One focus of moral disquiet, throughout the history of capitalism but especially in the last 10 years or so, has been the relationship between the acquisition of material wealth and its disposal. In a capitalist economy – maybe in any economy – the creation, measurement, storage and exchange of material wealth are the drivers of economic activity and much else besides.  I argue that Aristotle’s ideas about justice and what it means to act justly in relation to the acquisition and disposal of wealth can be reinterpreted in ways that are practically useful – Aristotle was very clear about the practical nature of philosophy – and, indeed, more useful than some of the modern theories of justice in these matters that remain prevalent among policy makers and actors in a modern capitalist economy.

Aristotle grounded his moral theory in virtue, which he calls a kind of excellence, and the motivations and dispositions of character within each individual. Speaking of virtue in a modern, English- speaking setting, sounds faintly quaint and old-fashioned, compared with the superficially more muscular and technocratic language of utilitarianism and deontology.  It is about the nature of the human soul, not the application of frameworks and measurements, and discussion of the soul, rather than calculations of utility. This will feel pretty incongruous in a modern boardroom or economic policy seminar.

Some who are concerned about the morality of acquisition and disposal of wealth will appeal to religious belief. But this only works for believers. Aristotle, however, developed his philosophy several hundred years before the emergence of revealed religion and the notion of divinely ordained moral codes. Referred to by St Thomas Aquinas as ‘the Philosopher’, he is the founder of ethics as a philosophical discipline and his thinking has shaped, directly, the main revealed religions.

I contend that Aristotle’s thought does offer the possibility of a consensus, across modern religious and philosophical divides, that can lead to practical actions. He grounds his thinking in human experience, and reasoning from there, without recourse to divine direction, allowing us to bridge the divide between people of religious faith and those with none.

I argue that an Aristotelian conception of justice, commanding a broad consensus across cultures and settings,  entails a notion of virtue in relation to the acquisition and disposal of wealth that can inform our thinking about questions such as: how much material wealth is enough? What is wrong with consumerism? And is inequality morally defensible?

I will summarize, with grotesque simplification, Aristotle’s moral theory; draw out this notion of virtue, which I will call ‘desiderative justness’; then contrast it with the theories of Rawls, and Nozick and Hayek, standing as proxies for the two sides of the modern left/right, social democrat/market liberal divide, in capitalist economies. I will refer to the work of Alasdair MacIntyre in bridging from Aristotle to these modern thinkers.

Summary of Aristotle’s argument

Aristotle’s moral theory remains convincing and credible, reasoned as it is from observation and experience of the human condition. It is empirical and rational, with each argument traceable back to his metaphysics, his account of existence itself, drawn from first principles.

He begins with the observation that humanity is part of the natural world and that everything in the natural world moves towards some end. The function of each thing in the world is to achieve its end and each thing is defined by its characteristic activities which enable it to do so. But all functions can be done well or done badly. The end, or purpose, of a human being is to live a human life; not any old life, but a good life. For a life to be good, it must include the exercise of the human being’s unique functions, which Aristotle identifies as the exercise of reason. But reason can only be exercised well if it is exercised in accordance with excellence in rational thinking, which is moral virtue. So the attainment of a good and fulfilled life – eudaimonia, to use the Greek word – requires moral excellence. This is a gross simplification; but I hope it establishes the logic of Aristotle’s reasoning from his naturalistic starting point – excellence in moral judgement – virtue – is part of living a good life and, without virtue, no life can be good.

How do we know what virtue, good moral choices, are? Aristotle provides a tool to help us, in his famous Doctrine of the Mean. He argues that the right moral choice, in any situation, is found on a mean between an excess and a deficiency. So the virtue of generosity is found between an excess, which would be profligacy, and a deficiency, which would be meanness or stinginess. The mean is not the mid-point, though, calculated on an arithmetical basis – it takes account of all circumstances and is personalised to the individual moral agent. For example, if I am relatively poor but give generously of what I have, I am more virtuous than the rich person who gives the same, since that person is being ungenerous, in relative terms. If I see an act of outrageous injustice taking place, the virtuous response might be to get very angry and take action, even though the virtue of self-control, in different circumstances might prevail. So the Doctrine of the Mean does not give a rule book; it is flexible and adaptable to the complexities of human moral deliberation. But virtue is self-generated by the individual, not endowed from outside.

Aristotle acknowledges that justice is a special kind of virtue, since it does not lie on a mean in the same way as a virtue like, say, generosity. It is not possible to have an excess of justice. It is an all embracing virtue and an enabling virtue. It is not possible to be generous, if your generosity is laced with injustice. It is not possible to be brave, if acting unjustly.

He identifies different kinds of justice – justice in the sense of crime and punishment, distributive justice and general justice. General justice lies in the justness of the laws, the lawgivers and social conventions and understanding of what it just.

In the Politics, his treatise on the role of a polity and the individual’s position within it, Aristotle is clear about the architectonic nature of general justice in a successful polity. He is equally clear, both in the Politics and in his ethical works, that ‘man is a political animal’, by which he means that eudaimonia – the good and fulfilled life – is achieved within a social context.

So a person can live a good life – achieve his or her purpose as a human being – by acting with a sense of justice in relation to his or her social context. That is one way of describing Aristotle’s conception of general justice. Distributive justice is also a social concept, referring to justice in the allocation of goods, including non-material goods such as honour and piety. Aristotle’s idea of equality, within his description of distributive justice as a virtue, is proportionate, not absolute. Since some people are better than others, however we define our criteria for judging merit, that should be reflected in distribution, according to Aristotle. This is not necessarily an elitist view, as merit can take many forms, and, as Aristotle says, deciding what it entails is the difficult bit.

To summarise my argument so far: everything in nature has a purpose, and the purpose of a human being is to live a fulfilled life (eudaimonia); for a life to be fulfilled, it must be lived in accordance with virtue, or excellence; justice is part of all the virtues, as well as a virtue of a special kind in its own right; the virtues associated with acquisition and disposal only qualify as virtues if they are exercised with a proper regard to justice; justice is a virtue of the polity, as well as a personal virtue, and is exercised within that setting; so, we can only acquire and dispose in accordance with virtue if our desires and motivations are just, both in terms of our individual lives and the collective life of the polity in which we subsist; in other words, if we have a quality we might call ‘desiderative justness’.

To be clear, I am not claiming that desiderative justness is a new concept or a new virtue, only that it is implied by Aristotle’s theory and by giving it a name, we can bring it to bear on some modern moral dilemmas.

MacIntyre as a bridge

In his seminal work ‘After Virtue’, published in 1988, and his other works, Alasdair  MacIntyre argues that modern societies no longer possess the shared language or social context to make sense of virtue ethics. Moreover, he argues that virtues and vices have become individualized and detached from the social and political context that is, as we have seen, so central to Aristotle.

In relation to the morality of acquisition and disposal, he distinguishes between an Aristotelian morality based on justice in a civic and social context, and a modern morality based on justice from an individual perspective.

He argues that, for ethics to become relevant to economics and business, moral considerations need to be built into economic systems from the outset, not applied afterwards from an external perspective. We need, he says, to understand economics in moral terms, as Marx, Aquinas and Aristotle, in their different ways, would do. This paper responds to a small element of that challenge by placing justice at the center of our moral judgments in relation to acquisition and disposal, two of the activities that define market economies, by identifying the virtue of ‘desiderative justness’.

Like MacIntyre, I take John Rawls as a philosophical proxy for the social democratic view; and Robert Nozick and Freidrich Hayek as proxies for the economically liberal view.

Rawls and the ‘social democratic’ perspective

Taking Rawls first, we can contrast his central idea of ‘justice as fairness’, where he argues that society should be so organised as to redress unfairnesses. Drawing on his famous metaphor of the ‘veil of ignorance’, we can note that he  starts from position of people being created equal, and that justice, in terms of acquisition and disposal of wealth, consists in finding ways of correcting injustices that arise from the choices made once the life of humanity is in progress. He imagines the sort of social arrangements that would come into being if the designers did their work without knowing where in human society they would be placed. But the key point is his view that justice inheres in pre-birth equality. Aristotle does not start with this view. Justice for Aristotle, as we have seen, is grounded in social and political context. In that sense, Aristotle bases his ideas of justice on life as it is lived, not life as it is theorized about.

Rawls also sees equality as justice and as a goal it in its own right. Aristotle would accept that justice is part of the good life, and  therefore the end, or goal, of a human being. But he would not agree with the idea that equality is justice. Aristotle’s theory of distributive justice is based on desert – “what is just in distributions must accord with some kind of merit” (Nicomachean Ethics, V.3). In his socialized understanding of justice, there are obligations and understandings that come from human relationships and the respecting of these, and the handling of them justly, is part of a virtuous life.

Rawls’s first principle, in his argument for justice as fairness, is that everyone is entitled to liberty. So freedom is not only an entitlement but a foundation of the scheme within which his ideas of justice sit. This reflects the fact that Rawls makes no claim to universal relevance – his theory is set in modern, social democratic societies, which requires some normative assumptions. Aristotle does not rely on such assumptions  – his ideas of justice are shaped in accordance with his naturalistic philosophy, which assesses the nature of humankind, and works from there.

Hayek, Nozick and the ‘market liberal’ perspective

For philosophers who see the market and economic freedom as the means by which justice in acquisition and disposal is secured, such as Nozick and Hayek, whom I am taking as representatives of economic liberalism, the contrast with Aristotle lies in their giving primacy to theory over human-centered metaphysical realism, which is Aristotle’s starting point.

Hayek, for example, argues that economic freedom is a good in itself, and that distribution on the basis of competition in free markets is inherently just because it is unprejudiced and the outcome is not known in advance. There is a similarity here to Rawls’s ‘veil of ignorance’ – both subtract from the argument actual, lived, human experience. Aristotle does precisely the opposite.

Nozick, with his entitlement theory, argues that the justness with which something is acquired or held depends on the process of its acquisition. If something is acquired justly, or transferred justly, the holding of it is just. Questions about inequality, fairness or virtue simply don’t arise in this narrow conception of his theory. The contrast with Aristotle lies in the fact that it is backward-looking, justificatory account of justice in distribution. Unlike Aristotle, Nozick is not concerned with the justness of the motivations of the actors involved. Again, human character is not part of the theory.


It is not the aim of this post to find a solution to the moral dilemmas thrown up by modern capitalist consumption. It is far more modest: to suggest that an Aristotelian approach to justness in giving and receiving (‘desiderative justness’, to suggest a name for a virtue implicit in Aristotle’s theory but not separately identified) can throw some fresh light on such dilemmas, as a virtue theory with the provenance to be taken seriously across divides, spiritual and philosophical. These include moral uneasiness about consumerism, inequality and failures to achieve material satisfaction despite superabundance.

‘Social justice’, a term much-used in public debate, at least in the English-speaking capitalist world, emerged in the 1840s but is closely associated with Rawls. It remains a loose term, with many meanings, depending on context and the purpose of the user. Aristotelian justice, in its general and distributive forms, is a more specific and meaningful concept, which can sharpen our interrogation of these dilemmas and, in due course, our conclusions about them. As MacIntyre puts it: “When Aristotle praised justice as the first virtue of political life, he did so in such a way as to suggest that a community which lacks practical agreement on a conception of justice must also lack the necessary basis for political community. But the lack of such a basis must therefore threaten our own society.” (MacIntyre, 1985, p. 244).

I contend that, for one aspect of modern capitalist societies, namely the moral frameworks within which goods are acquired and disposed, Aristotle’s thought and a concept of ‘desiderative justness’ derived from it, give us the tools to mitigate, in part, the threat identified by MacIntyre.



Owen Kelly is is a lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University Business School and a Doctoral Researcher, Department for Philosophy, University of Edinburgh. This post is a summary of a paper presented to the Graduate Philosophy Conference, 2017, University College, Dublin.


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