Page 19 of 87

It is truly absurd for a man to attribute his actions to external things instead of to his own capacity for being easily caught by them; or, again, to ascribe the honourable to himself, and the base ones to pleasure.

So then that seems to be compulsory “whose origination is from without, the party compelled contributing nothing.” Now every action of which ignorance is the cause is not-voluntary, but that only is involuntary which is attended with pain and remorse; for clearly the man who has done anything by reason of ignorance, but is not annoyed at his own action, cannot be said to have done it with his will because he did not know he was doing it, nor again against his will because he is not sorry for it.

So then of the class “acting by reason of ignorance,” he who feels regret afterwards is thought to be an involuntary agent, and him that has no such feeling, since he certainly is different from the other, we will call a not-voluntary agent; for as there is a real difference it is better to have a proper name.

Again, there seems to be a difference between acting because of ignorance and acting with ignorance: for instance, we do not usually assign ignorance as the cause of the actions of the drunken or angry man, but either the drunkenness or the anger, yet they act not knowingly but with ignorance.

Again, every bad man is ignorant what he ought to do and what to leave undone, and by reason of such error men become unjust and wholly evil.

1111a] Again, we do not usually apply the term involuntary when a man is ignorant of his own true interest; because ignorance which affects moral choice constitutes depravity but not involuntariness: nor does any ignorance of principle (because for this men are blamed) but ignorance in particular details, wherein consists the action and wherewith it is concerned, for in these there is both compassion and allowance, because he who acts in ignorance of any of them acts in a proper sense involuntarily.

It may be as well, therefore, to define these particular details; what they are, and how many; viz. who acts, what he is doing, with respect to what or in what, sometimes with what, as with what instrument, and with what result (as that of preservation, for instance), and how, as whether softly or violently.

All these particulars, in one and the same case, no man in his senses could be ignorant of; plainly not of the agent, being himself. But what he is doing a man may be ignorant, as men in speaking say a thing escaped them unawares; or as Aeschylus did with respect to the Mysteries, that he was not aware that it was unlawful to speak of them; or as in the case of that catapult accident the other day the man said he discharged it merely to display its operation. Or a person might suppose a son to be an enemy, as Merope did; or that the spear really pointed was rounded off; or that the stone was a pumice; or in striking with a view to save might kill; or might strike when merely wishing to show another, as people do in sham-fighting.

Now since ignorance is possible in respect to all these details in which the action consists, he that acted in ignorance of any of them is thought to have acted involuntarily, and he most so who was in ignorance as regards the most important, which are thought to be those in which the action consists, and the result.

Further, not only must the ignorance be of this kind, to constitute an action involuntary, but it must be also understood that the action is followed by pain and regret.

Now since all involuntary action is either upon compulsion or by reason of ignorance, Voluntary Action would seem to be “that whose origination is in the agent, he being aware of the particular details in which the action consists.”

For, it may be, men are not justified by calling those actions involuntary, which are done by reason of Anger or Lust.

Because, in the first place, if this be so no other animal but man, and not even children, can be said to act voluntarily. Next, is it meant that we never act voluntarily when we act from Lust or Anger, or that we act voluntarily in doing what is right and involuntarily in doing what is discreditable? The latter supposition is absurd, since the cause is one and the same. Then as to the former, it is a strange thing to maintain actions to be involuntary which we are bound to grasp at: now there are occasions on which anger is a duty, and there are things which we are bound to lust after, health, for instance, and learning.

Again, whereas actions strictly involuntary are thought to be attended with pain, those which are done to gratify lust are thought to be pleasant.

Again: how does the involuntariness make any difference between wrong actions done from deliberate calculation, and those done by reason of anger? for both ought to be avoided, and the irrational feelings are thought to be just as natural to man as reason, and so of course must be such actions of the individual as are done from Anger and Lust. It is absurd then to class these actions among the involuntary.


Having thus drawn out the distinction between voluntary and involuntary action our next step is to examine into the nature of Moral Choice, because this seems most intimately connected with Virtue and to be a more decisive test of moral character than a man’s acts are.

Now Moral Choice is plainly voluntary, but the two are not co-extensive, voluntary being the more comprehensive term; for first, children and all other animals share in voluntary action but not in Moral Choice; and next, sudden actions we call voluntary but do not ascribe them to Moral Choice.

Nor do they appear to be right who say it is lust or anger, or wish, or opinion of a certain kind; because, in the first place, Moral Choice is not shared by the irrational animals while Lust and Anger are. Next; the man who fails of self-control acts from Lust but not from Moral Choice; the man of self-control, on the contrary, from Moral Choice, not from Lust. Again: whereas Lust is frequently opposed to Moral Choice, Lust is not to Lust.

Lastly: the object-matter of Lust is the pleasant and the painful, but of Moral Choice neither the one nor the other. Still less can it be Anger, because actions done from Anger are thought generally to be least of all consequent on Moral Choice.

Nor is it Wish either, though appearing closely connected with it; because, in the first place, Moral Choice has not for its objects impossibilities, and if a man were to say he chose them he would be thought to be a fool; but Wish may have impossible things for its objects, immortality for instance.

Wish again may be exercised on things in the accomplishment of which one’s self could have nothing to do, as the success of any particular actor or athlete; but no man chooses things of this nature, only such as he believes he may himself be instrumental in procuring.

Further: Wish has for its object the End rather, but Moral Choice the means to the End; for instance, we wish to be healthy but we choose the means which will make us so; or happiness again we wish for, and commonly say so, but to say we choose is not an appropriate term, because, in short, the province of Moral Choice seems to be those things which are in our own power.

Free Learning Resources