Study Guide

The Nicomachean Ethics Book 3, Chapter 1 (1109b30-1111b3)

By Aristotle

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Book 3, Chapter 1 (1109b30-1111b3)

  • Since living a life of virtue is all about making choices, Aristotle thinks we'd best discuss actions that are voluntary and that are involuntary.
  • He says it will help those who make laws to figure out who they should praise and punish.
  • He defines involuntary actions as those that are done under compulsion or out of ignorance. For Aristotle, involuntary behavior originates from a source external to the person compelled.
  • But it's not as simple as that, since there are situations in which voluntary and involuntary actions might be mixed.
  • Aristotle uses the example of a tyrant who gives a subject his choice of doing something hateful—but has the subject's family as hostage. The subject chooses, but is also compelled.
  • He concludes that such actions are really quite voluntary, since the subject makes a choice based on the best outcome he can get for the moment.
  • This situation makes clear that the when of an action is important in determining whether it is voluntary or involuntary.
  • It also makes us think about the ends of our actions. If the end of an action is noble—i.e. saving your family—then it's up to us to endure something shameful to achieve it.
  • Aristotle tells us that there are some things that we should absolutely not do, no matter how noble the ends. Death would be preferable.
  • But curiously, he doesn't say what. He just leaves us hanging.
  • He does say that it can be difficult to know just how far to go under compulsion. It's difficult to know where to draw the line.
  • It's possible to do horrible things for a noble reason under compulsion and still be forgiven, but you've got to be sure that others will see your actions as involuntary.
  • So what kinds of actions should be considered forced?
  • Aristotle immediately rules out anything that's pleasant or noble as the origin of something that compels.
  • He tells us that it's "laughable" to imagine that an external pleasure should "compel" us to do anything, particularly something shameful.
  • So while a compelling force must be external to the person forced, the person himself can't "contribute" to the action.
  • Anything done in ignorance can be considered involuntary, but only if it causes the doer shame and regret later on (we suppose Aristotle means when the person figures it all out).
  • If a person does something horrible but doesn't understand the ramifications of his actions and also feels no shame (because he's just that ignorant), it's still involuntary.
  • But…it's also voluntary.
  • All this equivocation leads Aristotle to call this type of ignorant action "nonvoluntary"—not exactly involuntary or voluntary.
  • In the case of people who do stupid things while drunk or angry, it's not exactly ignorance. Rather, those people are in altered or "corrupt" states, so they act badly.
  • Corrupted people don't recognize that they're acting in unjust or stupid ways, but they aren't acting involuntarily.
  • Aristotle begins to pick at the particular circumstances in which a person is blameworthy (or not) for making bad choices—and the circumstances are many.
  • He articulates several categories of ignorance that could help us determine blame: who's acting, for what reason, by what means and how?
  • Anyone who's ignorant of any of these things can be said to have acted involuntarily and therefore be the less to blame.
  • However, the ignorant person must still feel regret in the end.
  • We've finally made it to what is voluntary. Phew.
  • Aristotle says simply that it is something that has its origins in ourselves.
  • He questions the belief that things done out of desire or spiritedness are involuntary, since they originate within the person.
  • It would mean that neither children nor animals did anything on purpose—Aristotle finds this laughable.
  • He raises a few pointed questions here: do we only do noble things voluntarily?
  • Are all shameful things done out of ignorance or compulsion and are therefore always involuntarily done?
  • In the end, he says that this can't be. It's reasonable to desire and to be spirited (in moderation). The problem is when we willfully do the wrong things.

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