Moral Responsibility

This account and argument was presented within the Philosophy 160 class in the Fall semester of 2013 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Within his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle hones in on the issue of moral responsibility and the discussion surrounding it. In this paper, I will review Aristotle’s theory of responsibility, assess what he believes agents are and are not responsible for (and why), discuss the objection pinned against it, and present a valid response to that objection.

Voluntary vs. Involuntary


Aristotle begins his analysis of moral responsibility by laying out that, on some occasions, actions by an agent should be either praised or blamed. Only voluntary actions can receive any praise or blame though, he says. Actions that are not voluntary sometimes should receive pardon or pity, but the same cannot be said about voluntary actions. After setting these two types of actions apart and how they should be responded to, Aristotle mentions that not voluntary and voluntary should be defined along the path of examining what virtue is (1113b: 4-7).

The two types of actions, voluntary and not voluntary, are subsequently defined by Aristotle so as to lead up to his argument for what agents are to be held responsible for. Voluntary actions, he says, are actions not done by any force or ignorance of the particulars. Actions that are not voluntary can be split into two categories: involuntary and nonvoluntary. Involuntary actions cause regret or pain to be felt by the agent doing them. Nonvoluntary actions are caused by external force or ignorance. Some actions may be questioned as to whether they are voluntary or not voluntary, such as being told to do something negative by a tyrant who has control over something the agent values. This type of action leans more towards voluntary and should be perceived as such since the agent is actually participating in moving his limbs to complete it willingly. However, clear qualification must be established as to why that action is being performed voluntarily and not without one’s knowledge (1113b: 22-35, 1114a: 1-4).

Aristotle clarifies that agents can be held responsible for voluntary actions, not for any done under ignorance of the particulars or compulsion. Voluntary actions, according to Aristotle, have two traits that classify them. First of all, that action must originate within the agent performing it. Secondly, the agent must be aware of what he is doing when they are doing it (1114a: 24-31).


Seeing some vulnerability in his argument, Aristotle adds that ignorance can only be made as a satisfactory excuse if the agent is not responsible for his ignorance. Aristotle sees that there may be differing opinions as to what extent we can be held responsible for our ignorance. He responds to this concern by stating that the ignorance must be related to specific conditions, which the agent has no control over. An example of this can be found in the setting of a person looking over their friend’s cat for the weekend. If that person sees the cat is feeling ill and feeds it part of a crushed aspirin (not knowing its effects on small feline animals) and finds it dead the next day, they should not be held responsible for their ignorance. However, if a person who lacks good virtue carries out a bad action through ignorance of what they know is good, they are responsible for their action (1114a: 24-31).


Decision, Aristotle moves on to say, is voluntary for an agent, but not the same as voluntary in every way. Children and animals, for example, act voluntarily but they do not take the time to make decisions before carrying out actions. This is not because they have no desire to do so or because they do not need to, they do not make decisions because they are essentially unable to make a decision. Aristotle clarifies that decision is not characterized within appetite, emotion, wish, or belief, but rather is linked to reason and thought (1111b: 5-36).

In a broader sense, Aristotle backs out of his description and analysis of decision to say that deliberation is actually the causation of decision. An agent deliberates about things that are up to him and, as a result, he comes to a decision. Aristotle puts forth that deliberation is started when an agent is uncertain about which action should be taken in a given circumstance. An agent would deliberate about what might be up to him or about the ways by which the end result may be brought to him (1112a: 19-34, 1112b: 1-25).


Aristotle moves on to bring up two objections to the theories of responsibility that he has put forth. He states that someone might argue that everyone aims towards what actions seem good to them and are blind to the outcome. However, in the end, the agent’s character could cause the outcome to be bad. Aristotle immediately refutes this objection because he thinks that if every person is responsible for his or her own character and how they are, they must also be responsible for the end result of their actions. This means that if a drunk should argue that they did not know they would hit someone after consuming too much alcohol and driving home, that agent could not use their unknowingness to separate themselves from the responsibility of murdering another agent (1114b: 1-5).

Having solved this objection and brought up another thought in his mind, Aristotle moves on. He presents the idea that no one is responsible for acting badly, but they are ignorant of the end results of their actions and thinks that the action is the way to gain what it best for oneself. In the case of this person he is describing, that person needs a natural and innate sense of futuristic sight so as to be able to judge and choose what is really good. This trait cannot be acquired or picked up along life’s journey; it must have been something that an agent was given from the start. Aristotle states that if a person does match this description, any virtue would be no more voluntary than any vice. The good and the bad would appear already fixed by nature and they would ultimately have no real control over how their actions would appear (1114b: 6-22).

Holes in this objection are very prevalent though and can be patched with Aristotle’s own words during his account of moral responsibility. One response could be formulated based on Aristotle’s definition of actions that are not voluntary and actions that are voluntary. If, at the time, an action is set out to be performed by an agent and it is not intended to be a bad action, that action fits the objection that has been brought forth. If it turns out bad but the agent committing it does not feel any regret or pain for it and has not been forced to do it then it would still be voluntary and therefore eligible for responsibility on their behalf.

On Aristotle’s theory of types of action, I believe it needs to be clarified that changing the action type should not be considered possible. To clarify: if a person was to go to prison for doing an action they did not regret doing because it was voluntarily done, (i.e. killing a cruel neighbor) and that same person suddenly felt great regret for their actions many years later, it does not suddenly become an involuntary action.

Concluding Remarks

With regards to Aristotle’s theory of character development and the argument he makes that previous repetitive voluntary actions create habits within agents, I believe it is true most of the time. In the case of a person who smokes over and over, becoming a smoker by habit is something easily obtained by them. In the case of a person who drinks all of the time, becoming an alcoholic is fully understandable. However, in the case of a person who works a menial job day in and day out to supply money for his family that he loves, I do not believe that it is a habit that cannot be dropped at the sound of a bell. Although he does still need the money to support his family, that job was not being forced on him because of it.


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