Aristotle is well known for saying that virtue is a mean between two bad extremes: learning to live well is like learning to hit a target with an arrow, neither too high nor too low. Such an account seems sensible, even obvious, when it comes to virtues like courage. Too little courage makes one a coward; too much makes one foolhardy, taking unnecessary risks. Virtue here seems clearly in the middle.
But what about justice? Aristotle thought that this too was a mean. If we demand more than we deserve, we are greedy; fair enough. But what if we demand less than we deserve? Aristotle thought that this too was a vice. But isn’t it a good thing to be nice and generous in this way? The Dutch legal philosopher Hugo Grotius certainly thought so, and therefore disagreed with Aristotle. The essence of justice, said Grotius, “lies in abstaining from that which belongs to another.” Grotius’s claim moved society away from an understanding of justice based on virtue, and toward one based on law.
I think, however, that Aristotle is smarter than Grotius gives him credit for, in a way that has significant implications. If one asks for too much, Aristotle tells us, one commits injustice; but if one asks for too little, one suffers injustice, and both, in their way, are serious wrongs. It is unjust to refuse to stand up for yourself, to allow others to walk all over you.
The point is particularly important in an age where women are struggling for equality. The vice of submissiveness or meekness, of not asking for enough, is probably more prevalent in women than men. Sociological works like Women Don’t Ask note that gender wage gaps often arise because women don’t feel entitled to their fair share. Aristotle’s view is empowering.