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Nicomachean Ethics   


being just is easy. But it is not; to lie with one's neighbour's wife,
to wound another, to deliver a bribe, is easy and in our power, but to
do these things as a result of a certain state of character is neither
easy nor in our power. Similarly to know what is just and what is
unjust requires, men think, no great wisdom, because it is not hard to
understand the matters dealt with by the laws (though these are not
the things that are just, except incidentally); but how actions must
be done and distributions effected in order to be just, to know this
is a greater achievement than knowing what is good for the health;
though even there, while it is easy to know that honey, wine,
hellebore, cautery, and the use of the knife are so, to know how, to
whom, and when these should be applied with a view to producing
health, is no less an achievement than that of being a physician.
Again, for this very reason men think that acting unjustly is
characteristic of the just man no less than of the unjust, because he
would be not less but even more capable of doing each of these unjust
acts; for he could lie with a woman or wound a neighbour; and the
brave man could throw away his shield and turn to flight in this
direction or in that. But to play the coward or to act unjustly
consists not in doing these things, except incidentally, but in doing
them as the result of a certain state of character, just as to
practise medicine and healing consists not in applying or not applying
the knife, in using or not using medicines, but in doing so in a
certain way.
Just acts occur between people who participate in things good in
themselves and can have too much or too little of them; for some
beings (e.g. presumably the gods) cannot have too much of them, and to
others, those who are incurably bad, not even the smallest share in
them is beneficial but all such goods are harmful, while to others
they are beneficial up to a point; therefore justice is essentially
something human.
10
Our next subject is equity and the equitable (to epiekes), and their
respective relations to justice and the just. For on examination they
appear to be neither absolutely the same nor generically different;
and while we sometime praise what is equitable and the equitable man
(so that we apply the name by way of praise even to instances of the
other virtues, instead of 'good' meaning by epieikestebon that a thing
is better), at other times, when we reason it out, it seems strange if
the equitable, being something different from the just, is yet
praiseworthy; for either the just or the equitable is not good, if
they are different; or, if both are good, they are the same.
These, then, are pretty much the considerations that give rise to the
problem about the equitable; they are all in a sense correct and not
opposed to one another; for the equitable, though it is better than
one kind of justice, yet is just, and it is not as being a different
class of thing that it is better than the just. The same thing, then,
is just and equitable, and while both are good the equitable is
superior. What creates the problem is that the equitable is just, but
not the legally just but a correction of legal justice. The reason is
that all law is universal but about some things it is not possible to
make a universal statement which shall be correct. In those cases,
then, in which it is necessary to speak universally, but not possible
to do so correctly, the law takes the usual case, though it is not
ignorant of the possibility of error. And it is none the less correct;
for the error is in the law nor in the legislator but in the nature of
the thing, since the matter of practical affairs is of this kind from
the start. When the law speaks universally, then, and a case arises on
it which is not covered by the universal statement, then it is right,
where the legislator fails us and has erred by oversimplicity, to
correct the omission-to say what the legislator himself would have
said had he been present, and would have put into his law if he had
known. Hence the equitable is just, and better than one kind of
justice-not better than absolute justice but better than the error

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