Deliberative Happiness: Part 5

October 05, 2016

Considering my last post I beg to question whether we can really render the evil individual as voluntary? Aristotle in chapter 8 of the Nicomachean Ethics considers actions done involuntarily.  He explains the man who acts involuntarily, who doesn't act in accordance with justice or injustice but incidentally, is participating in non voluntary action and 'non-voluntary' should be used as a term coined 'for all actions done under ignorance'. Despite this, Aristotle believes we should still consider evil as that of choice and voluntary.

Initially, the actions which formed his evil dispositions were performed through the corresponding character, over time they have become almost second nature. The agent once had the potential to do otherwise, to choose his own action, through choice. Two main things render actions involuntary, these are force and ignorance. Force is concerned with both psychological pressures and physical forces. Acting out of psychological pressure may be to act out of threat of pain or punishment; for example, if Bob does not own up he will be tortured. Alternatively, an example of physical force may be, if Bob's bus stops to a halt, he accidentally spills coffee on the passenger next to him; the spilling is involuntary, caused by the force of the bus driver braking. Being forced to act is concerned with pressure, in this way, we naturally do not associate it with what is good or pleasant, but rather, when we act involuntarily in this way we experience both regret and pain. Considering regret and pain, we must not confuse involuntary forced action with actions which we do, yet don't want to do. Giving up your seat on the tube so someone else can sit down is voluntary. Why? This is an action we do to secure a good end, we value it as a right action to choose. Such an action is praised, it is the praise associated with the action which highlights its status as voluntary; as actions which are involuntary often do not have praise and blame attached to them. It is therefore the moment of action and the circumstances an agent is in we are concerned with in cases of voluntary versus non-voluntary status and not whether an action is genuinely desirable.

Following this, the second element of involuntary action is ignorance. Acting from ignorance is again, a matter of the individuals circumstances. To act from ignorance is not to know the consequences, or in what manner you are acting. However, you are aware of the general truths at hand, and what you are aiming for in respect of your desired end. For example, you may want to make your friend happy after her breakup with her boyfriend. Your desired end is to make her feel better, however you might think you are helping her by talking to her, trying to console her, encouraging her to get back on the dating scene, when in actual fact you may be annoying or even hindering her more as she would prefer to be at home, alone and crying at Bridget Jones. Your action becomes involuntary as your ignorance of her wishes and the manner in which you are acting is not actually favourable to the end in which you are aiming for. Therefore those who act from ignorance are not fully aware of the way in which their actions are performed towards specific consequences, they are acting willingly however the action in question does not suffice the ends they attempt to meet.

Voluntary action, in contrast, is action brought about with the knowledge of what you are doing. Whilst some say actions from passion are not voluntary, I think this is mistaken. If it were true that acting through emotion or passion was not voluntary, both children and animals would cease to be voluntary. Furthermore, there are many good actions which arise from passion and emotion, which we ought to do, to render them not voluntary would seem unfair. My desires and emotions should not be seen as less a part of me than mere reason. Acting on them is natural, something which we often do and should have just as much importance placed on them. To be a voluntary agent is to be one who is knowledgable of where his action arises from, to be answerable to ones own choices and deliberations. Considering choice, we must consider the difference between what is voluntary and what we choose. All that we choose to do is voluntary, but it is not the case that everything voluntary is chosen. For example, my three year old niece Amelia acts voluntarily, but her action is not chosen in the sense we understand choice. So then how are we to define choice? Aristotle values choice not necessarily as someone who goes against their desire, resisting temptation, nor is it wishing, but instead, a practical decision of means to arrive at a specific end.

Choice is distinguished as deliberation, concerned with things we can change (unlike facts like the eiffel tower is 300 metres tall), deliberation is, as we noted through our evaluation of phronesis, a reasoned thought process concerned with intuition and action, applied differently dependent on different occasions. It is true, as Aristotle notes, that we deliberate only about the means and not about specific ends. At first this seems difficult to accept, for example I may study hard, for the end of getting a good grade. However my choice to study is party of a much wider thought process than the immediate grading of an essay, it associates itself with my desired final end. My good grades would be part of the greater end of wishing to be a well educated individual, to learn more, to teach others what I have learnt, to display flourishing and work towards a good life. Through deliberation we understand choice, as things which are knowingly in ones power.

Returning to our example of the evil man we can now consider whether people do bad things voluntarily as well as by choice. Prior to Aristotle, Socrates argued everyone aims at what they consider good, anything bad which is done is done through ignorance of what truly good action is and therefore cannot be voluntary. Aristotle agreed to some extent, that bad people are ignorant of what is good, however their action is still voluntary. Choosing a right act requires understanding the reason why it is right. The bad or evil man may be aware that an action should not be done, however if he cannot realise why, he does not know what he is ought to do. Speaking of proper goods, Aristotle notes we must aim at what is truly desirable to arrive at eudaimonia, what a good person desires, but not what the akratic man or ignorant man would desire. Pleasure infringes on the understanding of good and leads to pursing the bad as it is assumed to be most desirable and pleasant.

It is true that different characters find pleasures in different things, however this is not a scapegoat for allowing involuntary actions of the wretched. Aristotle notes this is because (as already mentioned), choice relates to what is in our power to do. We choose whether we do good or bad actions; therefore evil people choose bad actions voluntarily. Bad actions are discouraged at the same time as encouragement of acting within our power, like choosing and judging. Therefore, bad actions must be done voluntarily. But are the bad still morally responsible? They may truly believe they are choosing what they think is good, unaware of what is desirable for its own sake, acting from ignorance. Aristotle accepts this is the process which they do arrive at their decisions by, but are nevertheless, still responsible for their actions. Bad people are bad as a result of bad choices, they become bad on their own accord through constant bad actions they become more and more ignorant of goodness. Forming ones character is acquired through acting in a corresponding way. We choose how to act and such choices in turn, result in making us good or bad agents.

Actions and character traits, it is important we note, are not values and subsequently are also not voluntary in the same way. Voluntary actions are under our control from beginning to end, we make a choice and act upon it. Traits of character like those we explored in the last post however, are developed at the beginning, by choosing action, we create traits of character, therefore our gradual accumulation of actions of choice lead us to become a certain sort of person, once we become such a person we cannot simply choose to be any different. Therefore, it is through the separation of the two that we can arrive at understanding how the evil individuals actions are done voluntarily, and what once was a flexible character, has now become fixed through a constant state of bad decision making. It is through such reasoning that the individual can be considered voluntary, with a flexible character, and still be answerable to his own actions.

However this still leaves us with many questions. When is an individual entrenched in evilness and when does the wrongdoing become so much a part of his nature that evilness is inseparable from his character? Is there a turning point in the process where we identify what is good and that which is evil? A line which once crossed, leaves no room for escapism? I am prone to think this all seems unlikely, but then again, I am often prone to rose-tinting and romanticising the image of human nature.

My next post will consider moral education as a solution to all that is non-rational, evil, akratic and weak-willed. Addressing whether there really is any scope for millennial's to truly be morally educated, or whether the entire concept is anachronistic in nature and can solve very little in modern society. 


Broadie, Sarah: Ethics with Aristotle, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991)
Burnyeat, M: Aristotle on Learning to be Good in Ethics with Aristotle, (University of California Press, London England, 1980)
Cooper, John: Reason and Human Good in Aristotle, (Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1986)
Nussbaum, Martha: The Fragility of Goodness, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986)

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