Actions Voluntary and Involuntary

Actions Voluntary and Involuntary

Book 3 of the Ethics presents us with much food for thought as it pertains to our actions.

There are various forgivable actions that are not in accord with virtue–perhaps forgivable is not the right word (more excusable even though not virtuous?).

We have a distinction between what is done by the “will” and what is not.  The will seems to consist of reason, spiritedness, and desire.  Notice here, we have the tripartite soul that we learned about in Plato’s Republic.  We may act because we are ignorant of things, but those would be unwilling acts.  Those that come from the soul are willing acts.

In chapter 2 we see that humans share the irrational will with the animals.  But, only humans have “choice.”  We notice that Aristotle allies spiritedness with reason as Plato did.  One distinction here is between the morally weak and the moraly strong person (Sachs calls it lacking self-control and self-control).  We should also note here the lower level that opinion occupies in relatin to choice (reason). We make choices based on The Good, while opinions are not about knowing.

In regard to choice, chapter 3 speaks about deliberation.  Remember the Founders here, and the Federalist Papers in this regard.  It is here we get a clear view of what deliberation means.  This is a very important part of this chapter. He makes a remarkable statement at 1112b10, or so:  “We deliberate not about ends, but about the means to attain ends.” This statement is quite odd to the modern person perhaps.  The ends, via reason, are never in dispute.  In this regard Plato and Aristotle are essentially spot on with each other.  In modernity, are we all sure about the ends?  It is highly unlikely.  It was likely unthinkable to Aristotle, that people would seriously argue there is no such thing as reason, that there is no such thing as reality, that all is in flux in terms of the knowing.  Certainly, he had some sort of exposure to the latter opinion in the pre-socratics, but there is a world of difference between an Heidegger or Nietzsche (Foucault, post-modernism?).  What is up for deliberation is about the means to the ends.  One example of this in modern times might be the arguments between Jefferson and Hamilton.  They both did not trust one another, but they were not arguing about the ends of man.  Rather, their conflict was over the means!

At 1113a Aristotle goes further and asserts that the ends are never in question!  These statements deserve serious contemplation.  Just before we get to 1113a, Aristotle writes:

  1. man is the source of actions
  2. deliberation is concerned with things attainable by action
  3. actions aim at something other than themselves.

Chapter 5 proceeds to speak about man as a responsible agent.  Virtue is up to us.  No excuses will suffice here for the human capable of reason.  Those who say, for example, that they cannot do “X” because of their family upbringing, their blood, their innate passionate self, etc., are fooling themselves and speaking falsely.  To put it another way, Rush was partly right–it is all a matter of free will and even choices not to make a choice are still choices.  While not exactly Aristotelian, you get the point.  There is no excuse for denying our ability to choose.  One major caveat to our poet artists:  you cannot choose not to have free will, as the song seems to imply.

At any rate, there is no excuse for our actions of vice and ignorance is not even an excuse.  What about the person who simply cares not and passes his day drinking and engaging in activites of the sort (of pleasure)? [1114a]. There is a thorny issue brought up soon after about appearances.  The best case we can make for Aristotle, is that people need to have a sense of moral vision.  That is, people are responsible for those things that appear to them to be good.  The topic shadows post-modernism to be sure.  Just because things may appear to one person good, and another person as not good, does not mean that there is no such thing as good.  All men speak in moral terms even those that claim there is no end or morality.  Indeed, at 1114b10 he argues that no one is really a nihilist (perhaps he means that nihilism is an impossibility).

This is a great place to break off.  Chapter 6 speaks again of specific virtues.  Courage is up next.