Peter Jones

Were the Greeks right about justice?


The Sentencing Council, consisting of various legal authorities, has told judges and magistrates to consider, when sentencing the young, their ‘difficult and/or deprived backgrounds or personal circumstances’. To what end?

To induct the young into proper moral behaviour, Aristotle thought that family discipline should go hand in hand with the community’s laws, customs and education. But it was also possible for the young to receive bad training, on which Aristotle thundered: ‘It makes no small difference whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather, it makes all the difference.’

Aristotle took this view because he thought it was extremely difficult for anyone to change their conduct since ‘virtue or excellence depends on ourselves, and so does vice. For where it is in our power to act, it is also in our power not to act, and where we can say “no”, we can also say “yes”’. He went on to say that our character ‘is the result of our conduct’ (like athletes continually practising for an event, we could practise to be just or unjust) and that ‘one cannot stop being unjust merely by wishing to do so, any more than a sick man can wish himself to get well’. That said, Aristotle did agree that a bad man, if led into better ways of behaviour, could practise, if only a little, at becoming better, and if he made some progress, he might make a little more, and eventually, time permitting, could change completely. Which takes us back to the Sentencing Council. What does it think punishment is for? Presumably to lead the young into ways of righteousness. In that case, giving difficult or deprived young people lighter sentences, when their defective background would suggest they will be more likely to commit crime than others, is the reverse of what is required. Or does it envisage a more Aristotelian approach? Whatever the answer, judges and magistrates will still face a dilemma that ancient Greek jurors always faced: being fair to the individual, or acting in the best interests of the whole community.