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
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
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.