And now, since I’ve been busy cleaning and moving and such, I’ll post another essay. This one is much longer, a little over 7 pages, but it’s probably the one that brought me the greatest sense of accomplishment from this semester.
This was written for a course called “Justice and the Common Good” in which were asked to answer a certain prompt using only our brains and the class texts. I chose Aristotle because Aristotle. And no, that last sentence was not a typo.
I thought the question I chose was iffy, so I rephrased it and answered accordingly. We were allowed to do so, which was kind of refreshing.
This essay will explain the relationship between convention, justice, and the common good. The basic question is not one of the original questions chosen to discuss, and I argue that the third question, – “How does the common good not simply equal ‘what we do around here’?” – is not a question that can be given careful attention and discussion. What it is essentially asking is why the common good is not the same as convention, the answer simply being that they are not the same kind of thing. The common good is an end to be aimed at, according to the definition of a good.  Convention is an established system serving as a means to an end, automatically making them different by definition. The question fundamentally asks why an end cannot be the same thing as the means to an end. An end cannot be a means to an end because an end is arrived at, and a means to an end is the process of arriving. They are fundamentally different, and so the question receives a short answer.
Since the original question is obviously seeking to find a relationship between convention and the common good, it can be rephrased and synthesized with elements of the second question, which asks about justice. This essay will therefore respond to this question: Is justice as convention sufficient for a city to attain the common good? It is a two-part question: is justice the same as “what we do around here”? And can such a system reach the common good? This is a better pair of questions than the original as they ask for a difference between two means to an end (justice and convention) and whether the means can reach that end (common good).
Let us begin by discussing the end in question: the common good. This, however, cannot be fully explained without an explanation of the human good, as “the good is the same for a city as for an individual.” A city is, after all, made up of individuals seeking the highest good. As previously mentioned, the good is what everything aims at, the end that is pursued in a specific action.
There are many actions that pursue different ends (e.g. playing an instrument for the end of music) and as there are many ends, there are many goods. Why are these goods being sought after? Many of them are desired only insofar as they can lead to another good. For example, the smelter produces useable metal, which is used to produce other goods. The flute-maker makes a flute from this metal for it to be played. The flute player plays the flute for the sake of music. However, it is impossible for this series to go on ad infinitum otherwise all desires would be “empty and futile.” People would not seek any good if there was no ultimate end, therefore there must be a highest good.
The highest good is undoubtedly happiness, as it is the only good people seek for itself, i.e. it is a complete good. What is meant by this is people do not choose happiness for any other reason than to have happiness. Indeed, it seems it is actually all other goods that are done in order to have happiness. And so, it is commonly agreed that happiness is the best good, the good all people seek. This would also make it the common good, but this will be discussed later on. The reason happiness is so desired has to do with exactly how it is obtained.
It is obvious that goods are obtained through some sort of function, such as sculpting being the function producing a statue and, ultimately, the good called art. Since happiness is the highest human good, there must then be a human function that reaches it. Aristotle speculates as to what this function would be:
“What, then, could this be? For living is apparently shared with plants, but what we are looking for is the special function of a human being; hence we should set aside the life of nutrition and growth. The life next in order is some sort of life of sense-perception; but this too is apparently shared, with horse, ox and every animal. The remaining possibility, then, is some sort of life of action of the part of the soul that has reason.”
Recognizing that the human function must be something exclusively human, Aristotle appropriately describes the human function to be reason. His very argument demonstrates that it could not be otherwise. The very structure of an argument to show that humans are reasonable necessarily shows we are! The ability to use logic and critical thinking to come to a conclusion is something that is not found in any other species on earth, making it a purely human function. The function alone is not enough, however. As each other good requires a function to be performed well (e.g. music requires a good performance), so must the human function be performed well. As any function requires virtue to be performed well, such as the virtue of good flute-playing, the human function must express virtue in order to reach the human good. Put simply, “… the human good [happiness] turns out to be the soul’s activity that expresses virtue.” This is important to note; happiness is not simply a pleasurable, passing feeling, but a complete fulfillment of human nature and function. Understanding this definition of happiness is necessary for the understanding of justice and the common good.
The Common Good
Now that the highest human good has been sufficiently explained, the common good can be better understood. As stated earlier, the common good and the human good are one in the same. The difference between the two is the object the good is focused on: the human good is focused on an individual, but the common good is focused on the community.
What does it mean for the common good to be community-based? Consider the reasons behind forming a city; that “it comes into being for the sake of living, but remains in being for the sake of living well.” A community does not form simply for the sake of people to survive; it would eventually dissolve after individuals had enough resources to be self-sufficient. Rather, it is formed with the happiness of the community in mind. What is this communal happiness? It is not the individual good of each person added together. It is not focused primarily on individual good at all, but the good of one’s neighbor. Essentially, it is better described as each individual’s desire for all people in the community to have the best good. Every person’s desire for their neighbors to be fulfilled people – this is the common good. This is the good we are trying to reach when we form a city, the good that justice is inherently focused on.
Justice as a Virtue
With an understanding of the common good, justice and convention must be defined and differentiated. First, justice must be fully understood as a virtue. Convention is related to justice and will therefore be explained afterwards.
The most important thing to remember about justice is that it is a virtue, linking it to the highest good, and, necessarily, the common good. The definition of virtue itself is complex, and cannot be fully explored in this discussion. What is important to know about virtue is that it is 1) a state, or person’s disposition to act in a certain way, and 2) “a mean between two vices, one of excess, and one of deficiency.” Remember that virtue is essentially the same as “reason well done” (reason is the human function, and the function done well is virtuous), so all virtues are reasonable. This is why virtues are means; they are a reasonable intermediate between two extremes. Virtues of character include concepts such as generosity, courage, temperance, etc. Justice is a virtue, but it is also a bit of a special case.
Justice is differentiated from other virtues in a number of different ways. Defined as “the state that makes us doers of just actions,” it involves “what is lawful and what is fair.” The description of justice as lawful reveals a unique characteristic of the virtue of justice. Law deals with a great many other virtues, as Aristotle observes: “Now the law instructs us to do the actions of a brave person – not to leave the battle-line, for instance, or to flee … ; of a temperate person – not to commit adultery or wanton aggression; of a mild person – not to strike or revile another; and similarly expresses the vices.” From these examples, it becomes obvious that justice is not a solitary virtue, but one concerned with all other virtue. It is, in fact, “complete virtue, not complete virtue without qualification but complete virtue in relation to another.” In other words, all virtues are themselves just, and justice is the sum of what it means to be virtuous. As it is such an important virtue, it is necessary for one to have in order to be fulfilled with the highest good of happiness. This also means it is what a city most needs in order to reach the common good.
The idea of convention is linked with justice, but it is not justice itself. There are two distinct parts of justice, one being legal and the other natural. Legal justice is synonymous with convention, which is described as “what originally makes no difference whether it is done one way or another, but makes a difference whenever people have laid down the rule.” Take systems of measurement for example. A city in formation must decide how to measure its products in order to organize and distribute them. It does not really matter which system the community decides to use. Be it metric or English, it only matters after it has been chosen and used for a certain amount of time. In fact, it must matter if the city is to be consistent. However, it is not founded on any real “law”; it is completely arbitrary. The original question then asks: “Is justice the same as ‘what we do around here’ [convention]?” The answer is no. Convention is not the whole of justice, only a part. There is another part of justice – a natural part.
Natural justice is “what has the same validity everywhere alike, independent of it seeming so or not.” It is crucial for one to understand this part of justice. It seems easy to say that what is just is completely arbitrary, as many cities and nations have completely different laws. While this is true, it does not mean there is no fundamental, natural disposition of justice. Let us say, for example, that one city charges one price for a basket from a merchant, and another city charges a different price. The price, then, would be conventional. Now consider a city in which one can simply take a basket from the merchant whenever she pleases at no cost to her. This is a much harder scenario to imagine. Goods in trade, by definition, must be traded for. This is an example of a natural law, something that is naturally just: people must receive a fair payment for goods that they offer. This is a mild example, but convention cannot explain more serious laws either. Laws against murder, for example, are not arbitrary. Killing another person for one’s own selfish desires is not called unjust because “that’s the way things are done around here”, but because it actually is unjust.
The purpose of this distinction is not to savage convention and proclaim it useless, as it is still a part of what it means to be just. All virtues are reason executed well, and justice is no exception. This also means that convention is reasonable inasmuch as it is a part of justice. Reasonable conventions are not a bad thing, but are necessary for a society to run smoothly. Aristotle compares them to measurements. Conventions, like measurement systems, may differ from place to place, but theyare still concerned with the same things. They can even be used to aid natural justice. On their own, however, they are inadequate if a society wishes to seek the common good.
The Insufficiency of Convention
Recall that the human good is “the soul’s activity that expresses virtue” and that the common good is the same as the human good, but for all people. The very definition of the good shows that convention alone is not a sufficient path to the good. How exactly is this the case? The common good requires virtue, and justice is a virtue. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that justice is a necessary virtue because it is the whole of every other virtue. Now one could say that since convention is part of the good, it would be convention that leads to the common good. This is only partly true. Convention alone is not sufficient in obtaining the common good because it is arbitrary by nature, not focused on any one thing in particular. Such a naturally chaotic thing cannot align itself to something as precise and reasonable as the highest human good.
Convention utterly fails to reach the common good alone. However, what we do know is that convention is not alone. It is only one part of what it means to be just. The other part, natural justice, sufficiently advises convention, allowing it to aim properly at the common good. This is because it is natural, and what is natural for human beings will always lead to the human good because the good is the fulfillment of human nature. And so the answer to the question of whether convention can reach the common good is no and yes. No, convention by itself cannot reach the common good because of its foundationless and arbitrary nature. Yes, convention assisted by natural justice can reach the common good because this is the whole of justice. One part alone cannot reach its goal, but as a whole, the aim towards the common good is most precise and powerful.
 Aristotle. Aristotle: Selections, trans. Terence Irwin and Gail Fine (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1995), 347.