Philosophy speaker re-examines justice

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On Thursday, September 28, University of Colorado Boulder Philosophy Professor Mi-Kyoung (Mitzi) Lee gave a talk about justice in Aristotle in the Everest Lounge. Lee’s paper, titled, “Justice as a Virtue in Aristotle” calls for a different translation and understanding of Arisotle’s work on justice. Professor Lee received her doctorate at Harvard University and specializes in Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder. She has previously taught at the University of Illinois in Chicago, University of Chicago and Harvard University. She is the author of ‘Epistemology after Protagoras: Responses to Relativism in Plato, Aristotle and Democritus’ and is currently working on a book on Aristotle’s political philosophy and ethics titled,’ ‘Justice in Aristotle’s Ethics and Political Philosophy.’ During the event, the room was near capacity with both professors and students. Lee began by explaining that the goal of the talk was to define and describe what justice is for Aristotle. Lee posed one way in which her definition of justice differs from common conceptions, and claimed that we need to reorient our understanding of Aristotle’s ethics because of this difference. For Lee, justice is the virtue that has to do with right and wrong action. She described these as duties and obligations set out by the laws and norms of one’s society. Lee argued, “Aristotle has a concept of right and wrong action which is law-based. According to that concept, an action is right only if it is in conformity with some norm; an action is wrong only if it violates some norm.” She further argued that the best translation for the virtue of “justice” and “injustice” is “righteousness” and “unrighteousness.” Lee explained that for Aristotle, laws can be written and unwritten – the latter of which are strongly held social or moral norms not necessarily spelled out by legislation. Unlike written laws that forbid one person from doing harm to another, the unwritten laws concern norms on how to treat strangers and the obligation to keep promises. These norms vary between cultures, but some are universial. Lee explained that for Aristotle, there are written and unwritten laws forbidding violations to these norms, and laws of both kinds that impose positive duties and obligations on citizens. In general, the laws Aristotle has in mind, according to Lee, are those that forbid doing wrong to others and those that impose requirements on an individual with respect to others. One important clarification for Aristotle has to do with intention: a right action is only right insofar as it is voluntary, and the same for wrong action. Lee explained that Aristotle does not count wrong action as wrong (or right action as right) if one acts “incidentally” or unwillingly, under compulsion, or out of fear. For Aristotle, if a person does an action from passion willingly then this action alone does not make for an unjust person. However, if a person knowingly and deliberately plans an act of wrongdoing, that person is “unrighteous and vicious.” Professor Lee paraphrased Aristotle to highlight the importance of her discussion of justice: “This form of justice, or right, is complete or perfect virtue, although not without qualification but in relation to others.” Professor Lee concluded that instead of using the word “moral” with respect to justice – a word which Aristotle himself did not have – it is better to instead adapt Aristotle’s concept of the social or political sphere with respect to justice. Therefore, Aristotle’s definition of wrong action can be understood as an act forbidden by legislature or norms and right action as an act that fills a requirement set by legislature or norms. The next speaker in the Philosophy Speaker Series will be Helga Varden from the University of Illinois, talking about her paper “Kant on Sex, Revisited.” The talk is scheduled for Thursday, October 12, in Everest Lounge at 4:30 p.m.

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