Aristotle's Concept of Ethical Responsibility


The question of individual responsibility, in my opinion, is the most important in the field of ethics. Coming to an adequate understanding of human potential and limitation in forming the best life possible has been a prime question of the philosopher for ages, as it pertains to so many other forms of inquiry i.e. education, political formation, social justice, and knowledge. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is a work that delves into the problem of responsibility and attempts to provide an adequate outline for the development of the best human individual in relation with the best society in nature.

Although his account of the topic is very brief in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle gives an intelligible and valuable justification for voluntariness or free will via the notions praise and blame. As these notions are unintelligible without reference to freedom, Aristotle must explain for what we are properly praised and blamed, i.e. for what we are properly called responsible. Given his conceptualization of the conditions of virtuous action in relation to character and intelligence and the human’s responsibility for virtue, Aristotle stops the force of environment and other factors, and the extent of pardonable ignorance, in the proper place so that human freedom in decision making remains intact. Whether, as one may object, Aristotle gives significant weight to the notions of praise and blame arbitrarily so as not to fall into determinism will be considered with reference to his defense of responsibility of character and the possibility of becoming virtuous and maintaining virtue.

To properly understand Aristotle’s view of responsibility it is necessary to understand what actions and character states are worthy of praise or blame, and which are worthy of pardon or pity. In book three of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provides an outline for the responsibility of human action through his notion of voluntary and involuntary action. In chapter one of book three a criteria is provided to understand the nature of each designation, as translated by Irwin, Aristotle says, “Virtue, then is about feelings and actions. These receive praise or blame if they are voluntary, but pardon, sometimes even pity, if they are involuntary” (Aristotle, 1109b). What Aristotle means is that if an action can receive praise it can also receive blame, thus the individual has a choice to do a praise or blameworthy action.

The next question considered is how Aristotle delineates the difference between a voluntary and involuntary action? He continues with book three to give a description of the difference between a voluntary and involuntary action. In Ostwald’s translation of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle states, “It is of course generally recognized that actions done under constraint or due to ignorance are involuntary. An act is done under constraint when the initiative or source of motion comes from without” (1110a). Further provided is an example of a man being blown away by wind as a case where external force or principle could cause an individual to do an involuntary action (Ostwald, 1110a). This notion of external principle seems simple enough, but Aristotle recognizes how an ambiguous situation could arise in the form of a mixed action. He posits an example, “Suppose for instance a tyrant tells you to do something shameful, when he has control over your parents and children, and if you do it, but if you don’t they die. These cases raise dispute about whether they are voluntary or involuntary (Irwin, 1110a).

A mixed action is a situation where a person is under duress and has little time to decide what to do, or has to decide between two bad options. Aristotle leans toward the fact that an action like the tyrant anecdote is more of a voluntary action because the principle of bodily movement lies within the individual. Irwin provides an interpretation that goes as such, “Actions under duress are mixed, since they have some voluntary and involuntary aspects. But, taken as a whole, they are voluntary, since their principle of action is within the agent” (Irwin, 202).

Mixed action should be understood in terms of degree. Not all circumstances in life will provide one with the best option. Aristotle draws a line at individual movement, in order for the individual to take control of what she can; even if life throws her a “catch 22”, because these situations do not happen very often in people’s lives. That is why Aristotle establishes a degree of voluntariness in mixed actions to include ambiguous circumstances that could occur. There is a wider scale of responsibility that Aristotle establishes which will be declared later.

Aristotle posits that the other form of involuntary action is ignorance. “Everything caused by ignorance is nonvoluntary, but what is involuntary involves pain and regret” (1110b). An ignorant action is when a person acts with knowledge of the universal but ignorance of a particular. Ostwald illuminates this point with a syllogism, “Reasoning on matters of conduct involves two premises, one major and one minor. The major premise is always universal, e.g. “to remove by stealth another person’s property is stealing,” “Jerry took the horse but did not know it belonged to another” (Ostwald, 55). Therefore; Jerry acted out of ignorance of the particular, which is pardonable according to Aristotle if he expresses guilt about the situation.

An interesting question arises: why must Jerry feel regret in order for his action to be considered involuntary as opposed to nonvoluntary? Aristotle answers,

“Everything caused by ignorance is nonvoluntary, but what is involuntary involves pain and regret. For if someone’s action was caused by ignorance, but he now has no objection to the action, he has done it neither willingly, since he did not know what it was, nor unwillingly, since he feels no pain” (Irwin, 1110b).

Irwin provides a key interpretation of this passage,
“The distinction between the nonvoluntary and the involuntary is irrelevant to the agent’s relation to his action; for in either case he is not responsible for it. But it is relevant to his character. If he is pleased at something he has done because of ignorance, he shows what sorts of actions he is willing and prepared to do, and is rightly blamed or praised for his attitude to these actions. This passage is one that shows that Aristotle is concerned with more than responsibility for actions” (203).

Aristotle’s assessment for the wider range of responsibility is achieved by character formation through one’s virtuous activity and intention to constantly mold one’s character towards a virtuous state. It is shown, with his types of involuntariness, that there are situations that one can engage which reduce the individual’s freedom, but does not outright destroy it. Aristotle is providing a realistic outlook for freedom and responsibility. Aristotle recognizes man’s limitations through two forms of pardon. First, involuntariness by force recognizes the limits of the human body in the face of nature. Second, involuntariness caused by ignorance recognizes the limits of human knowledge to see all particular circumstances. In light of these presuppositions; it becomes clear that Aristotle is placing extra significance on personal responsibility in order to maintain an appropriate state and this is character virtue. Man is able to maintain freedom through the development of his character even if circumstance brings ill fortune.

With terms of the nature of an involuntary action defined the notion of voluntary action is illuminated. A voluntary action is one in which the person acts with freedom of bodily movement with knowledge of a particular in relation to the universal. The universal includes both moral action and intention for virtuous character. Says Aristotle,

“Hence virtue is also up to us, and so also, is vice. For when acting is up to us; so is not acting, and when no is up to us, not acting, when it is shameful, is also up to us; and if not acting, when it is fine, is up to us, then acting, when it is shameful is up to us. But if doing, and likewise not doing, fine or shameful actions is up to us, and if, as we say, doing or not doing them is what it is to be a good or bad person, being decent or base is up to us” (Irwin, 1113b).

Now with an understanding of Aristotle’s concepts of voluntary and involuntariness I will provide my own example and use his method to discern where the scope of responsibility can be applied. I will also introduce Aristotle’s concept of justice as a type of virtue in order to properly elucidate the degree to which responsibility lies. In Venice, California skateboarding is incredibly popular, as well as, numerous other outdoor activities since the climate there is pristine. This area supports flocks of people who make up a bustling area of outdoor vendors, recreational athletes, and homeless wonderers, and a pantheon of other walks of life. One particular Venetian past time is roller skiing. Roller skiing involves riding on a skateboard while being pulled by a dog, most usually a pit bull. A dog is harnessed and it takes the skateboarder on a wild ride dodging in and out of traffic, vendors, and benches.

One day a friend of mine, while visiting Venice, witnessed one of these roller skier’s dog crash into a man with a shopping cart full of products that were intended to be sold on the beach. The man was not injured, but some of his products were damaged during the crash. Now where does the responsibility fall in this particular case for the man’s damaged goods? At first glance of the case you see that the dog was outside the skater’s principle of action. Also, the skateboarder did not have knowledge of the particular for he did not know that the vendor would cross his path during the ride. It would seem that according to Aristotle’s delineations of involuntariness the skater would escape responsibility for the crash and not have to repay the man, but that is not the right judgment. The skater is still responsible for the virtue of his character, and the most important and difficult of all the virtues is justice, because it relates to others. Aristotle says,

“Moreover, justice is complete virtue to the highest degree because it is the complete exercise of complete virtue. And it is the complete exercise because the person who has justice is able to exercise virtue in relation to another, not only in what concerns himself; for many are able to exercise virtue in their own concerns, but unable in what relates to another” (Irwin, 1130a).

Would it degrade the skater’s character to not offer compensation for the vendor’s damaged goods? I believe that Aristotle would think so because the vendor put himself in a situation where it was a good possibility that his dog would run into another person. Aristotle says,

“There also seems to be a difference between actions due to ignorance and acting in ignorance. A man’s action is not considered to be due to ignorance when he is drunk or angry, but due to intoxication and anger, although he does not know what he is doing and is in fact acting in ignorance” (Ostwald, 1110b).

Provided with an Aristotelian prospective a judgment can be made on the roller skier’s involvement in the action. He cannot be pardoned for the action of his dog running into the vendor because he created the circumstance for which the incident happened. He acted in ignorance of where the dog would run, and is responsible for knowing that the dog could hit an innocent bystander. Because of this, and for the interest of the skater’s character virtue, it would be just of him to compensate the vendor for the damaged goods.

As stated before, character is the fundamental concern of Aristotle because it is the basis for which all actions derive from in the individual. A person is not always responsible for the consequences of their actions, but is always responsible for the consequences that form his character, and in turn will make moral actions because he is concerned with his character. He is free to mold his own character because he is free to be virtuous or not. The universal principle of being virtuous is that which ought to guide a person.

Aristotle provides more reasons why humans have free will to make ethical choices, which are grounded in his understanding of human nature. He postulates that all things have a telos or final purpose, and humans have a particular telos, which is to achieve eudaimonia (Bostock, 6). Eudaimonia is translated into happiness from Greek, but it considers more than just the English language rendering of feeling good (Bostock, 8). Eudaimonia is the highest good which entails being virtuous, reasoning well, and contemplation (Bostock, 9). Eudaimonia is a state of character rather than a good feeling. Virtue and good reasoning go hand in hand as the only way for a human fully complete it telos. Unlike other things and animals a human is not guaranteed to fulfill her telos by just being. Aristotle says,

“Hence it is clear that none of the virtues of character arises in us naturally. For if something is by nature one condition, habituation cannot bring it into another condition. A stone, for instance, by nature moves downwards, and habituation could not make it move upwards, not even if you threw it up ten thousand times to habituate it; nor could habituation make fire move downwards, or bring anything that is one condition into another condition. And so the virtues arise in us neither by nature nor against nature. Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them, and we are completed through habit” (Irwin, 1103a).

According to Aristotle, humans are not determined in our natural state to be virtuous or not. Virtue is something that we have to mold in ourselves by consistently considering it. The fact that people have the ability to choose their character state implies a significant amount of freedom in their decisions. This does not mean though that they are free of the consequence of the choices which lead to bad habits. If one acts in accordance with the highest good, then the consequence will be a character that is more in accord with virtue. However; if someone consistently acts against the highest good, then the consequence will be the formation of a bad character.

A two sided objection to Aristotle’s conception of free will can be raised. One, where does Aristotle derive his universal from? Two, what if a person has been badly habituated by his parents or city to the point where he cannot have otherwise than a bad person? The answer to the first question is an inductive one. Aristotle uses a “role model” argument to describe how a person can know what being virtuous is. That is why he thinks proper habituation is important, because a young mind that is not yet adept to reason; one must first learn by imitation. He learns to imitate the virtuous man and is then able to reason it for himself when his faculties develop. Once the child becomes a man, reason for the highest good become deductive. Example; P1: To know virtue is to know the highest good. P2 Chris knows virtue. Therefore: Chris knows the highest good. Is there a universal virtue model of a person to provide the next person the model from which they can deduce the highest good from? The difficulty of justifying this proposition seems great. Says, Friedrich Nietzsche,

“How naïve it is altogether to say: Man ought to be such-and-such! Reality shows us an enchanting wealth of types, the abundance of a lavish play and change of forms- and some wretched loafer of a moralist comments: No! Man ought to be different.” He even knows what man should be like, this wretched bigot and prig: he paints himself on the wall and exclaims, “Ecce homo!”(Rachels, 185)

Perhaps there is not a universal type man for virtue, but from an anthropological perspective universal virtues can be posited for a functioning society. James Rachels in his Elements of Moral Philosophy provides a list of virtues that are common to any society. In this list, one is courage, because life is full of dangers and without courage we would be unable to cope with them. Two is honesty, because without it relations between people would go wrong in myriad ways (Rachels, 184). These two examples provide proof that most people in any society will be exposed at least to some types of virtue. Given that all societies follow a general similar pattern that enables them to exist on this planet, it is not ludicrous to think that once a society is formed the people will start developing more complex ideas of how to be virtuous. Aristotle’s conception of free will is not debunked just because there are different types of people who perform different functions.

Another objection to Aristotle’s responsibility formation lies within his model of habituation. Can people be considered to be responsible for their characters if they have had a terrible upbringing? Aristotle says that people who are unfamiliar with the universal good are considered to be base people and thus unpardonable (1110a). Example, what if a person is locked in a room for the first ten years of their life and when they come out they have no capability of acquiring language? Can this person be held responsible for their character when they were never even given the chance to speak? Aristotle would probably offer up pity for such a person.

It is important to bear in mind that Aristotle keeps consequence as an important idea in understanding his ethics. People make choices that bear consequences which affect other people to a large degree. Aristotle doesn’t mistaken voluntariness to be a type of causa sui. A man inherits what others have done before, so what he is working with is in large part a by-product of what others have given to him. That is why education is an important part to developing citizens, because he recognizes the large degree of inheritance that occurs between generations. The element of responsibility is not removed because one who has developed rationality in Aristotle’s case will realize what his limits and potentialities and develop them to the fullest extent.

The brilliance of the Nicomachean Ethics lies within its flexibility to analyze the human condition without giving direct oughts for all particular cases. Says Aristotle,

“We must also remember our previous remarks, so that we do not look for the same degree of exactness in all areas, but the degree that accords with the proper subject matter and is proper to a given line of inquiry. For the carpenter’s and the geometer’s inquiries about the right angle are different also; the carpenter restricts himself to what helps his work, but the geometer inquires into what, or what sort of thing, the right angle is, since he studies the truth. We must do the exact same, then, in other areas too, seeking the proper degree of exactness, so that disagreements should not overwhelm our main task” (Irwin, 1098b).

Under today’s philosophical terminology Aristotle would be defined as a compatibilist, which is someone who acknowledges both the determinate conditions of man. Aristotle had a keen mind for understanding development of human nature. His awareness of the instinctual and learned elements of the human species almost causes me to believe that a lot of psychologists were just reinventing the wheel with his methods. In reference to human freedom Aristotle recognized very well what the human limitations in relation to inheritance and exterior influence from nature were. This did not cause him though to throw away important elements in striving for the good. He provides an adequate defense for the notions of human responsibility, even if all the gray areas of accountability and human development are not developed in the Nicomachean Ethics.

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