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.