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Voluntary and Involuntary Actions In The Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle's discussions of action and its three separate categories, voluntary, involuntary, and non-voluntary in The Nicomachean Ethics are a phenomenally important work. Aristotle's theories affects everything humans do in their everyday lives. The distinctions between pain and pleasure are important; whether those actions are voluntary or involuntary affects me in my daily life. The focus of Aristotle's analysis is on the distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions and what conditions each is applied. As a student I have choices to make; whether to go to class each day or skip out because I hate the class and just hope for the best. Aristotle breaks down in beautiful detail the differences between a virtuous or vice ridden action. Aristotle defends honorable those who are born with defects, but also scolds those who do not rise above their defects or cause harm to themselves to bring about more defects. Most importantly, Aristotle's arguments about action relate to all that we are as humans. The arguments are voluntary and involuntary action can be applied to our greatest works of literature such as The Odyssey. The journey of Odysseus can be used as a metaphor for our own lives as well. In our own society today voluntary and involuntary action applies greatly to current events, especially the massive devastation of Hurricane's Katrina and Rita and the response in the aftermath. Book III of The Nicomachean Ethics applies greatly to my own life through my own struggles with learning disabilities and the ramifications they have caused me in my schooling. Finally, they also apply to my own father's life and the choices he makes are a volunteer firefighter each day.

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* Aristotle categorizes actions into three distinct categories: voluntary, involuntary, and non-voluntary (Aristotle 501). Each of these distinctions has many attributes that go with it. To begin, I would like to examine each category and the differences which Aristotle gives each. Aristotle begins his discussion by making some distinctions between voluntary, involuntary, and non-voluntary actions. Early in his discussion, Aristotle makes a few bigger distinctions. Aristotle notes the differences between pleasure and pain and how they fit into every action. Aristotle writes-

To act under compulsion and against ones will is painful, but to act for a pleasurable or admirable object is pleasant. Also it is absurd for the agent to lay the blame on external factors and not on himself for falling an easy prey to them, and to attribute his fine acts to himself but his disgraceful ones to the attractions of pleasure. (52) This statement makes perfect sense to me. The student who takes a class because they are required to or otherwise forced to, involuntarily, may not enjoy it as much or put forth the best effort possible. On the other hand, the student who takes a class outside of their major, voluntarily, because they enjoy the content and subject material is most likely to succeed and excel in that environment. That student who takes the class involuntarily may slack off as the semester goes on and allow extenuating circumstances interfere with their schoolwork and mediations. Said student will often later, when regretting their transgressions, blame outside agents: their drinking habits, that annoying significant

For this paper, I will be citing from the Penguin Classics version of The Nicomachean Ethics. Each time I cite I will just note the page number for the sake of clarity.

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other, too much time spent playing Grand Theft Auto, and so on and so forth. Using these external factors as excuses is, as Aristotle puts it, absurd.

* Voluntary actions, Aristotle writes, receive praise and blame (50). Shortly after the earlier noted discussion of acting for pleasurable or admirable objects, Aristotle mentions that a voluntary act is an act which the originating cause lies in the agent himself. (54) The actions that are initiated by us out of our own free will, whether they are good or bad, is a voluntary action. Aristotle states, it is in our power to act, it is also in our power not to act (61). In a system like Aristotle's, the key is is whether or not the origin of the action is in the person committing the action. That student who took a class outside of their major did so out of a voluntary action. When they excel in the class and get good grades, they do so voluntarily. At the same time, if they fail the course because they never go to the class they also do it out of a voluntary act. No one is forcing them to go to class. The student has to have the initiative within themselves to achieve. If they skip class to play World of Warcraft all afternoon, they are skipping class voluntarily. Each human has the free will to be able to make the choice whether to have someone else watch their clan so they can go to class or stay and succeed on the Internet but fail in real life. Voluntary actions take on other things as well. Someone with some sort of defect that occurs outside of their control is not to blame for them. If someone is balding, or has a learning disability, they can hardly be blamed for these defects. However, as Aristotle points out, the person who is ugly because they do not take care of their body certainly can be blamed for their unsightly appearance. Someone with a learning disability would Wend 3

not be blamed for their disability the same way someone who is blind by nature or as a result of disease or injury is going to be someone who is an object of pity (64). Alas, Aristotle and I both agree that the man who drinks himself to blindness can surely be blamed for his problem. This man has taken on a voluntary action. They do not have to drink to excess. Most people enjoy alcohol in moderation and do not have any problems. But some do, sadly, drink to excess and have numerous problems resulting from it. If a man becomes blind because he drinks so much and so often that his eyesight is debilitated it is his fault and his fault alone. Even if there were environmental issues or hereditary issues that may have helped to trigger his disability the drinking was something that was in the control of the person who is now blind. There is not much control over the environment or heredity. Each person has to deal in their own way with those factors. Excessively drinking, and the consequences, is something that can completely be avoided. Aristotle continues his argument by wondering whether virtue is more voluntary than vice. He ends up deciding that they are no more voluntary than the other is-

Virtue is voluntary because the good man performs voluntarily all the means towards the end in either case vice will be no less voluntarythe bad man has just as much independence in his actionsso if as asserted, our virtues are voluntary. (65) The person who skips class every day to play Grand Theft Auto is acting out of his own free will. The girl I went to high school with who skipped school whenever it rained because it might mess up her hair did so out of free will. The virtuous person who took that class out of their major and excelled in it through hard work and dedication also did it out of free will.

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* Involuntary actions receive pardon and sometimes pity from us (50). Aristotle begins his discussion of actions by noting that involuntary actions-

Are regarded as involuntary when performed under compulsion or through ignorance. An act is compulsory if it has an external origin of such a kind that the agent or patient contributes nothing to it; e.g. if a voyager were to be conveyed somewhere by the wind or by men who had him in their power. (50) An act is involuntary if the situation is out of your hands. In The Odyssey when Odysseus men open the bag of air and they are set off course after being so close to going back to Ithaca the situation is completely out of Odysseus control. His men have failed him through their greed and absolute need to know what is going and what treasures, or so they think, Odysseus is carrying with him back to Ithaca. Having the god of the sea, Poseidon, standing against your surely doesnt help matters much either. So when Odysseus is stranded even farther away from Penelope he has acted involuntarily in the situation because, as Aristotle puts it, his situation had a drastically external origin (50). On the other hand, if Odysseus had been a bit more open with his men about what was in the bag maybe they would not have opened it? The leadership of Odysseus could be called into question here. Nevertheless, I think that Odysseus is still acting involuntarily. His men could have trusted him as their leader and had faith that he would not lead them falsely. Similarly, when Odysseus is under the spell of the Goddess Circe and does not realize how long he has been with her he is acting under her compulsion. Circes spell is of external origin. The same can be said of the sirens earlier in the story.

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Aristotle also makes a clear distinction between acting through ignorance and acting in ignorance. He notes, Every act done through ignorance is non-voluntary, but it is involuntary only when it causes the agent subsequent pain and repentance (52). Odysseus acts both non-voluntarily and involuntarily at different points in The Odyssey. When brave Odysseus is under the spell of Circe, he is acting through ignorance of the situation around him. Time is passing quickly but he does not realize it. It is only when his sailors are finally able to get through to him does he realize what has happened and immediately regrets that this side trip has kept him from his dear Penelope even longer. Odysseus did not volunteer to sleep with a Goddess, or two, so once the spell is broken, Aristotle would consider him having acted non-voluntarily. Aristotle makes a distinction between acting involuntarily and non-voluntarily by stating that those who act involuntarily must feel pain and repentance as stated above (52). When the spell is broken and Odysseus is distraught over the length of time he has spent sleeping with Goddesses he is feeling pain and is clearly repentant. In this case, he is definitely acting involuntarily at this point.

* The three distinct categories Aristotle uses to categorize actions: voluntary involuntary and non-voluntary seem to be adequate to me. Actions of our own free will, whether good or bad, for vice or virtue, are clearly done out of free will. When I skip class to go spend time with a beautiful young lady, while the time spent with said lady might be nice, I am clearly doing something in vice. The same can be said if I tell that nice young lady that I will see her later on today, because right now I need to discuss

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moral theories and that is clearly more important I am thus acting virtuous but it is again out of my own free will. Aristotle says that voluntary actions receive praise and blame (50). When my Father goes into a building that is burning down to the ground because a three year old told him that their cat is still trapped in the house he is doing some virtuous out of free will. No one forces him to go into the building and risk his life for little Whiskers. The same can be said for when he volunteers to help with flood relief in New Orleans and puts his own job on the line because in the bigger picture helping people in Louisiana is more important. We praise him the same way that Americans praised all firefighters after the attacks on the World Trade Center by wearing New York Fire Department shirts to honor all firefighters, not just those from New York. Aristotle continues to state that voluntary acts are also originating in the agent who does the act (54). My fathers love of country is what keeps him fighting fires even though he has type-two diabetes. He feels it is his patriotic duty as a citizen of this country to continue doing the work that he does. The discussion of involuntary actions is also well thought out. While I may not be his biggest fan in the world, those who blame President Bush and President Bush alone for the devastation of Hurricane Katrina are fools. President Bush, like Odysseus, has many men under his command who failed him greatly. Whether they are the head of FEMA and Homeland Security or a soldier who cannot keep his hands away from Odysseus great bag of air, both leaders failed involuntarily. This is still an involuntary action because both men are seemingly apologetic and repentant about their actions. The wind driving Odysseus out of control is not his fault, but he feels sorrow and repent anyway. While sometimes, I would like to think President Bush and his cronies could be Wend 7

capable to having some sort of evil weather machine bent on destroying people so Halliburton or whoever can come in, he seems to be sincerely repentant about what happened in Louisiana and bent on making sure it does not happen again. Finally, I was particularly touched on a personal level by Aristotles discussion of voluntary actions when it comes to defects. I have a few learning disabilities that sometimes get in the way of my schoolwork. I am sure Aristotle would not blame me for these, especially when I was younger and did not have the training in writing and organization that I have now in college. On the other hand, Aristotle would most likely look at my first four years of college where I screwed around and did not do my work right and say that I, and not my disabilities, were to blame for that. Sure, you could argue that my learning disabilities were partially to blame for my erroneous ways. However, by the time I was of college age I had been dealing with these disabilities for a great number of years; by then I should have been ready and willing to adjust and keep my focus. Instead, I let them and other outside annoyances take over my life and ruin the first part of my college career and, to this day, my grade point average. As I struggle now, while getting high marks, to make it up to the average I need so I can get into the Education program I really have to wonder about my past. I wish Aristotle had been my preceptor when I transferred to Stockton. He would have sat me down, got me a cup of coffee, and laid down the law to me. We would have talked and bonded over my learning disabilities and the failures I had as a child and in high school. He would have emphasized with me and reassured me that any defect that I was born with were not my fault, which is something that I have finally comes to grips with in the past few years. Then, just when I think I am getting off with a free pass for Wend 8

my transgressions, Aristotle would lean in and tell me that it is in fact my fault that I let my grades slide so far. He would ask me why, when I knew I was having problems, I did not seek out help or some sort of counseling. The blame for the poor grades, the classes I received Fs in because I just plain and simply stopped going to them, which is killing me now as I try to make my way back up the GPA mountain would clearly be placed in my hands. Aristotle would scold, but he would also reassure me about what is not my fault, which is something I have always had trouble with. Aristotle would have been the best preceptor ever. Now someone needs to go invent that darn holodeck! Te description and discussion Aristotle gives of voluntary and involuntary is perfect; no one has gotten it better in the past 2500 years.

* Praise and blame are very important parts of a moral theory. People should be praised or blamed for their actions. In many cases there are a variety of different levels of praise and blame that can be assessed. However, there also should be a distinction between voluntary, involuntary, and non-voluntary actions. Actions can come from within or from some sort of outside agent. The ramifications of these need to be addressed when deciding what sort of action has been undertaken. It seems partially strange to me that such an extensive and elaborate system to gauge the voluntary or involuntary nature of actions has been in place for such a long time. This is an arrogant way to think though; as if there was just no society before I was born, the way a baby can only know what is directly in front of them. Aristotle created this incredible system for actions over two-thousand years ago! That totally blows my mind to even think about; but, on the other hand, I cannot quite figure out if it is a good Wend 9

thing or not that humanity has not been able to come up with something better since. Sure, we have tinkered here and there, but essentially what Aristotle has here in The Nicomachean Ethics stands up today. This system is perfect; I cannot think of any situation where one of Aristotles distinctions of action, whether voluntary, involuntary, or non-voluntary does not sufficiently deal with the situation. Aristotle has been a standard for a long time, and that is not a bad thing at all.

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Works Cited

Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. London: Penguin Books, 2004. Homer. The Odyssey. London: Penguin Books, 1946.

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