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In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle puts forth his theory in relation to one’s responsibility, their character acquisition, and their actions in his book. He also provides objections to his claims, most notably in 1114b, where Aristotle suggests that people may not be responsible for any of their actions. In this paper, I will describe Aristotle’s accounts of responsibility, action, and character acquisition, as well as the objection that he provides in 1114b. Then I will present a possible rebuttal to that challenge that Aristotle may have. I will also argue that Aristotle’s argue fails, since it is not Aristotle claimed that there were voluntary actions and not voluntary actions.
According to Aristotle, people are always responsible for their voluntary actions, since we knowingly choose to perform these actions, whilst being aware of the consequences that accompany them. On the other hand there are not voluntary actions, where an individual acts in response to force or because of ignorance. However, there are some cases that seem blurred, but to Aristotle they are voluntary actions. For example, Aristotle used the example of a sinking ship and the crew threw cargo overboard to prevent the ship from sinking. Since the crew were aware of both the consequences of throwing the cargo overboard, even if it meant losing something valuable, and were not physically forced by something else, they were acting voluntarily.
Another example brought up by my TA, Michael Prinzing, would be being told to rob a bank for someone or they would kill someone you loved. In this example, the person being forced to do something knows the consequences of their actions ahead of time, so they would not be ignorant. This also would not be a case where force was used since the person still has a choice whether or not to rob the bank. The not voluntary actions, that Aristotle claims are a result of force or ignorance, can be divided into two different categories: non-voluntary and involuntary. Actions that are non-voluntary, would be actions that are not voluntary but not completely out of character of the person. For example, if someone were pushed into another person, the person that was pushed was not willingly bumping into the next person and they had no control over that happening, thus also being unaware of the consequences that may result from that action.
There are also involuntary actions, which is also when the action is not voluntary, but it is not compatible with the character of the person performing that action. For example, if someone were to accidentally step on your foot, but did not mean to and felt bad for doing so, then that action would be involuntary. This is because the action does not align with who that person is, since they felt guilty for potentially causing someone else pain. However, there are sometimes when the force and ignorance of a not voluntary action are not good enough excuses to avoid moral responsibility. If a person was responsible for the force, like asking someone to do something to you, or not paying attention to what you are told. Aristotle also believes that becoming a just, or excellent, person is different than becoming excellent at something else. These different types of excellence stem from two separate virtues: “virtues of character” [and] virtues of thought. ” Virtue of thought, as Aristotle calls it, requires practice and time, while virtue of character “results from habit, ” according to Aristotle. Aristotle claims in 1103b, that “we become just by doing just action. ” This means that in order for somebody to be considered a just person they habitually do just actions. To emphasize his claim Aristotle also states, “a state [of character] results from [the repetition] of similar activities. ” This is Aristotle’s theory of character acquisition, in which people get desirable traits by acting how someone with that trait would act.
In Nicomachaen Ethics, Aristotle offers two objections to his argument, with the latter, from 1114b, being more noteworthy. In this objection, Aristotle is essentially saying that people do what they feel to be good, or attractive, and this cannot be controlled. Since, what one deems to be good based on how it appeals to them and it cannot be controlled, Aristotle is implying in this objection that people who do unjust actions cannot be held morally accountable for their actions. If this were the case, Aristotle says that people would not be accountable for the actions that they do if they seem to be good to that person, since they cannot control whether or not it appears to be good to them. Aristotle then counters his would be objection. He says, in 1115a, “Nonetheless, since it was up to us to exercise a capacity either this way or another way, states are voluntary. ” He is saying even though someone does not know if what they are doing is just or not, that whatever action they are doing is still something they are morally responsible for, since they were knowingly doing that action. Also, Professor McCord also mentioned that people were responsible for their ignorance when it is “culpable ignorance, ” where people should know what they are doing, or the consequences of what they are doing, but do not. According to Aristotle, this would be a case of “culpable ignorance” since he feels that people should know what is just. He also claims that people that perform unjust habits are unjust, and therefore their actions cannot be just, even if they in a case of ignorance.
Aristotle’s argument, to me, seems to be an inherently good argument, but it has flaws and is not entirely true. In his argument, he claims that a person can only be just if they perform just actions habitually, then he also states that in order to perform just actions one must do them only because they are just, which could only be done if they themselves, were already a just person. Since one must already be just to perform just actions, there is a closed loop, in which you are unable to enter, making it seem as if one has to start out as a just person in order to be just later. This would then go against what Aristotle said earlier about habitually doing just actions in order to become just, making it seem as if it is not possible to become a just person. If I were Aristotle, I would argue the objection he raised in 1114b, by pointing out that people have the capacity to learn what is actually good, even if it is different from what they originally thought. I would do so by saying that if all people need to change is habitually perform an action of a desirable trait, then they would eventually do that action without thinking. Then that trait would become a part of that person’s character, relating back to Aristotle’s character acquisition theory. This would challenge that one cannot control what they deem to be good or just, because if someone is only exposed to what is actually just they will deem that to be good.
On the other hand if they were exposed to more than only what is just they could deem something else to be good when it is not. But with only being exposed to just they only have one option to learn what is good. This could even be applied after someone finds something wrong to be good, since they would be forced to think that they were originally wrong, and would then conform to the standard set for them.
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