One of the most interesting parts of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is his discussion of voluntary action. He was writing centuries before any concerns about scientific determinism arose, and yet the problem of freedom troubled him nevertheless. He was inspired by, amongst other things, controversial Athenian laws at the time which defined voluntary action in such a way that it required forethought. So crimes of passion on the spur of moment were not, technically, crimes at all. Aristotle clearly thought there was something fishy about this, and thus got to work accordingly.
He was also, as he himself writes, concerned with defining voluntary action so that he could thereby demonstrate why being a virtuous person is subject to choice. And he wants to prove this because he has said that being virtuous is the best thing to be, but he has also said that the best things in life are so valuable in part because we are free to pick them. If something is only achievable through luck, it seems to shine less brightly. Hence his desire to preserve virtue’s prestige by showing it is wholly voluntary.
Now, he has previously argued that being virtuous is a matter of not only acting in the right way, but also feeling the right things, and this will prove important later. But for now, let’s explore his analysis of the voluntary.
Let’s consider, then, a man sailing his ship towards New York and being blown unknowingly up north towards Boston instead. When he lands too far up the American coastline, we do not say he did so voluntarily. And this is because the first condition for voluntary action, which Aristotle identifies, is the need for you to have acted knowingly. What’s more, however, it seems that you need to have not been physically compelled to commit the act that you did. So ignorance precludes voluntariness, as does wind.
But this second condition gives rise to a little puzzle. How about cases where, say, you will drown on your sinking ship unless you’re willing to throw your cargo overboard. When taking the necessary step to your survival, do you similarly act willingly? You certainly do it in knowledge of the consequences. Indeed, you do it because of your knowledge of the consequences! But is your action ‘compelled’ and thereby not voluntary?
It may seem to be, but Aristotle notes that it obviously isn’t in the strict sense we meant before. The cargo does not literally force your hands to throw it overboard. You still make the choice. So Aristotle wonders for a while and ends up falling on the side of the fence that says: voluntary.
So we have a definition of the voluntary according to which you act voluntarily if you didn’t act in ignorance and you weren’t physically compelled. Or, which amounts to the same thing, you act voluntarily if you knew what you were doing and you chose it.
Now the question arises as to what we mean by ‘choice’, and here Aristotle gives a strongly intellectualist story according to which we can exercise our ability to decide what to do based on a careful consideration of the options open to us and assessing which is best. So we possess a reflective faculty, and this seems crucial to explaining how our actions can be free.
But the sharp-eyed will have noticed a gap in his analysis here: it is not the case that an act which is done consciously without physical compulsion is necessarily decided upon by a being with the power of reflection. And this is because of the existence of children and animals. Both of these, it seems, act ‘voluntarily’ in the sense that they are not forced by external objects and they can know what they are doing. But they don’t possess the powers for critical reflection which means they act voluntarily in the stronger sense which Aristotle identifies. That sort of freedom seems restricted to the abilities of fully-grown adults.
And what’s noteworthy here is that Aristotle seems to need the latter notion of reflection to explain what makes us responsible for our action. We can say that animals, children and adults alike act voluntarily. But only the latter have the capacity to realistically change and be accountable for what they do.
Enough with the analysis, then. How is this to be applied to Aristotle’s theory of the centrality of virtue to happiness?
Well, insofar as virtue involves action and adults are capable of deciding what to do, it seems easy to conclude that they are at least partially responsible for their being virtuous. All adults have the capacity to reflect upon their options and choose what is courageous, just or whatever. Hence, virtue can be praised and vice can be blamed.
Conversely, he can deny that children are responsible for their actions and are thereby not worthy of praise and blame by invoking precisely what it is they lack relative to their parents: the capacity for reflection.
But recall that for Aristotle, virtue is not only about acting in the right way. It’s also about feeling the right things. To be truly courageous, for instance, he says that you must enjoy standing firm and brave (I discussed this last week). And yet when it thus comes to demonstrating how we are responsible for our feelings, Aristotle falls silent. He seems to sneakily omit this part of his definition of virtue.
And who could blame him? This does, after all, seem like a monumental challenge. As he himself argues at length, our feelings are cultivated over extended periods of time, and the seeds are necessarily sown during our early years. But as he has also shown us, children do not control their upbringing and thereby their identity. He even compares a child’s upbringing to throwing a stone: someone can select the initial direction, but after this it is nigh-impossible to alter the trajectory that unfolds.
Similarly, then, if a child was brought up so badly as to never be told from a young age that injustice is wrong, he is likely to never feel a sense of shame when committing such acts. But it’s not the case that he is responsible for this. Does this mean he is less virtuous? If Aristotle still wants to say so, he must drop the claim that being virtuous is in our control. If he wishes to stick with the claim that all that matters is what we pick freely, then it seems he has little choice but to concede that feeling in the appropriate way does not matter in the slightest.