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Aristotle on Moral Responsibility
by Diana Mertz Hsieh

Date: 1 May 95
Forum: Washington University in St-Louis, Plato and Aristotle class
Copyright: Diana Mertz Hsieh

The concept of moral responsibility is fundamental to any system of ethics, because claiming that people ought to take certain actions presupposes a choice which determines the action taken and for which the individual is responsible. Despite wide divergences between philosophers over theories of moral responsibility, the fundamental answer to how such responsibility arises is freedom of the will. Because at least some human action is self-caused, rather than solely a product of instinct or external forces, humans can be held responsible for those self-caused actions. The philosophical divergences concerning the circumstances under which moral responsibility result from divergences in the particular accounts of that which is directly under volitional control, of the acquisition of knowledge of good and evil, and of the connection between knowledge and action.

When the study of ethics emerged in Greek philosophy through Socrates (as relayed by Plato), the problems of the origin of responsibility for action and the application of that responsibility to particular circumstance were almost immediately uncovered. Plato partially addressed these topics, but because his definition of the good (by his own standards) was never adequate, it would have been impossible for him to develop a full theory of moral responsibility. It is Aristotle who is actually able to analyze moral responsibility through his theory of knowledge and the conceptual distinctions between the voluntary, choice, deliberation, and wish.

Because Plato serves as the background for much of Aristotle's work in ethics, I wish to first discuss Plato's views as an introduction to those of Aristotle. I then wish to give a full account of Aristotle's view of moral responsibility, primarily focussing on moral responsibility under conditions of ignorance and on evil action when the good is known. Finally I will indicate where Aristotle's account is inadequate, and thus needs to be supplemented in order to fully account for moral responsibility.

For Plato, the issue of moral responsibility primarily arises as a result of the investigations into the connection between knowledge, desire, and right action; his discussions generally center around whether those who desire evil do so knowingly or due to ignorance or error. In Protagoras, the basic contradiction of desiring evil is addressed. In the Meno, Socrates gives a more complete proof that no one could really knowledgeably seek evil. If indeed all evil is the result of ignorance or error, then the proper course of action would be to "take [the evildoer] aside privately for instruction and reproof" so that she may understand what the proper course of action is. (Plato, Apology, 26a)

In the Protagoras, Plato simply states that "no one willingly goes to meet evil or what he thinks to be evil. To make for what one believes to be evil, instead of making for the good, is not, it seems, in human nature, and when faced with the choice of two evils, no one will choose the greater when he might choose the less." (Plato, 358c) Although Plato does make a distinction between choosing objective evil and choosing evil that appears good, this discussion presents no formal argument for why an individual cannot knowingly desire evil.

In the Meno, Socrates' primary focus is on how virtue is acquired (even though he would rather investigate the nature of virtue first), and so in exploring the connection between knowledge of the good and right action, Socrates provides a proof for why no individual can knowingly desire evil. In the dialogue, Meno holds that "some men desire evil and others good" and that those who desire evil either "suppose evil to be good" or "desire them, although they recognize them as evil." (Plato, 77c) Meno then goes on, despite Socrates incredulity, to say that some individuals desire evil, knowing that it brings harm, while others believe that evil will bring them advantage. After both Meno and Socrates agree that people who think that evil is advantageous are simply mistaken about the nature of evil, Socrates convinces Meno that those who think that evil brings harm will be injured, unhappy, and unfortunate, states which no one desires. And so "nobody desires what is evil." (Plato, 78b)

While this proof that no one can desire evil is certainly more complete than that put forth in Protagoras, it raises a whole new set of problems concerning moral responsibility. Plato's argument that those who profess to know the good and yet act against it really do not understand the nature of the good is dubious unless the exact nature of the good is already known, so that it can be illustrated precisely how these people are in error. But because Meno does not want to investigate into the nature of the good, Socrates cannot prove how these people are mistaken, only suppose that they must be. Also if no one really desires evil, i.e. if everyone's intentions are good, then little (if any) moral responsibility can be accorded, although instruction in morality is certainly required. Further complications with respect to this criticism are avoided through Socrates' disavowal of his conclusion that virtue cannot be taught (and thus that it must be the result of divine dispensation). If virtue were indeed unteachable, then there would be no possible human recourse for those in error, and the concept of moral responsibility would be completely destroyed; individuals would just have to wait for the gods to grant them knowledge of the good. But Socrates denial of his conclusion leaves open the possibility that individuals could be deliberately in ignorance, as Aristotle focusses on in his account of moral responsibility and evildoing.

Aristotle's view of moral responsibility is similar to Plato's in that it concentrates on the role of knowledge in taking the proper course of action. But Aristotle's account is much more powerful than Plato's, primarily due to the conceptual distinctions that Aristotle makes throughout his philosophical writings. Aristotle has a wide range of conceptual tools through which to analyze moral responsibility, like the four causes, choice as a species of the voluntary, and actions done due to ignorance versus those done in ignorance. All of these ideas allow Aristotle to account for moral responsibility, particularly evildoing, in a much more complete fashion than Plato.

Aristotle's conception of the four causes is a powerful tool of analysis in all of his philosophy, even in his account of moral responsibility. The clear distinction between efficient and final causes allow Aristotle to analyze moral responsibility based on the intentions of the agent and the end result of such actions. Examination of the connections between means and ends is aided by Aristotle's conception of an incidental cause, for incidental cause designates situations in which the efficient cause of a certain action produces unexpected or unintended results. These three concepts -- efficient cause, final cause, and incidental cause -- serve as the metaphysical foundation of Aristotle's distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary.

The concepts of voluntary and involuntary are primarily the product of an analysis of the efficient cause and derivatively of the final causes of an agent's action. A voluntary action is one for which "the moving principle [of the action] is in the agent himself," i.e. the action is self-caused. (Aristotle, 1111a) But if the moving principle of an action comes from outside the agent, then the action is to be considered involuntary. So, for example, seeing a man drowning and pulling him out of the water in order to save him is voluntary; even a thirsty animal's movement towards water is voluntary. But giving up your wallet to an armed thief or stepping on someone's foot because you were unaware of their presence are involuntary. From the definitions alone, it might seem that the voluntary/involuntary distinction results from a simple analysis of the efficient cause, but in fact the final cause does bear on the analysis, because whether an efficient cause comes from within or without the agent partially depends upon whether the final cause actually effected is the identical to the desired final cause.

Aristotle's classification of actions owing to ignorance as involuntary (like accidentally stepping one someone's foot) demonstrates that final causes do play a role in the analysis of actions as voluntary or involuntary. When an action is performed due to ignorance, although the agent does cause the primary action, external circumstances yield an end other than the one expected or desired, and so the action is considered involuntary. For example, accidentally throwing away an important document when cleaning up a pile of papers should be considered involuntary, since the desired end was cleaning, not discarding the document, which was the result of the unforseen circumstance of the document being hidden in the pile of papers.

Due to the classification of actions due to ignorance as involuntary, an interesting class of actions that are partially voluntary and partially involuntary emerges, depending upon the level of abstraction at which the action is considered. Aristotle's example of throwing goods overboard in a storm in order to save lives shows that "in the abstract no one throws goods away voluntarily," since the desired end of the sail was not to sink the goods but rather to transport them. (Aristotle, 1110a) But when the jettison of goods is considered solely in the context of the acts required to save the lives of those on the ship in the storm, then it must be considered perfectly rational and voluntary. Actions such as throwing goods overboard are, according to Aristotle "voluntary, but in the abstract perhaps involuntary; for no one would choose any such act in itself." (Aristotle, 1110a)

Aristotle also distinguishes between the non-voluntary and the involuntary with respect to actions due to ignorance, for "it is only what produces pain and repentance that is involuntary." (Aristotle, 1110b) But "the man who has done something owing to ignorance, and feels not the least vexation at this action has not acted voluntarily, since he did not know what he was doing, nor yet involuntarily, since he is not pained." (Aristotle, 1110b) So, if the document that was unknowingly discarded while cleaning was insignificant, then the action would be neither voluntary nor involuntary, but rather non-voluntary. Aristotle does not indicate why the involuntary must produce pain and repentance, but presumably he simply wishes to make a distinction between non-voluntary actions which have bad effects as opposed to those which have neutral or even beneficial ones. This distinction allows Aristotle to distinguish between virtuous individuals who achieve their goals and those who accidentally gain auspicious ends.

The concept of choice, for Aristotle, arises as a species of the voluntary, and is an integral part of moral responsibility, since it is involves the distinctive human capacity to deliberate. Deliberation concerns means not ends and "with things that happen in a certain way for the most part, but in which the event is obscure, and with things in which it is indeterminate." (Aristotle, 1112b) In other words, humans must deliberate about which action to take when the habits and principles that we have formed do not adequately or clearly apply. Aristotle holds that, in deliberation, we "assume the end and consider how and by what means it is to obtained" precisely because "we deliberate about things that are in our power and can be done." (Aristotle, 1112b and 1112a) Nevertheless, I do think that it is possible to say that humans indirectly deliberate about ends by recognizing that most ends are simply means to more abstract ends. For example, in deliberating about which one of three job offers to accept, one must regard having a job as an invariable end, but one can also deliberate about whether to have a job or not, all the while taking the support of one's material existence as the end. Thus humans can deliberate about ends qua means to further ends, although they cannot deliberate about ends per se.

So given this account of deliberation, determining the object of choice is simple, for it is just that "that which has been decided upon as a result of deliberation." (Aristotle, 1113a) The action involved in choice is thus "deliberate desire," for in order to have chosen a course of action we must desire it.

This general account of freedom of the will, coupled with Aristotle's view that virtue consists in cultivating good habits over the long-term implies that "the virtues are voluntary (for we ourselves are somehow partly responsible for our states of character)." (Aristotle, 1114b) We are responsible for our states of character because habits and states of character arise from the repetition of certain types action. If the virtues are voluntary, then the vices must also be voluntary, since it would be absurd "to make oneself responsible for noble acts but [external circumstances] responsible for base acts." (Aristotle, 1110b) But the particular circumstances in which responsibility applies to evil actions is still not entirely clear, for some destructive acts could still be regarded as involuntary, and hence moral responsibility would not be applicable. In order to clarify this issue Aristotle must make a further distinction between acting due to ignorance as opposed to acting in ignorance.

The distinction between acting due to ignorance and in ignorance is that the former is accidental, while the latter is deliberate. Acting due to ignorance is involuntary, and the ignorance concerns the particulars of a situation. On the other hand, acting in ignorance is voluntary; the individual deliberately puts himself in a state of ignorance, such as a state of drunkenness.

An individual can be involuntarily ignorant of the particulars of a given situation, such as "who he is, what he is doing, what or whom he is acting on, . . . to what end," etc. and thus act due to ignorance. (Aristotle, 1111a) But ignorance of universals, ignorance of what is to an individual's advantage, or ignorance of what an individual ought to do are all voluntary, and hence blameworthy. So if a woman pushes a friend into a pool, while ignorant of the particular fact that her friend cannot swim, the action is to be considered involuntary. But if a woman pushes her friend into the pool, unaware that killing is wrong, then her ignorance is considered voluntary and she is held blameworthy.

Aristotle does not directly argue for the view that ignorance of universals is voluntary, and one could protest that Aristotle's position ignores the possibility that knowledge of the good and the virtues are acquired over a significant period of time and thus that an individual could be involuntarily ignorant of a universal. Nevertheless, I think that Aristotle can reasonably assume that by the time an person reaches adulthood that basic knowledge of the good is known (barring a diabolical childhood). Also, individuals are responsible for the deliberation which leads to choice, and since all humans are (at least some sense) rational, they can be blamed for faulty deliberation. And so those individuals who are voluntarily ignorant are deemed wicked, for wicked acts are "acts whose moving principles are in us [and so] must themselves also be in our power and voluntary." (Aristotle, 1113b)

Given conclusion that wicked actions are necessarily voluntary, Aristotle must, in order to give a full account of responsibility, explain why any individual would voluntarily choose wickedness. He does this by appealing to the carelessness of some people, presumably carelessness in seeking knowledge of the good and in deliberation. So the wicked man is wicked precisely because he does not wish to exert the effort of acquiring knowledge or of deliberating properly. And if one objects that wicked men have just not acquired the virtue of careful thinking, then "still they are themselves by their slack lives responsible for becoming men of that kind," just as self-indulgent men are responsible for their character due the habit-forming activities that they have engaged in (e.g. repeated drinking bouts).

But in order to really give a full account of why people choose wickedness, Aristotle must indicate that for which humans are primarily morally responsible. As Aristotle recognizes, humans can only have indirect, long-term volitional control over states of character. So precisely over what do humans have direct volitional control? Aristotle does not directly address this question, but I think that the structure of his arguments about the voluntary, states of character, choice, and deliberation point clearly to the position that it is the act of deliberation that is under direct volitional control and that gives rise to the concept of moral responsibility.

One could given an Aristotelian argument for deliberation being the foundation of moral responsibility as follows. Both animals and human children wish or desire certain ends, and both must take certain actions in order to achieve those ends. Animals take the required actions either based on instinct or through the imitation of the other animals' actions. But as human children develop their rational faculty, they gradually acquire the capacity to deliberate about the best means to achieve a certain desire. In fact, such deliberation becomes utterly necessary for life and happiness as children develop and their needs expand. Thus moral responsibility would arise from the necessity of deliberation in order to achieve happiness (which is the end of all humans), and so praise or blame would primarily be bestowed upon the act of proper deliberation or careless deliberation (or no deliberation at all). Because this deliberation gives rise to choice, and because choice over the long run forms states of character, humans are morally responsible for both their choices and their states of character. Aristotle doesn't explicitly make this argument, but I do think that it is implicit in the structure of his ethics.

Aristotle's account of moral responsibility, although not entirely complete, has an explanatory power that far exceeds any of Plato's discussions. The conceptual distinctions that Aristotle makes throughout his philosophy allow him to account for how moral responsibility arises, as well as nearly exhaustively specify that conditions under which an individual is responsible for his actions.

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