Ethics By Aristotle Summary and Analysis Book V: Chapter VIII - Degrees of Personal Responsibility

Summary

Now that justice has been defined and described, it is necessary to add that a man acts justly or unjustly only when his acts have been performed voluntarily. Actions can be just or unjust only when they are voluntary and it is only in regard to voluntary acts that the moral question arises. Bad actions which lack the voluntary elements must be considered acts with an unjust effect but without an unjust quality.

As has already been shown, a voluntary action is:

  1. An act which was in the agent's power to do or not to do.

  2. An act in which the agent performed with full knowledge of the person affected, the instrument being used, and the object being sought.
  3. An act in which no particular was determined by accident or under constraint, (e.g., if A takes B's hand and strikes C, B does not act voluntarily since the act was not within his power).

An involuntary action is:

  1. Performed in ignorance, or
  2. performed without ability on the part of the agent to prevent it, or
  3. performed under compulsion.

Moreover, there is a distinction between an unjust act and a man who acts unjustly. The motives behind an act can render the agent unjust even if the act itself is unexceptionable. (e.g., Before going on a trip, A leaves some money in the safe keeping of B. When A returns, B gives the money back, but does so reluctantly and only because he fears the consequences. It cannot be said that B is behaving justly; at best he has done the right thing by accident.).

Men sometimes act voluntarily by deliberate choice and sometimes not, thus there can be different degrees of responsibility for just and unjust actions, and in certain situations man cannot be held fully responsible for actions with a bad or unjust effect.

Aside from acts due to compulsion, there are four possible forms of action and thus four degrees of individual responsibility:

  1. Accidents — a man may act in ignorance and without malice and inflict an injury which could not reasonably have been expected in a given situation. In such a case the agent cannot be held responsible.
  2. Negligence — a man may act in ignorance and without malice and inflict an injury which might reasonably have been expected. Such an act, which is called a mistake, is one for which the agent may be held responsible, although it is recognized the there was no malice involved and he is not treated as a criminal.
  3. A man may act with full knowledge but without deliberation (i.e., as in anger). In such a case the agent is held responsible because he was wrong and his act was an offense, but this does not make him an unjust or wicked man since the harm he did was not premeditated.
  4. A man may act from deliberate choice with full knowledge. In this instance the agent is unjust and his act unjust, and he bears full responsibility for his wickedness. The responsibility for this last type of act is most serious and should be punished and condemned more severely than the kinds of acts described in 2 and 3 above.

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