Tuesday 19. October 2021
#160 - May 2013


Epikeia – better justice for Europe


2013 is the “European Year of Citizens”. This year was nominated to raise public awareness about the rights and obligations of Union citizenship. But how can and should EU citizens understand and maintain their rights and obligations?

All citizens are confronted in their everyday lives with the numerous laws and regulations that apply in our society. However the wording of this legislation can never include all the requirements of actual reality as experienced by individual citizens. In any situation, therefore, every citizen must take responsibility for assessing, in accordance with his or her own conscience, the way in which he or she will apply the standards and regulations in force in the society, as well as where the limits lie.


This phenomenon was recognised by Aristotle. In the Nicomachean Ethics he exhorts citizens in extraordinary situations to act independently of the generally-formulated standards. He uses the term epikeia (equity) for this concept: “Epikeia is the correction of law where it is defective owing to its universality” (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics V: chapter X(14)). Against this background, epikeia is also translated as “better justice” or even “applied reservation”. So to Aristotle, epikeia is not something that is outside the law, but is in itself a form of “better” justice – a virtue with the aim of ethically optimising human activity regardless of generally-defined standards.


For Aristotle, epikeia is understood as the improvement of an unreasonable – or no longer reasonable – order conceded by all citizens, and in certain circumstances even applied to them. In the Middle Ages this idea was again taken up, above all by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. The favoured example, which enjoys a long tradition, is set against the background of a prohibition – which used to be important – against opening the city gates after a certain hour. In our example, a dangerous situation occurs (say a fire within the city), which can only be averted by opening the city gates, although this instance was not foreseen in the law. In such a situation, the unlawful opening of the gates would be the only correct behaviour. In our example this officially unlawful action is actually the only correct decision, as it would mean doing exactly what the law fundamentally intended: to protect the city from danger. Action controlled by standards is therefore subject to a responsibly-practised reservation.

Even though highly complex social structures developed at a very early stage in Europe, both the Greek polis of Aristotle and the medieval society in which the Dominican scholars Thomas and Albert lived had a set of relatively homogeneous shared values compared to the situation today.


If the virtue of epikeia, that of bringing about “better” justice, is also to be experienced in today’s Europe, the European Community must increasingly develop into a community with a set of shared values, which brings together everyone in Europe and unites them as European citizens.


All citizens in the European Community must work out for themselves, against the background of their own values and the values of all mankind, what “better” justice means for themselves, for others and for society as a whole. In order to do so, they must recognise what is the underlying intention of a standard, even if it is inadequately expressed in a specific individual case. This assumes, of course, that the citizen is aware of the intention of the individual standard, and is able to identify with the motives underlying the standard. Ultimately, that citizen must be able to identify with the European Union as a community with shared values. If this is the case, a reservation may be practised in individual instances against prescribed laws. This reservation should not, however, be abused as a means of optimising the benefits for oneself (such as, for example, tax avoidance strategies or the use of grant funding in a way that is not in line with its actual or original purpose).


Every citizen should be in a position to understand both the deeper intent and the objectives of the EU standards and laws, and attempt to identify with them. Only then will Europe truly be a unified place in which to live – a genuine community in which every individual always has an eye on the whole, with the obligation of putting their own expectations of the community to one side if needed, but also of taking responsibility for demanding their own rights and the rights of those weaker than themselves in a spirit of self-awareness and solidarity.


Peter Henrich OP

Research assistant at the Paderborn Faculty of Theology (Germany)



Translated from the original text in German



N.B: This article is based on a still unpublished academic paper. For reasons of general readability, academic citations have been omitted.

Further reading:
Fuchs, Josef (1997). Für eine menschliche Moral: Auf der Suche nach der sittlichen Wahrheit. [Human morals: in search of ethical truth] Vol. 4. Freiburg, Switzerland, University press

Virt, Günter (1983): Epikie – verantwortlicher Umgang mit Normen [Epikeia – a responsible approach to standards]. Mainz, Matthias-Grünewald.


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