus, the virtue of frugality lies in a middle between avarice and wastefulness.

  • Avarice is an excess of self-interest
  • Wastefulness is a defect of self-interest

In the same way, magnanimity lies in a middle between the excess of arrogance and the defect of timidity. Arrogance is a too-strong feeling of our own worth and dignity. Timidity is a too-weak feeling of our own worth and dignity.

This account of virtue also matches what I said on the propriety of conduct in Part 2, Chapter 1.

17 According to Aristotle, virtue is this moderation of those feelings. He sees virtue as the quality of an action or a person.

  • As the quality of an action, it is the reasonable moderation of the feeling which causes the action
  • As the quality of a person, it is the habit of this moderation.

It consists in being the customary and usual disposition of the mind. Thus, the action which comes from a feeling of generosity is a generous action. But the man who does it is not necessarily a generous person because it may be the only generous action he ever performed. His heart’s motive and disposition may have been proper.

But as this happy mood was the effect of accidental humour, it cannot reflect great honour on him.

When we denominate a character as generous, charitable or virtuous, we mean that that is his usual and customary disposition. Single actions do not prove that he is such.

If a single action was enough to stamp a virtue on its performer, the most worthless person might lay claim to all the virtues.

Since no man has not acted with prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Single actions reflect very little praise for their performer. But a single vicious action greatly reduces and sometimes destroys our opinion of the performer’s virtue.

A single vicious action shows that:

  • his habits are not perfect
  • his usual behaviour is less dependable than we think.

18 When Aristotle established virtue to consist in practical habits, he probably had this in view, to oppose Plato’s doctrine.

Plato thought that the most perfect virtue alone consisted in just sentiments and reasonable judgments on what was fit to be done or to be avoided. According to him, virtue might be considered as a science.

He thought that:

  • everyone could see clearly what was right and what was wrong, and act accordingly
  • our feelings might make us act contrary to doubtful opinions, but not to obvious judgments

On the contrary, Aristotle thought that:

  • long-established habits were stronger than reason
  • good morals arose from action, not from knowledge

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