Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1.: An act is involuntary when done (a) under compulsion, or (b) through ignorance: (a) means not originated by doer, (b) means through ignorance of the circumstances: voluntary then means originated with knowledge of circumstances. - The Nicomachean Ethics
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
1.: An act is involuntary when done (a) under compulsion, or (b) through ignorance: (a) means not originated by doer, (b) means through ignorance of the circumstances: voluntary then means originated with knowledge of circumstances. - Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics 
The Nichomachean Ethics of Aristotle, trans. F.H. Peters, M.A. 5th edition (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Truebner & Co., 1893).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
An act is involuntary when done (a) under compulsion, or (b) through ignorance: (a) means not originated by doer, (b) means through ignorance of the circumstances: voluntary then means originated with knowledge of circumstances.
Virtue, as we have seen, has to do with feelings and actions. Now, praise* or blame is given only to what is voluntary; that which is involuntary receives pardon, and sometimes even pity.
It seems, therefore, that a clear distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary is necessary for those who are investigating the nature of virtue, and will also help legislators in assigning rewards and punishments.
That is generally held to be involuntary which is done under compulsion or through ignorance.
“Done under compulsion” means that the cause is external, the agent or patient contributing nothing towards it; as, for instance, if he were carried somewhere by a whirlwind or by men whom he could not resist.
But there is some question about acts done in order to avoid a greater evil, or to obtain some noble end; e.g. if a tyrant were to order you to do something disgraceful, having your parents or children in his power, who were to live if you did it, but to die if you did not—it is a matter of dispute whether such acts are involuntary or voluntary.
Throwing a cargo overboard in a storm is a somewhat analogous case. No one voluntarily throws away his property if nothing is to come of it,* but any sensible person would do so to save the life of himself and the crew.
Acts of this kind, then, are of a mixed nature, but they more nearly resemble voluntary acts. For they are desired or chosen at the time when they are done, and the end or motive of an act is that which is in view at the time. In applying the terms voluntary and involuntary, therefore, we must consider the state of the agent’s mind at the time. Now, he wills the act at the time; for the cause which sets the limbs going lies in the agent in such cases, and where the cause lies in the agent, it rests with him to do or not to do.
Such acts, then, are voluntary, though in themselves [or apart from these qualifying circumstances] we may allow them to be involuntary; for no one would choose anything of this kind on its own account.
And, in fact, for actions of this sort men are sometimes praised,†e.g. when they endure something disgraceful or painful in order to secure some great and noble result: but in the contrary case they are blamed; for no worthy person would endure the extremity of disgrace when there was no noble result in view, or but a trifling one.
But in some cases we do not praise, but pardon, i.e. when a man is induced to do a wrong act by pressure which is too strong for human nature and which no one could bear. Though there are some cases of this kind, I think, where the plea of compulsion is inadmissible,* and where, rather than do the act, a man ought to suffer death in its most painful form; for instance, the circumstances which “compelled” Alcmæon in Euripides† to kill his mother seem absurd.
It is sometimes hard to decide whether we ought to do this deed to avoid this evil, or whether we ought to endure this evil rather than do this deed; but it is still harder to abide by our decisions: for generally the evil which we wish to avoid is something painful, the deed we are pressed to do is something disgraceful; and hence we are blamed or praised according as we do or do not suffer ourselves to be compelled.
What kinds of acts, then, are to be called compulsory?
I think our answer must be that, in the first place, when the cause lies outside and the agent has no part in it, the act is called, without qualification, “compulsory” [and therefore involuntary]; but that, in the second place, when an act that would not be voluntarily done for its own sake is chosen now in preference to this given alternative, the cause lying in the agent, such an act must be called “involuntary in itself,” or “in the abstract,” but “now, and in preference to this alternative, voluntary.” But an act of the latter kind is rather of the nature of a voluntary act: for acts fall within the sphere of particulars; and here the particular thing that is done is voluntary.
It is scarcely possible, however, to lay down rules for determining which of two alternatives is to be preferred; for there are many differences in the particular cases.
It might, perhaps, be urged that acts whose motive is something pleasant or something noble are compulsory, for here we are constrained by something outside us.
Again, acting under compulsion and against one’s will is painful, but action whose motive is something pleasant or noble involves pleasure.‡ It is absurd, then, to blame things outside us instead of our own readiness to yield to their allurements, and, while we claim our noble acts as our own, to set down our disgraceful actions to “pleasant things outside us.”
Compulsory, then, it appears, is that of which the cause is external, the person compelled contributing nothing thereto.
What is done through ignorance is always “not-voluntary,” but is “involuntary”* when the agent is pained afterwards and sorry when he finds what he has done.† For when a man, who has done something through ignorance, is not vexed at what he has done, you cannot indeed say that he did it voluntarily, as he did not know what he was doing, but neither can you say that he did it involuntarily or unwillingly, since he is not sorry.
A man who has acted through ignorance, then, if he is sorry afterwards, is held to have done the deed involuntarily or unwillingly; if he is not sorry afterwards we may say (to mark the distinction) he did the deed “not-voluntarily;” for, as the case is different, it is better to have a distinct name.
Acting through ignorance, however, seems to be different from acting in ignorance. For instance, when a man is drunk or in a rage he is not thought to act through ignorance, but through intoxication or rage, and yet not knowingly, but in ignorance.
Every vicious man, indeed, is ignorant of* what ought to be done and what ought not to be done, and it is this kind of error that makes men unjust and bad generally. But the term “involuntary” is not properly applied to cases in which a man is ignorant of what is fitting.† The ignorance that makes an act involuntary is not this ignorance of the principles which should determine preference (this constitutes vice),—not, I say, this ignorance of the universal (for we blame a man for this), but ignorance of the particulars, of the persons and things affected by the act. These are the grounds of pity and pardon; for he who is ignorant of any of these particulars acts involuntarily.
It may be as well, then, to specify what these particulars are, and how many. They are—first, the doer; secondly, the deed; and, thirdly, the object or person affected by it; sometimes also that wherewith (e.g. the instrument with which) it is done, and that for the sake of which it is done (e.g. for protection), and the way in which it is done (e.g. gently or violently.)
Now, a man cannot (unless he be mad) be ignorant of all these particulars; for instance, he evidently cannot be ignorant of the doer: for how can he not know himself?
But a man may be ignorant of what he is doing; e.g. a man who has said something will sometimes plead that the words escaped him unawares, or that he did not know that the subject was forbidden (as Æschylus pleaded in the case of the Mysteries); or a man might plead that when he discharged the weapon he only intended to show the working of it, as the prisoner did in the catapult case. Again, a man might mistake his son for an enemy, as Merope does,* or a sharp spear for one with a button, or a heavy stone for a pumice-stone. Again, one might kill a man with a drug intended to save him, or hit him hard when one wished merely to touch him (as boxers do when they spar with open hands).
Ignorance, then, being possible with regard to all these circumstances, he who is ignorant of any of them is held to have acted involuntarily, and especially when he is ignorant of the most important particulars; and the most important seem to be the persons affected and the result.†
Besides this, however, the agent must be grieved and sorry for what he has done, if the act thus ignorantly committed is to be called involuntary [not merely not-voluntary].
But now, having found that an act is involuntary when done under compulsion or through ignorance, we may conclude that a voluntary act is one which is originated by the doer with knowledge of the particular circumstances of the act.
For I venture to think that it is incorrect to say that acts done through anger or desire are involuntary.
In the first place, if this be so we can no longer allow that any of the other animals act voluntarily, nor even children.
Again, does the saying mean that none of the acts which we do through desire or anger are voluntary, or that the noble ones are voluntary and the disgraceful ones involuntary? Interpreted in the latter sense, it is surely ridiculous, as the cause of both is the same. If we take the former interpretation, it is absurd, I think, to say that we ought to desire a thing, and also to say that its pursuit is involuntary; but, in fact, there are things at which we ought to be angry, and things which we ought to desire, e.g. health and learning.
Again, it seems that what is done unwillingly is painful, while what is done through desire is pleasant.
Again, what difference is there, in respect of involuntariness, between wrong deeds done upon calculation and wrong deeds done in anger? Both alike are to be avoided, but the unreasoning passions or feelings seem to belong to the man just as much as does the reason, so that the acts that are done under the impulse of anger or desire are also the man’s acts.* To make such actions involuntary, therefore, would be too absurd.
[* ]It must be remembered that “virtue” is synonymous with “praiseworthy habit;” I. 13, 20; II. 9, 9.
[* ]ἁπλω̂ς, “without qualification:” no one chooses loss of property simply, but loss of property with saving of life is what all sensible people would choose.
[† ]Which shows that the acts are regarded as voluntary.
[* ]οὐκ ἔστιν ἀναγκασθη̂ναι, “compulsion is impossible.” If the act was compulsory it was not my act, I cannot be blamed: there are some acts, says Aristotle, for which we could not forgive a man, for which, whatever the circumstances, we must blame him; therefore no circumstances can compel him, or compulsion is impossible. The argument is, in fact, “I ought not, therefore I can not (am able not to do it),”—like Kant’s, “I ought, therefore I can.” But, if valid at all, it is valid universally, and the conclusion should be that the body only can be compelled, and not the will—that a compulsory act is impossible.
[† ]The same lost play is apparently quoted in V. 9, 1.
[* ]Reading σ[Editor: illegible character]τω.
[† ]Therefore, strictly speaking, a “compulsory act” is a contradiction in terms; the real question is, “What is an act?”
[‡ ]Therefore, since these are the motives of every act, all voluntary action involves pleasure. If we add “when successful,” this quite agrees with Aristotle’s theory of pleasure in Books VII. and X.
[* ]i.e. not merely “not-willed,” but done “unwillingly,” or “against the agent’s will.” Unfortunately our usage recognizes no such distinction between “not-voluntary” and “involuntary.”
[† ]ἐν μεταμελείᾳ, lit. “when the act involves change of mind.” This, under the circumstances, can only mean that the agent who willed the act, not seeing the true nature of it at the time, is sorry afterwards, when he comes to see what he has done
[* ]i.e. forms a wrong judgment; cf. ἡ μοχθηρία διαψεύδεσθαι ποιεɩ̂ περὶ τὰς πρακτικὰς ἀρχάς, VI. 12, 10: not that the vicious man does not know that such a course is condemned by society, but he does not assent to society’s rules—adopts other maxims contrary to them.
[† ]τὸ συμϕέρον, what conduces to a given end, expedient. The meaning of the term varies with the end in view: here the end in view is the supreme end, happiness: τὸ συμϕέρον, then, means here the rule of conduct to which, in a given case, the agent must conform in order to realize this end; cf. II. 2, 3.
[* ]In a lost play of Euripides, believing her son to have been murdered, she is about to kill her son himself as the murderer. See Stewart.
[† ]τὸ ον̔̂ ἕνεκα usually is the intended result (and so ἕνεκα τίνος in § 16), but of course it is only the actual result that the agent can be ignorant of.
[* ]Reason can modify action only by modifying feeling. Every action issues from a feeling or passion (πάθος), which feeling (and therefore the resultant action) is mine (the outcome of my character, and therefore imputable to me), whether it be modified by reason (deliberation, calculation) or no.