Aristotle's Ethics Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


Aristotle's Ethics: Book 3

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In this book Aristotle tackles the question of moral responsibility. He starts by drawing attention to the fact that there are various degrees of voluntariness. An involuntary act is something done as a result of force or ignorance with the individual contributing nothing to it. A voyager might be carried off course by the wind or an individual might be in the power of others. Thus, for an act to be involuntary there must be some external force causing it to occur.


Some acts, however, are mixed or non-voluntary. They are done for admirable purposes or out of fear of something worse happening. A tyrant might hold your family and threaten their lives unless you do something dishonorable. Although it’s done through choice, any reasonable person would have done likewise.


However, despite what he’s already said, Aristotle explains that an act done through ignorance is not necessarily involuntary. Every act done through ignorance is non-voluntary, but involuntary only when it causes the person subsequent pain and repentance. If a person repents of an act done through ignorance, it was involuntary. But if he is not the least bit upset about it, although he has not acted voluntarily because he didn’t know what he was doing, he has not acted involuntarily, because he feels no pain. So if you repent of an act done through ignorance you have acted involuntarily. But if you do not repent, you have acted non-voluntarily.


Aristotle then goes on to consider the nature of proairesis (“to choose before” – intention): the deliberate choice both of ends and means. Moral conduct implies deliberate choice, which must be distinguished from desire, temper, wish and opinion. To describe an act as voluntary carries wider implications than acts done through choice. With a voluntary act the agent knows the details on which the act is based. So an act done as a result of temper or desire is still voluntary, although it doesn’t necessarily involve choice – a desire can be contrary to choice.


Choice involves deliberation. It is crucial for virtuous acts and for judgments of character. It is not the same as desire, because non-rational beings act with desire, but not choice. Choice involves previous deliberation; it’s based on reason and thought, so it cannot be a desire, wish or opinion. We don’t deliberate about things, over which we have no control, but only about those we actually do; things that are possible, indeterminate, that have an unclear outcome.


We deliberate about means, not ends. A doctor doesn’t deliberate about whether to cure a patient, but does about which means to use. After choosing an end we must then deliberate about which means to choose to achieve it. Therefore, as the object of choice is something within our power, at which we aim after deliberation, our choice will be the deliberate desire of things that lie within our power to bring about. Acts that we initiate ourselves are voluntary for which we are responsible. It is always in our power to be good and do the right things, but it is also in our power at all times to be bad. However once we have formed bad habits it is difficult for us to change them.


Aristotle then embarks on an analysis of virtues and vices. Courage is the mean, the right attitude, towards fear and confidence. A courageous man fears what is natural for man to fear, but faces it in the right way and at the right time for what is right and honorable, which is the end of virtue. Therefore it is possible to err with regard to courage by fearing what should not be feared or in the wrong way and at the wrong time. Those who err by excess are called rash, while those who are exceedingly fearful are called cowards.


As for temperance, Aristotle argues that there are few natural pleasures, like food and drink, and our desire for sexual intercourse, that are wrong to desire. But we err by excess. An intemperate person is licentious and suffers more than he or she should through the absence of pleasures. Licentiousness is more voluntary than cowardice, because it is caused by pleasure, whereas the latter is caused by pain. One is chosen, the other avoided.




This marks another significant departure from Plato’s understanding of ethics. Plato was convinced that vice was the result of ignorance and not a question of choice or desire. If someone acts badly it is as a result of a lack of intelligence or poor education and upbringing. If they were better educated, then they would act morally. This places virtue outside the realm of desire, choice and freewill. In contrast, Aristotle places it squarely inside. As a result, the individual becomes a genuine moral agent with choices to make about his moral behavior and questions of vice and virtue.


Of course this depends upon our capacity to make free choices. With free will we become moral agents with unconstrained choices to make about our conduct. As a result we are, in the full sense, morally responsible for them. However, if there are external and internal forces, like natural desires, that we can do little to resist, we can no longer be said to have free will, to be morally responsible and, therefore, to be moral agents. If your acts are not intentional, but only in response to internal natural desires you can hardly be said to be responsible for them. It would be like condemning a fox for its lack of moral virtue in killing a chicken to provide food for its young.


Kant makes the same point when he draws attention to the essential feature of the ‘categorical imperative’ that it is objective and driven by reason, rather than by subjective ‘inclinations’, like natural desires. However, Aristotle draws back from developing a fully fledged theory of free will. Indeed it seems never to have occurred to him to doubt the freedom of the will, although, like any modern thinker, he is aware of the importance of the fact that not all of our acts are voluntary. As Plato and Socrates had done before him, he ignores the possibility of deliberate wrong-doing and instead focuses on the choices we make about the means we use to gain our ends (‘We deliberate not about ends but about means’, page 58, 1112b).


When he turns his attention to actual virtues he starts with bravery and temperance, both of which are concerned with the strength of our desires to avoid pain and maximise pleasure. Unlike animals, humans have the gift of reason through which to regulate their desires and keep them within bounds. Unless we control our desire for the pleasures of food and drink we are likely to eat and drink too much and damage our health.


However, Aristotle is clearer about what temperance is not than about what it is. It is not licentious behavior, which he compares with the behavior of a child, and it is also not insensibility, but we are left without a clear picture of what temperance might look like. As for how we regulate our fears, although he condemns rashness, it is still closer to the mean of courage than is the deficiency of cowardice.    



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