Aristotle on Voluntary, Chosen, Deliberate Acts

In the fifth section of the third book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle, having pinpointed the subset of acts that are voluntary, chosen, and deliberate, now says that it is these acts in which virtue is demonstrated.

Virtue is found in the exercise of means (wishing for the correct ends is presumably more a matter of wisdom than virtue). The exercise of means (or the decision not to) is a matter of deliberation and choice, and so is in our power, and therefore so is our virtue.

You are responsible for being reasonably informed about what you need to know to make the right decisions in the circumstances you encounter, and if you ignore this responsibility (or if you actively contribute to your own ignorance, for instance by being drunk or by looking away from some inconvenient truth), you cannot use your ignorance as an excuse for vicious actions.

Since virtue is a habit (as is vice), it may be a choice to initially acquire a vice or to neglect a virtue, but once you have done this habitually, it becomes less voluntary over time. This is interesting for a couple of reasons: first, if virtues and vices become less voluntary as they become more habitual, it would seem that they become less praiseworthy or blameworthy also; second, it seems to create another obstacle in the path to becoming a virtuous person if you aren’t one already — how do you go about changing bad habits if they aren’t even very voluntary any longer? (Aristotle does not yet address either of these points, but I hope he does eventually.)

In some recorded lectures about the Nicomachean Ethics that I was listening to during a recent leisurely train ride down California, Joseph Koturksi emphasized that Aristotle defined moral virtue in particular as a habit of choosing the golden mean — that is to say that it differs from other varieties of habit in not constricting choice but in exhibiting itself as choosing.

It seems from this that the lack of moral virtue can take two forms, or a combination of the two: not choosing, or choosing poorly. (I suppose a third variety would be a failure to make correct choosing habitual, but my reading of Aristotle suggests that this habituation is an automatic process, and so its absence would be more suggestive of, say, brain damage, than of anything correctable by philosophy.)

Anyway: “habit” in the case of moral virtue isn’t meant as a sort of unthinking, repetitive, by-rote sort of behavior. Point made.

Next, Aristotle addresses the argument that while everybody aims for the apparent good, what appears to be good to each of us is not under our control but is just a given part of our temperament or constitution or some such. Aristotle says that if this is true, then you aren’t really to be blamed for deeds you perform under the misapprehension that you’re doing the right thing. However, he says that to some extent, you are responsible for your own temperament and constitution, and to that extent you can inherit responsibility for the misdeeds you perform under its influence.

But in any case, if our virtues are voluntary and we can be praised for them, our vices are too, and we can be blamed for them.

From here, for most of the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics, we’re going to go into an in-depth look at particular virtues. The rest of this book will look at courage and temperance. Book four will concern liberality, magnificence, pride, industriousness, good temper, friendliness, truthfulness, bonhomie, and the quasi-virtue of shame. Book five is all about justice. Book six concerns the intellectual virtues. Book seven concerns continence and also contains a discussion of pleasure that will be continued in book ten.

Several days ago my sweetie and I were relaxing at home with a DVD from the library: the movie Secretary. It’s a silly story about a mousy young woman (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who also, coincidentally, played the vivacious tax resister in Stranger than Fiction) who becomes the secretary of an eccentric lawyer and who finds her job transforming into an erotic dominance/submission scene in which she learns to play the submissive and ends up personally flowering and maturing in the course of doing so.

It’s not a very deep film, but some of her character’s comments about the pleasures of submission — unthinking obedience to the commands of a trusted dominant — and the sort of confidence and, oddly, “freedom” that results from this, lodged in my head and got me thinking about this and that.

Much of this “freedom” is freedom from having to make up your own mind and make your own decisions and assert your own risky initiative. What am I going to do? Whatever the dominant wants me to do or tells me to do. If that’s always the right answer, it makes deciding a snap and much less of a burden, and permits you (or seems to permit you) to shift most of the burden of the responsibility for the consequences onto the dominant “decider.”

In a bedroom scene, that’s all fun and games, but when such things come out of the bedroom and into society at large, this sort of evasion of responsibility can be very dangerous. Hannah Arendt spent some time analyzing Adolf Eichmann as someone who had decided to renounce his will and devote himself to carrying out his Fuhrer’s will; once he was caught and put on trial for this, he pathetically tried to excuse his behavior by saying that having made himself an agent of the Fuhrer’s whims, he was no longer able to behave according to his remaining ethical instincts.

I quoted Arne Johan Vetlesen’s summary of Arendt’s argument: “superfluousness represents a temptation: it holds the promise of an existence devoid of (enacted) human agency, hence free of the burdens of responsibility and guilt, as well as hurt and loss.” Vetlesen says that indulging this temptation not only dangerously enables you to commit evil, but is a sort of evil itself:

Morally speaking, permitting oneself to be dehumanized, to be robbed of one’s autonomy (Kant), is in itself no lesser sin than participating in the dehumanization of others; it entails permitting oneself to become an instrument in the realization of ends posited by others.

The military chain of command is another dangerous variety of D&S game in which essentially unquestioning obedience is expected. I suspect that a craving for submission and for freedom from the burden of decision-making and its consequences is a strong motivation for many people who join the military. This burden can feel especially heavy to young people just emerging from home and from institutional education into the freedom of adulthood and all of the responsibility it entails.

But I also thought about Aristotle’s assertion that a virtuous person takes pleasure in behaving virtuously that outweighs any incidental discomfort of any particular virtuous act. If you have an image of virtue in your mind and you conform your actions to that image and then take pleasure in having done so, to what extent is this like a sort of private D&S game in which your image of virtue is the dominant and you are the submissive?

In a Christian context, this is explicit: the Christian accepts Christ as his or her Lord and Master, and says Thy Will Be Done, I will deny myself and take up my cross daily, and so forth. Kant, for his part, thought that an act was really virtuous only if it was unpleasant, painful, or difficult — whip me! beat me! make me virtuous!

How do you identify and correct for a decadent parody of virtue that really amounts to a responsibility-denying D&S scene? That is, how do you know whether you’re being virtuous or whether you’re submitting to a freedom-restricting straitjacket in the name of virtue? How do you avoid getting in a situation where you do the wrong thing, but “can’t help it” because you’ve obligated yourself to submit to Christ’s teachings, or to think of the greatest good for the greatest number, or to maintain Army discipline, or to obey the categorical imperative, or whatever your dom happens to be?

And how would you defend against the argument that Aristotle’s model of virtue is essentially a D&S scene in which a mental model of virtue is the dom?

One possible line of defense would be to note that, in Aristotle’s scheme (unlike Kant’s, for instance), virtuous acts are not necessarily painful or difficult or against your inclinations — indeed, often quite the opposite: virtue is a variety of excellence and an important path toward eudaimonia — flourishing, thriving, happiness. So at least this isn’t an S&M thing, where you martyr yourself and then take pleasure in your suffering. Also, as Joseph Koturski pointed out, moral virtue is the habit of choosing well, so it doesn’t unburden you of the need to choose at all. To the extent that a D&S scene is partially about freedom-from-choice, an internal, non-dogmatic dom doesn’t do the trick (whereas a Categorical Imperative or a scriptural Jesus might do).

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

A few months after writing this entry, I picked up A Testament to Freedom, a collection of the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In one of his early works on Christian Ethics, he wrote:

For Christians there are no ethical principles by means of which they could perhaps civilize themselves. Nor can yesterday ever be decisive for my moral action today. Rather must a direct relationship to God’s will be ever sought afresh. I do not do something again today because it seemed to me to be good yesterday, but because the will of God points out this way to me today. This is the great moral renewal through Jesus, the renunciation of principles, of rulings, in the words of the Bible, of the law, and this follows as a consequence of the Christian idea of God; for if there was a generally valid moral law, then there would be a way from the human to God — I would have my principles, so I would believe myself assured sub specie aeternitatis. So, to some extent, I would have control over my relationship to God, so there would be a moral action without immediate relationship to God. And, most important of all, in that case I would once again become a slave to my principles. I would sacrifice our most precious gift, freedom.