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Critical Analysis of Aristotle’s Theory of Moral Responsibility Presented in Nicomachean Ethics

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In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle presents a theory of moral responsibility that involves actions and character acquisition. He examines when and how individuals are responsible, and provides an objection to when people are never responsible for what they do. I first describe the concepts of moral responsibility, virtues, actions, and decision-making, then analyze the objection and Aristotle’s response. In this essay, I will argue that this objection is unsuccessful because it fails to consider the distinction between good and bad actions and their implications on character.

Moral responsibility is comprised of virtue and vices. According to Aristotle, virtue is related to both actions and how people feel regarding those actions. There are in general three kinds of action: non voluntary, involuntary, and voluntary. However, I will mostly focus on voluntary and involuntary for the sake of defining actions. Voluntary actions are ones that can find their origin within the agent when there is no ignorance present of particulars. Aristotle proves six kinds of particulars, some of which are who one is, what they are doing, what instrument they are doing the action with, and how they are doing it. The absence of these particulars theoretically means the action is voluntary. The absence of force also makes actions voluntary. Yet, to further what makes actions voluntary, actions that are done in ignorance but not necessarily done by ignorance are also voluntary. This idea is relevant to drunk driving incidents. If someone made the decision to drink at a birthday party and then hurt someone by saying something critical of them, then that action of saying something was done voluntarily in ignorance, due to being drunk. Drinking often permits how people would not act sober, making this a voluntary action. Furthermore, if that person then drove their car back to their house drunk and crashed into another car, this action was done while ignorant of their surroundings but still voluntary. In addition, actions that are either under force or ignorance are not voluntary. While not all forms of ignorance render an action involuntary, the majority of those that cause regret or pain make an action involuntary. Oftentimes people feel regret as a result of those actions, especially if the action is forced.

Aristotle provides two main examples of actions given under force: when someone is carried by a natural force, and when someone is placed in a kidnapping situation. In a kidnapping example, if kidnappers demanded that a family member of a kidnapped family steal from a bank to save all of their other family members, this action done under force was involuntary if they desired to save the lives of their family members. In this case, that person is not contributing anything additional to their action, as they feel compelled by external origins that are forcing the action to occur. They are powerless in this situation as well. Therefore, this example demonstrates how under force, an action is involuntary. Yet, it could be voluntary because the family member decided to do the action themselves. However, Aristotle’s definition of force in how involuntary actions rely on external origins and how a person contributes nothing is narrow to a significant extent. While his definition is true, it varies the perception given of the person placed under force. His definition lends to a portrayal of how the person is a victim rather than a person simply under the influence of an involuntary action. Also, it makes it appear as if generally all involuntary actions are negative and occur with little control on behalf of the person affected. Nevertheless, involuntary actions occur under force, compulsion, or ignorance with particulars. Building on this point, Aristotle also analyzes mixed actions where a given action may be voluntary or involuntary, which more closely resembles the kidnapping example given above. Aristotle does claim that those actions are “rather voluntary, ” but in the case of a moral dilemma, I believe that the action would be more involuntary because death itself or causing death is something that people generally seek to avoid.

Furthermore, the psychological pressure would cause that person to break in that moment and later regret the action morally even if their family was saved in the kidnapping example. One additional example of a mixed action Aristotle provided was of the ship and the sailors – the sailors decided to throw away goods voluntarily overboard in order to save their lives. The action of throwing the goods overboard was voluntarily, but the fact that they would not choose that act in itself normally makes it involuntary. This idea of actions leads to the nature of decision making. Knowing that voluntary action derives from a lack of ignorance and an origin in an agent, making decisions can lead to discovering one’s character. However, prior to making decisions, deliberation must occur. According to Aristotle, deliberation is a means to an end and influences actions before they are done. Therefore, a decision is based on prior deliberation and is voluntary. Decisions are voluntary because they have effects and are thought of voluntarily before acted upon. This idea means that decisions are not emotions, desires, or beliefs. Rather, they are deliberations on things that can change. Decisions are not emotions because, for example, if a student were to give in to procrastination, they would be giving in to the temptation to not study from that desire. On the other hand, if a student resisted the temptation to not study, that would be by choice while going against their desire for procrastination. Next, decisions are not wishes, as that relates to a more theoretical mindset, but not the specific choices to reach the ends. Finally, it is not a belief, as beliefs are more abstract and not concrete facts or means. Having demonstrated how decisions are voluntary, I will then describe how decisions are related to character.

Aristotle claims that we are responsible for our virtues and vices. He also emphasizes how we are responsible for decisions made, considering that our virtues and character helps us make decisions. If our decisions are made voluntarily and with deliberation, then they must be made based on beliefs held by us as individuals and our virtues. To support this point, one specific virtue that Aristotle uses as an example is courage. Placing courage on a scale, rashness would be a vice, as would cowardice. An excessive amount or deficiency of courage would lead to the vice of rashness or cowardice. However, leaning towards rashness, courage would be a virtue, although moderation is necessary when considering it. Decisions based on courage as a virtue are also moral oftentimes, demonstrating character. This point supports Aristotle’s statement that young children and animals are unable to make decisions, while they do act voluntarily. This supports the previous claim because in order to make decisions, a moral basis is required. In the case of courage, this virtue and other virtues relate to character. Aristotle also believes that the actions that arise from a person with a certain character make them responsible for those actions. This point leads to how a person is the cumulative result of their actions. Upon performing voluntary actions through life, people become the kind of person they have acted like based on previous decisions made.

On a side note, while people tend to strive for what they believe is good, the idea of “good” is different to everyone. The way people experience different events and people leads to various characters that mean they may not be responsible necessarily for their actions. People also cannot help what appears good to them, but what appears good to them may affect how they act unconsciously or involuntarily. People are only responsible for what can be decided by them and character but not responsible in the previous statement. Nevertheless, Aristotle believes that people should be held responsible regardless. His initial views consist of that responsible agents are responsible for voluntary actions, although he lacks addressing the consequences of such actions. Furthermore, Aristotle states that even if someone does unjust actions in a form of ignorance, they are still responsible. Even if that person had no idea they were developing a poor character, Aristotle would continue to hold them responsible. To further this point, a character that is unable to change is also responsible for their actions, although Aristotle accepts that people cannot change after some extent. However, they are still responsible, as they are making voluntary decisions and actions based on their character, whether good or poor. To use a previous example, someone who decides to drink often, promoting unjust behavior, is still responsible for their behavior. This action leads to the same character of being unjust without self-control. Aristotle believes that unjust people do unjust actions voluntarily and became ignorant of what is just.

Furthering this point, it is difficult to teach what is good or bad when people grow up in different or even challenging environments. Someone who grows up in a smoking environment may be unaware that smoking is an unjust action if they are watching family members around them smoke. Yet, when making these decisions in the future to smoke, it may be more difficult to take into account the social opinions of smoking when they clash internally for that individual. Therefore, even while making the decision to smoke, they are responsible for the health effects afterward and for their actions, while their ignorance is prevalent. If the family members also encourage it as good, then the fact that the individual is smoking thinking it is good is in ignorance, and involved in some form of involuntary action from ignorance. Moreover, people are responsible for their own characters because they made decisions based on their virtues/vices, and consequently are impacted by those decisions.

In addition, Aristotle’s objection at 1114b consists of how people are never responsible for what they do. Previously, Aristotle elaborated on the concept of responsibility regarding blame and praise. He stated that there are two possibilities: one in which praise and blame are appropriate when the person deserves that response as a result of their actions or behavior, and the other is that they are appropriate to improve the person’s actions or behavior and alter those consequences. Yet, praise or blame may be given only if someone does something they are responsible for. However, this praise or blame is difficult to appropriate if people are never responsible for what they do. Aristotle uses this objection in response to arguments people may provide as to why people are not responsible. I personally believe this claim is incorrect. I believe that people are sometimes responsible for what they do, and it depends on the situation to a great extent. When considering the objection that people are never responsible, this goes for both good and bad people. If a bad person is not responsible for what they think is good, albeit being bad actions, then a good person would not be responsible for their good actions either. Yet, good actions are done voluntarily through virtues and deliberation. Acting in specific ways creates a character. Putting these points together implies that if this objection is true, then good actions are not done voluntarily. Good actions create a good character. However, if this point is true, then good actions would also cause pain or regret, as involuntary actions do. As a result, this means that good actions must be done voluntarily, and consequently bad actions as well. If they were not done in this manner, then there would be a lack of character development and responsibility would not be given.

In response to this argument, Aristotle might say that people are responsible for the deliberation that they have before making decisions based on their character, and they are responsible for that amount of action, but they are not responsible for the action itself. People may be under external pressures or experience changes that would make them act in a different way. Aristotle might also say that even with deliberation and other factors, the fact of reasonableness stands in the way as to how people might be expected to act in a certain situation without all of the information.

Therefore, I believe that people are sometimes responsible for what they do. When it comes to actions that are good or bad, it is true that they are voluntary actions. Mixed actions are prevalent, however, and contribute to the debate if people are responsible for what they do. I believe people are responsible for their ignorance, and while they are not responsible for the external pressures that might force them to act in a certain way, there are many ways in Western culture in which people might learn of what is just in society. Furthermore, responsibility is based on how people are reasonable. People may be ignorant for as long as they wish; however, it is up to them to make the decision to not be ignorant. Making decisions like this one voluntarily would contribute to their character as well. In conclusion, I have argued that people are sometimes responsible for what they do. It is necessary to draw a distinction between good and bad actions, and to demonstrate they have a significant implication on character development and behavior.

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Critical Analysis of Aristotle’s Theory of Moral Responsibility Presented in Nicomachean Ethics. (2020, July 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from
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