Aristotle’s discussion in Nichomanchean Ethics provides a perfect definition of an ethical society and the meaning of such ethics. His discussion leads him to a quest of wanting to find out about voluntary and involuntary actions. In the process of attempting to differentiate the two terms, it occurs to him that complex circumstances went beyond just voluntary and involuntary choices, leading to additional of a third term in his quest; non-voluntary. As the debate ranged on, he introduces a fourth term, choice, which he feels is related to the understanding of the events in his day-to-day life.
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Aristotle explains voluntary actions as the actions which we are able to control the decision of settling for them since it is controlled by our desires, aspirations and zeal. “It is only voluntary feelings and actions for which praise and blame are given” (Book.III Ch.I). Agreeing to take credit or blame for our actions only goes to show that our engaging in these actions is out of our own will. Settling for an informed voluntary act requires that the person be fully aware of the state of affairs surrounding the action. A majority of our daily routine tasks are categorized as voluntary. Aristotle goes ahead to state that if a creature is logic in its thinking ability, they are bound to result to voluntary action unless they lack information on the subject, the action is forced on them or they are simply ignorant which leads them to result to involuntary actions.
Aristotle defines involuntary actions as the ones where the doer of the action has no say on the execution of the action. I.e. the power lies with an external force. In such a situation where a person’s actions are influenced by an external force, the doer is exempted of any wrong doing owing to the fact that it was not out their own will. In his explanation, Aristotle quotes an example where a person’s movement is as a result of being blown away by the wind. In such a case the person does not choose to move but the action is as a result of the wind. Aristotle recognizes the fact that some actions have elements of being both voluntary and involuntary. An example is when a man is black mailed into committing a wrongful act so that their family won’t get killed. The person’s course of action cannot be blamed on him since he was forced to do it to protect their family. On the other hand, they had a choice of not doing it and letting their family be killed. Aristotle comes out clear in such a situation stating that the action is still voluntary since it was performed by the person, and they knew of the consequences that would follow their action hence they are totally responsible and should take the blame.
Non-voluntary action according to Aristotle refers to actions which when performed the doer sees no harm and doesn’t regret the consequences. To explain this Aristotle gives an example of a man who honors a request to engage in a dreadful criminal act where he consequently saves the lives of his family members. The act cannot be classified as involuntary since there was an option of not engaging in the act but he proceeds to commit a felony out of grief to save his family therefore leaving chances of no regrets for the action. Aristotle notes that there is a further possibility of an involuntary act being characterized by ignorance. In such cases he says, there is need to identify if the person who acted out ignorance was aware of the consequences or the person they were harming or not.
On the issue of voluntary actions and chosen actions, Aristotle notes that some voluntary actions are not as a result of the doer’s choice while in other cases the action is voluntarily performed as a result of the doer’s choice. Commonly, actions that that are engaged in as a result of a situation that require quick response are said to be voluntary but they cannot be termed as chosen. Certain factors are said to contribute to a person resulting in voluntary actions that are not as a result of choice. Examples are anger and appetite. On the other hand, an action can be chosen that is not as result of the doer’s will and hence is not performed voluntarily. This is creates the best differentiation between voluntary and involuntary actions.
In conclusion, defining these terms is of ultimate importance. Distinguishing between the terms and their usage provides with the correct analysis of the course of action stemming from the question of whether the doer’s will was the cause. Differentiating between voluntary, involuntary and non-voluntary has been used in making correct judgments concerning acts of crime. Understanding that there exists an explanation for every action is a start to solving disputes.
Aristotle. Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics. Ed. Roger Crisp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
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