Nicomachean Ethics


Book III

Summary Book III

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.