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Aristotles Views On Human Action

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In his book, the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle raises questions about human happiness and what it takes to make a good human life. In his quest for an answer, Aristotle covers a great deal of ground and touches upon a variety of topics that, while not obviously so, tie significantly into to the "happiness" of our daily lives. One of these topics is the distinction between our voluntary actions and our involuntary actions. Book III, chapters 1 and 5 deal specifically with this distinction in a way that is both expository and interesting, using examples to draw the reader into a better understanding of the text. In this paper, I hope to suitably explain the distinction that Aristotle draws between the voluntary and the involuntary. Moreover, I will also explain the subsequent distinctions that arise under the category of involuntary actions.
In chapter 1, Aristotle focuses on breaking down the substructures of our involuntary actions, while chapter 5 speaks more on the issue of our voluntary actions. In both chapters, Aristotle makes good use of simple but direct examples to illustrate his point of view. The examples are important in the text as Aristotle is dealing with abstract concepts; tying them into a real-world context of punishment and reward. Also, they provide a leg to stand on when the text becomes too wordy and confusing (not all that rare in Aristotle).
In chapter 1, Aristotle focuses primarily on the involuntary actions of man; giving lengthy consideration to the more specific distinctions that arise. "Those things, then, are thought involuntary, which take place under compulsion or owing to ignorance" (Bk.I, ch. 1, 1109b35). This is the first distinction that is made under the heading of "involuntary" actions. If an action is to be considered involuntary, you must either perform the action under compulsion or out of ignorance. Aristotle states that in both cases, the "moving principle" (motivational force) is outside of the agent, with nothing being contributed by the agent, as "if her were to be carried somewhere by a wind, or by men who had him in their power" (Bk. I, ch. 1, 1110a3).
Though compulsion and ignorance both result in involuntary action, I find the concept of compulsion a bit harder to understand and explain. I feel that this may be due to the fact that Aristotle himself found the concept difficult to put across. There seem to be, in Aristotle's view, differences in what compulsion can be. There is the compulsion that Aristotle described as a strong agent in nature (wind) or that of being physically without the power to resist (as with a mob or group of strong men). Those types of compulsion are rare, but they are apparently the only ones that result in truly involuntary actions. The other types of compulsion described by Aristotle are the types that we most commonly think of; situations where, technically, we have a choice, though we see it as really no choice at all. Examples include a tyrant who orders you to do something heinous to save your family from certain death, and jettisoning supplies in order to save your ship from sinking in a storm. Aristotle admits that these are actions that we would never willingly choose for ourselves if circumstances did not demand that we do, but he states that, when dealing with the distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, we have to refer to the moment of action; was there a choice to be made. This becomes a bit more clear when we turn it into an equation: [involuntary action (throwing the ship's rations overboard) + compulsion (terrible storm and a sinking ship) + motivation (staying alive) + choice (will I or wont I?) = voluntary action]. Choice implies that the principle of motion is in the agent, so the action is voluntary; Aristotle does acknowledge, though, that, in the abstract, these actions can be seen as involuntary. Praise or blame may be bestowed on the agent, depending on what was done and for what reason, but more often than not the agent receives forgiveness.
Just as it is a stretch, in Aristotle's view, to call the wish to stave off evil or pain a compulsion, it is "absurd" to propose that so could it be a desire for the "pleasant and noble", things done for those reasons are completely voluntary.
Human ignorance is a problem that Aristotle runs up against again and again, just as he does here with the question of involuntary actions. After the intricacies of compulsion, ignorance as contributing factor to involuntary actions can seem daunting, but it is actually fairly easy to understand. First, Aristotle states that, "Everything that is done by reason of ignorance is non-voluntary" (Bk. I, ch. 1, 1110b17). Then, he makes the distinction between non-voluntary and involuntary by adding that "it is only what produces pain and regret that is involuntary" (Bk. I, ch. 1, 1110b17). So, now we have the distinction between involuntary and non-voluntary to contend with.
Involuntary actions are actions that were done non-voluntarily and then have the pain and regret of realizing what you have done added to them. For example, when you accidentally disclose a secret the act of speaking is voluntary and the disclosure is non-voluntary, but quickly becomes involuntary as you gauge the other person's reaction and realize what you have done. Also included in the definition of an involuntary action is ignorance on the part of the agent as to what is to his advantage; the aspects of pity and forgiveness ...

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Keywords: aristotle view on human rights, aristotle on human person, aristotle on human function

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