Our evaluation of a person’s actions depends to some extent on whether those actions are voluntary, involuntary, or nonvoluntary. An action is involuntary when it is performed under compulsion and causes pain to the person acting. There are borderline cases, as when someone is compelled to do something dishonorable under threat, but we should generally consider such cases voluntary, since the person is still in control of his or her actions. Something done in ignorance may be called involuntary if the person later recognizes that ignorance, but it is nonvoluntary if the person does not recognize or suffer for such ignorance. However, ignorance can excuse only particular cases, and not general behavior, since general ignorance of what is good is precisely what makes a person bad.
It seems the best measure of moral goodness is choice, because unlike actions, choices are always made voluntarily. We make choices about the means we use to achieve a desired end. Deliberation, which precedes choice, is directed only toward those means over which we have some control and only when the correct manner of proceeding is not immediately obvious.
Deliberation proceeds according to the analytical method. We consider first what end we wish to achieve, and then reason backward to the means we might implement to bring about this end.
In choosing, those of good character will always aim for the good. However, those who are not of good character may understand things incorrectly and may wish for only the apparent good. Both virtue and vice, therefore, lie within human power, because they are related to choices that we make voluntarily and deliberately. This conclusion is borne out by the fact that rewards and punishments are only conferred on those actions that we are thought to have done voluntarily. People who behave badly form bad habits that are difficult to change, but their lack of self-control is hardly an excuse for their badness.
Having examined virtue in the abstract, Aristotle examines each particular virtue, starting with courage, which he defines as the appropriate attitude toward fear. Courage does not mean fearlessness, as there are some things, such as shame or brutality toward one’s family, which one ought to fear. Rather, courage involves confidence in the face of fear, best exhibited on the battlefield, where men show themselves unafraid to die an honorable death. An excess of fearfulness constitutes the vice of cowardice, and a deficiency constitutes rashness.
Certain dispositions resemble courage but are not in fact courageous. The soldier who fights for fear of dishonor, the veteran who shows no fear in the face of what he knows to be a false alarm, the spirited soldier aroused by anger or pain, the sanguine man who is unafraid due to overconfidence, and the soldier ignorant of the danger he faces are not courageous. Courage is a difficult and admirable virtue, because it involves enduring pain.
Temperance is the mean state with regard to physical pleasure, while licentiousness is the vice of excessive yearning for physical pleasure. The grossest pleasures are those of taste, and especially touch, which are most liable to be sources of licentiousness. The licentious person feels not only excessive pleasure with regard to physical sensations, but also excessive pain when deprived of these pleasures. The vice of deficiency toward pleasure is so rare that it lacks a name, though we could perhaps call it insensibility. The temperate person will feel appropriate amounts of pleasure, and only toward those things that are conducive to health and fitness.
The problem of free will is much debated in modern moral philosophy. Presumably, we can be held morally responsible only for those actions that we perform of our own free will, so determining the source and scope of our freedom would seem a necessary prerequisite to determining the source and scope of moral responsibility. Discussing free will raises a number of metaphysical problems, however, foremost of which is the problem of determinism. If we are subject to predictable and unchanging physical laws, then we have no freedom to do what we want. Some philosophers argue that free will is an illusion, some argue that determinism is an illusion, and some argue that a proper understanding of the concepts of free will and determinism will show that the two concepts are in fact compatible.
Aristotle seems strangely unconcerned with the metaphysical vagaries of free will. He makes no mention of the concept of free will, thus avoiding the metaphysical question of whether free will can be compatible with determinism. Furthermore, he seems to avoid any strict definition of responsible action that might delimit for us precisely what kinds of actions we should be held responsible for. At best, he gives us a negative definition, telling us that we are not responsible for actions done under ignorance or compulsion.
However, Aristotle adds some caveats. Ignorance is only an acceptable excuse if we are not responsible for our ignorance. Aristotle seems to agree with Socrates’ claim that no one knowingly does evil and that all wrongdoing is a result of ignorance. He suggests in Chapter 4 of Book III that everyone aims to do good, but bad people, in their ignorance, aim at the apparent good that is in fact not good.
The question, then, is to what extent we can be held responsible for our ignorance. Aristotle’s answer seems to be that the ignorance must be related to particular circumstances over which the agent had no control. For instance, a man is not responsible for poisoning a friend if he had no way of knowing that the drink he gave this friend was poisoned. However, a man who lacks a proper sense of virtue and who does a bad deed through ignorance of what is good is certainly responsible for his badness.
Aristotle similarly explains compulsion. He takes a particularly stern stance on the question of what sorts of compulsion render an act involuntary: involuntary acts are only those that do not originate with the agent. For instance, if someone pushes me into you, I have bumped you involuntarily, because my sudden movement did not originate with me.
Aristotle then implies that unpleasant decisions made under threats or danger are voluntary, though he offers some leniency to those who make the best choice from a series of unenviable options.
In defining those cases of exemption from moral responsibility due to ignorance or compulsion, however, Aristotle does not provide a positive definition of moral responsibility, and he certainly does not give us a definition of free will. The most plausible explanation for this seeming omission is that Aristotle’s interest does not lie in the metaphysics of moral responsibility. His only interest is the juridical question of where we can assign praise or blame.
Nonetheless, Aristotle does rely on many of the same tenets of modern ethical theory, such as the importance of choice and deliberation. Aristotle argues that we are not primarily responsible for the results of our choices, but for the choices themselves. That is why, for instance, the well-wishing man who inadvertently poisons his friend is not to be condemned: he made the right choice, and the unfortunate result was due to unavoidable ignorance on his part.
However, this emphasis on choice seems to conflict somewhat with what Aristotle says about virtue. In Book II, he distinguishes the person who accidentally exhibits courage from the truly courageous person by saying that the virtuous man sees courage as an end in itself. In this case, the choice and the action are the same: the courageous man chooses to be courageous for the sake of being courageous.
But now Aristotle tells us that choices are virtuous because of the noble ends at which they aim. A soldier who fights through an enemy file to relieve his embattled friends is presumably courageous and hence virtuous because he made a choice to relieve his friends and followed through with this choice in spite of the fear he faced in doing so. Surely, the end goal this soldier had in mind, the goal that led him to choose to fight through the enemy file, was to relieve his friends. But this scenario conflicts with Aristotle’s suggestion that the courageous person sees courage as an end in itself and pursues it as such.