Sunday, June 16, 2013

Aristotle, Ethics, and Moral Accountability

In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle addressed the notion of moral responsibility. Aristotle regarded, moral goodness as “concerned with feelings and actions…”(Aristotle 111; III, i). Aristotle taught that the voluntary nature of actions and feelings would determine if one should receive praise or blame (111; III, i). Thus moral responsibility is determined by the voluntary nature of feelings and actions.According to Aristotle a choice is a deliberate desire for things that are humanly attainable (120; III, iii). In order for a choice to be deliberate, it must be intentional, and carefully thought out. Further, a choice must be within the human powers to make (120; III, iii).
To Aristotle a choice is to be understood as voluntary in contrast to involuntary or nonvoluntary. Voluntary choices are self-determined. Where as things outside of a moral agent determine involuntary choices. It maybe best to think of involuntary choices as a result of coercion. Nonvoluntary choices ignore the “circumstances and objects of the action…”(Aristotle 114; III, i). By this Aristotle means that non-voluntary choices are performed without intent, or knowledge of: when the action is appropriate, where the action is appropriate, and why the action is appropriate. Voluntary choices “originating cause lies in the agent himself, who knows the particular circumstances of his action”(115; III, i).
Choice is to be distinguished from desire, temper, wish, and opinion. Choice is not to be thought of as the same as desire seen in both animals and humans. For both animals and humans have the ability to desire, but not rationally choose. As Aristotle explains, the “incontinent man acts from desire but not from choice, while contrariwise the continent man acts from choice but not from desire” (Aristotle 116; III, ii). Temper is to be thought of as an emotional predisposition, so it would be difficult to imagine temper involving choice. Choice cannot be a wish because “there is no choice of impossibilities” (Aristotle 116; III, ii). Nor can choice be opinion for they too deal with the transcendent outside the natural powers of man. Further, choices deal with the prescriptive, while opinions deal with the descriptive. Choices must be understood as rationally analyzing all the possible courses to take and acting upon the one that is desired to be the best means for the end (120; III, iii).          
             People can only rightly be accountable for the voluntary choices they make. If a choice was involuntary something other than the moral agent caused the choice, so only what caused the choice could rightfully be blamed. For example, if a person were forced by gunpoint to give money the gunman would be the cause of the agent’s choice. In this case only the man with the gun could rightfully be held responsible for the victims choice because the gunman forced the agent’s choice. The gunman limited the agent’s choices to live or die with the understanding that no reasonable person could resist choosing to live, thus forcing the agent to choose to give away money.  In the case of non-voluntary choices, choices are made without knowledge or intention. For example, a mad man steals food from a grocery store. In this illustration the mad man could not have voluntarily, purposely, knowingly, and deliberately acted. So the man could not rightly be blamed for his action because he was ignorant. The man had no knowledge of: when the action was appropriate, where the action was appropriate, and why the action was appropriate. With these distinctions presented we see for Aristotle moral responsibility derives from the voluntary choices people make (123-125; III, v).      
Moral accountability derives from the voluntary nature of an action, choice, or feeling. Choice is voluntary and deliberate, dealing with attainable means to an end of pleasure or minimal pain. People can only be morally accountable for the choices they make because they have the ability to voluntarily and deliberately choose the good or the bad.
Aristotle’s view is susceptible to criticism on the basis that it makes choice arbitrary or accidental. This is because Aristotle wants to say that a person’s intellect, emotions, and desires influence the will, but never determines it. If a person’s will is not determined by his desires, then the will is determined by itself. For example, person “S” wants to rob a bank, while person “A” does not. If Aristotle’s view is correct the reason why person “S” chooses to rob a bank is because his will chose to. And the reason why person “ A“ chose not to rob a bank is because his will chose not to. If this were the case a person’s choice is arbitrary.        
 Aristotle’s Ethics
In contrast to Plato, Aristotle favored ethical naturalism. He wanted ethics to be practical and down to earth. This is partially why Aristotle departed from Plato’s idea that all value is based from a non-natural source, which he called the Form of the Good.[1] Unlike Plato, Aristotle’s ethics assumed that all things in the world have a “natural” purpose (teleos). Aristotle believed this purpose was grounded in the essential nature of things. For example, the purpose of food is nourishment. The purpose of sleep is rest. The purpose of sex is reproduction. The purpose of a flute is good music. However, for Aristotle purpose is more than design. He saw everything having a function and potential end. For instance, acorns can become oak trees. Trees can become houses. And infants can grow up to be Biologists.
Aristotle argued that the highest good must have intrinsic value. He reasoned this in virtue of the fact that if the good had instrumental value there would be an infinite regress. The result would be that a person would always be after a means to another means and never get to an end. This would mean the highest good could never be reached. This led Aristotle to conclude that the highest good is an end in itself. It has intrinsic value. Hence, it is desirable for its own sake. As Richard Kraut puts it, “ he [Aristotle] assumes that the highest good, whatever it turns out to be, has three characteristics: it is desirable for itself, it is not desirable for the sake of some other good, and all other goods are desirable for its sake.”[2
 Aristotle argued that the highest good is an activity of the soul. He argued this by reason that the good is either external or internal. It’s either by external goods, the soul, or the body. He argued that it could not be found in external goods, because they are outside the control of a person. Nor can the body be of the highest good, for it too is outside the control of an individual, because of chance, and heredity. Aristotle concluded that the highest good must be of the soul. But if it’s of the soul, it must be either a state of mind or action. It cannot be a state of mind because there are states of mind that are not good or evil. For example, a person’s state of mind when asleep is not good or evil. Therefore, the good cannot be a state of mind, so it must be an action. Thus for Aristotle the highest good is an action of the soul.
According to Aristotle the highest good is happiness. But since happiness is defined in many ways, he looks to common ideas of happiness. First he goes to fame. He shows fame cannot be the highest good since it is a means to pleasure. Secondly, he argues that pleasure alone cannot be the good because it degrades humans to animals. Thirdly, he examines honor. Here, he argued that since an individual cannot control honor, it could not be the good. Further, honor too seems to be a means to self-worth or pleasure. Next, he looks at rational contemplation. He shows that rational contemplation is an activity of the soul that’s an end in itself. It fulfils the function of what it means to be a human being. This is due to Aristotle’s belief that only humans have rational souls. Thus it satisfies the necessary conditions for it to be the good.
For Aristotle, virtue is to be found in the disposition of a person that chooses the mean between two extremes of excess and deficiency. The mean for Aristotle is a principle that is both objective and subjective. It is objective in the sense that it is applicable to all people at all times. But oddly enough, it is also subjective in the sense that the mean is relative to each individual. Since individuals are different, each person will have different excesses and deficiencies. And with these differences each person must choose to follow the mean. It seems that Aristotle prescribes moderation when he speaks of the two extremes of excess and deficiency. It’s as if he is saying don’t drink too much, but also don’t drink to little. A better example of Aristotle’s ethics at work would be with the character trait courage. Courage would be the mean of two extremes--rashness and cowardice. A person that has an excess of confidence, with a deficiency of fear will be rash. However, a person that has an excess of fear, and a deficiency of confidence will be cowardice. From this Aristotle would say that the virtuous person would have a disposition to choose to have courage—the mean of two extremes.
      Aristotle believed that people acquire a good disposition by education, and incentive. Education for Aristotle is the primary means of training people to be virtuous. But he also sees pleasure and pain as an incentive, and reinforcement to be virtuous. For if virtue brings greater pleasure and lesser pain, then more people will choose to be virtuous. So by incentive and education one can gain a habit to choose the mean.           
Aristotle believed the highest good is rational activity of the soul in compliance to virtue. If a summary of Aristotle’s ethical system could be understood in a sentence this would be it. Aristotle believed humans should be rational to the point that it leads them to continually follow the mean. And by doing so, they are fulfilling their purpose and flourishing as human beings.    
At this point it would be appropriate to give some general criticisms of Aristotle. Aristotle claimed that people could learn to be virtuous through education and incentive. One could argue that people cannot empirically learn a universal principle (i.e. the mean) by education. This is because a reasonable person could not look to particular things and deduce there is a universal principle. Moreover, Aristotle claimed that a person could gain a good disposition of character by choice. If this were the case, then the initial choice of a person to gain a good disposition would be arbitrary. But this goes against the idea that our desires determine our choices. Furthermore, Aristotle argued for an ethical naturalism. But by doing so, he is left with no metaphysical ground for ethics. Worst of all, he assumes the naturalistic fallacy. In other words, he assumes from a description of the way things are, we can get a prescription of the way things should be. Lastly, we come to the mean itself. The obvious objection to Aristotle is his mean of excess and deficiency is arbitrary. It’s like asking teenagers “why do you believe that”? They can give different responses, but typically their arbitrary. A prime example would be the response “just because.” But even if the mean is shown to be justifiable there seems to be another problem. Assuming that the mean is after moderation. It seems to be contradictory. This is in virtue of the fact that the mean could logically lead people to desire moderation of moderation. In other words, the mean leads people to seek balance from over balancing themselves. But if this is the case we will need a mean for the mean.  


Aristotle. The Ethics of Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics.Trans. J.A.K. Thomson. London: Penguin, 1976. 

Clark, Gordon H. Thales to Dewey: A History of Philosophy. 4th ed. Vol. 3. Trinity, 2000. 86-121.  

Moore, Noel Brooke. and Kenneth Bruder. Philosophy: The Power of Ideas. Mountain View: Mayfield, 1990. 201-03. 

Sandel, Michael J. Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do?. New York: FGS, 2009. 184-207.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford U, 08 Dec. 2010


[1] Moore, Noel Brooke. and Kenneth Bruder. Philosophy: The Power of Ideas. Mountain View: Mayfield, 1990. 201. 

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