Cindy Sheehan addressed a peace rally in San Francisco to let them know that she's sick and tired of addressing peace rallies. Excerpts:

Why do we consistently and constantly perform these symbolic actions, when millions of people are not symbolically dying?

Have our actions over the years diminished the War Machine by one iota? Hell no, as a matter of fact, The Empire counts on us to keep our actions symbolic, because our symbolic actions actually strengthen The Empire.


Because we march one day and write out a check to The Empire the next day in the form of paying our Federal Income Taxes.

Because we sign a petition one day then fill up our gas tanks at Chevron the next day.

If we really do want real change, then we are going to have to really do something real.

Remember back in book three when Aristotle distinguished voluntary, involuntary, and non-voluntary actions and then he further subdivided the voluntary into the chosen and non-chosen, where choice is a matter of deliberation? And remember in the previous section of book five when Aristotle took pains to distinguish just and unjust acts from acts done justly and unjustly (the latter depends on the motives of the actor, the former just on the nature of the act itself)?

In the eighth section of the fifth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins to tie these threads together.

For a person to act justly or unjustly, that person must do a just or unjust act voluntarily: that is, under his or her own power and with awareness of what he or she is doing. Unforseen acts are not voluntary: for instance, stepping on a cat’s tail that you didn’t realize was in your path is not a voluntary act, even though all of your contributions to that act (placing your feet where you did) were voluntary. Compelled acts are also not voluntary: if you grab your little brother’s hand and slap his face with it and say “stop hitting yourself” you’re not fooling anybody. Also not voluntary are those acts that aren’t in your power to begin with (for instance, growing old).

But even doing a just or unjust act voluntarly is not sufficient to make the act one that is done justly or unjustly. A person may voluntarily do a just act incidentally — for instance doing a just thing, but doing it from motives other than justice (for instance, fear of retribution). For an act to be done justly, it must be done voluntarily and be motivated by a just character.

There is also the distinction between chosen and unchosen acts to account for. This results in the following chart of unjust acts between individuals:

Table of Unjust Acts
description of unjust acts nature of unjust acts
done from ignorance of the nature of the act (therefore involuntary) and that cause an unforseeable injury “misadventures” or “accidents”
done from ignorance of the nature of the act (therefore involuntary), that cause a forseeable injury, but that do not imply vice “mistakes”
done with knowledge of the nature of the act (therefore voluntary), but not chosen, that is: not done with premeditation (but perhaps from passion or anger) “injustices”
both voluntary and chosen “acting unjustly and viciously”

So, for instance, if you’re cleaning your rifle and it goes off unexpectedly, wounding someone, this is an accident. If you’re firing your rifle, thinking you’re aiming at the enemy, but you’re actually shooting at an ally, then you have made a mistake. If you get carried away by rumors of an armistice and fire your rifle into the air in celebration before thinking through the wisdom of such an act, and a stray bullet strikes someone, you have committed an injustice. But if you stake someone out and deliberately assassinate them, you are acting unjustly and viciously.

Which is all well-and-good for the clear-cut cases, but what about the ones in the gray areas?

The other morning, while my sweetie was in the shower, I absent-mindedly turned on the kitchen faucet. Now, I know that turning on the kitchen faucet while someone is in the shower causes the shower temperature to take a sudden and unpleasant lurch in one direction or the other. I wasn’t intending to give my sweetie such a shock, but my action in turning the knob was voluntary, the negative consequences were absolutely forseeable, and I wasn’t acting out of some sort of sudden flood of passion. It was simple, absent-minded thoughtlessness. I was thinking about something else and acting as though on auto-pilot; I chose, but I did not really deliberate, at least not as I should have. Was I acting viciously, did I commit an injustice, or did I just make a mistake?

When we originally covered the voluntary/involuntary distinction, I asked where taxpaying would fit into that scheme. I thought it would probably be categorized as voluntary, but with Aristotle’s caveat that it might be called involuntary in the sense that it isn’t the sort of thing a person would do spontaneously (that is, absent the law that requires it and the punishments that induce it).

Is it also chosen and deliberate? Taxpaying doesn’t spring from spontaneous passions, so, if that’s the criteria, then yes it’s a chosen act. But some people don’t really deliberate about taxpaying at all — to them it’s either accepted almost as a feature of the natural world (in the rainy season we open umbrellas; in tax season we file tax returns), or it’s actually disguised (paycheck withholding, taxes added to the prices of goods or hidden in the fine print on your phone bill). They pay taxes like I turn faucet knobs before my morning coffee kicks in. To what extent such ignorance or disengagement changes the nature of the act is something that Aristotle has not yet addressed head-on. I think that habitual ignorance or disengagement probably constitutes a state-of-character, that is, in this case: a vice.

Perhaps we need a new virtue for this. Using Aristotle’s template, I might call this virtue “mindful responsibility” and define it as an ownership of your actions and a wise anticipation of their effects on the world. The opposing vices would be, on the one hand, irresponsibility (carelessness of the effects of your actions) or denial of agency (unwillingness to hold yourself responsible for the decisions you make), and on the other hand, something like delusions-of-reference (in which you morbidly feel yourself to be responsible for things wholly outside of your control) or exaggeration (in which you overestimate the effects of acts you were responsible for in comparison to acts in general).

But back to Aristotle: He says that one of the reasons why acts proceeding spontaneously from anger are not considered vicious in the same way that premeditated acts may be is that in the case of anger there is some dispute over whether the act is one of righteous retribution or of injustice. The person who is angered doesn’t dispute that he or she is striking out with intention to harm, but feels justified in doing so to rectify an earlier wrong.

In contrast, if you choose deliberately to cause harm and then follow this up by actually committing an act of injustice, you are an unjust person. And this is also true of justice: by choosing deliberately to behave justly, you exhibit the qualities of a just person; if you just happen to behave justly, you are not necessarily just.

Aristotle next briefly addresses the issue of excusability. Mistakes made in ignorance and from ignorance, he says, are excusable. But those done in ignorance but not from ignorance (“owing to a passion which is neither natural nor such as man is liable to”) are not excusable. Well, what does that mean?

Back in book three, Aristotle discussed the difference between acting in ignorance and acting by reason of ignorance. Someone who is drunk or in a rage, for instance, may be acting in ignorance. Someone who is unaware or misinformed about some crucial aspect of the action he or she is performing (is the gun loaded? is there a cat on the path?) is acting from ignorance. It looks at first like he’s isolating two cases:

Table of Acts
from ignorancenot from ignorance
in ignoranceexcusablenot excusable
not in ignorance??

So it seems like he’s really just saying that doing something “in ignorance” is no excuse; it’s only doing something “from ignorance” that makes it excusable. But what about this “owing to a passion which is neither natural nor such as man is liable to” phrase? That seems to change the picture, as he’s already said that anger is among the “passions necessary or natural to man.” So it looks more like the situation is like this:

Table of Acts
from ignorancenot from ignorance
in ignorance thanks to a passion necessary or natural to man, like angerexcusableexcusable
in ignorance thanks to a passion neither natural nor such as man is liable toexcusablenot excusable
not in ignorance??

This raises the question of which passions are necessary and natural and of the sort that man is liable to, but Aristotle doesn’t answer that question here. Among the translators:

  • Hatch suggests that Aristotle is distinguishing between the passions resulting from core human needs, such as fear, pain, or hunger, and those that are “some merely luxurious craving, as, for instance, to drink wine of fine bouquet or to eat partridge.”
  • Browne categorically says that the human passions are grief, fear, and pity, and the natural appetites are hunger and thirst, which is comfortingly definitive but has the disadvantage of not including anger, which Aristotle mentions in this very chapter as a necessary or natural human passion.
  • Gillies believes that Aristotle is distinguishing between “complete and habitual ignorance” (pardonable) and “temporary ignorance, occasioned by the blind impetuosity of passion, either extravagantly excessive in its degree, or highly improper in its object” (not pardonable).
  • Grant says that Aristotle may be alluding to “brutality” as an example of something that isn’t necessary and natural to man but that can lead people to behave unjustly as if compelled by a passion. (Aristotle will discuss brutality as a motivation in book seven.) Stock also seems to follow this line, discussing someone “who commits an atrocious deed under the mastery of some abnormal and unnatural passion,” and having his Aristotle conclude that “you would seek to rid society of him, as you would of a dangerous wild beast.” Jackson also calls these acts “more detestable than ordinary vicious acts.”
  • Paley says that the passions neither natural nor such as man is liable to are “bestial or degrading, such as drunkenness”.
  • Vincent adds two commas that change the phrase substantially: “all that [people] do ignorantly, but not through the instrumentality of ignorance, but through passion, that is, not natural nor human, are unpardonable,” which makes it sound as though doing acts ignorantly through passion is itself something that is not natural nor human, and therefore not excusable.

So clearly there’s not a lot of consensus on how to interpret this.

Multiple translators and commentators note the tension between this section, in which Aristotle matter-of-factly calls acts done in and from ignorance as two varieties of involuntary acts, and what he said in book three, which was that such acts were not involuntary, except for those acts that both were done from ignorance and were then regretted.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

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