Summary and Analysis Book III: Analysis for Book III


Before giving an account of specific virtues included in the moral life Aristotle discusses a number of questions having to do with the nature of a moral act and the degree to which a person is responsible for what he does. He begins by distinguishing between actions that are voluntary and those that are involuntary. Because involuntary actions are those over which man has no control at all they do not belong in the field of ethics and man has no moral responsibility with reference to them. In the case of voluntary actions the situation is different. When a man chooses a particular course of action he is responsible not only for the choice he has made but for the consequences which follow from it. Now if all actions could be classified as either voluntary or involuntary the problems would be quite simple.

Actually the situation is very complicated for we are constantly being faced with problems in which the decisions we make are neither entirely free nor entirely determined. Our responsibilities in these matters will vary with the degree of freedom which we are permitted to have.

It has been stated that a virtuous man is one who makes the right choice of his own free will between alternative courses of action. The two main obstacles with reference to free choice are coercion and ignorance. When coercion is complete one is not responsible for what he does since he has no choice in the matter. In many instances, however, the individual may be subjected to certain pressures which are designed to influence his choice but he is not compelled to yield to them. Whether he does so or not is his own responsibility. Before making his decision he should anticipate as nearly as he is able the probable consequences of each course of action and then select the one which has the greater amount of good and a lesser amount of evil. Whether one is responsible for actions that are performed in ignorance will depend on a number of considerations. One of these is whether he had an adequate opportunity to become informed but for no good reason neglected to do so. Another pertains to those situations in which he did the best he could to become properly informed but in spite of these efforts he was mistaken concerning the facts or he was unable to make correct inferences with reference to them. A man may act with the very best of intentions but because of faulty information which has been given to him the consequences of his action may be harmful to his neighbor. Again, he may act with evil intentions and because he has been badly informed the results of his action may be beneficial to others. While it is true that good intentions are a necessary prerequisite for good actions we cannot say that an act is good just because it is performed from the right motive. Neither can we say that an act is good just because good consequences follow from it. A good act is one that proceeds from a good motive, uses good means, and is followed by good consequences insofar as these can be determined in advance.

In a further discussion of moral action in general Aristotle makes some important distinctions between such items as choice, deliberation, and wishful thinking. Although choice is always associated with voluntary action the two terms are not identical in meaning. Actions are voluntary when the individual is free from external coercion, but choice is something that is initiated by himself. Freedom is a condition which makes it possible for him to select one course of action rather than another but the decision is an inward act rather than something that is governed completely by external factors. Whether the decision is a wise one is usually determined by the deliberation which precedes it. Deliberation means a careful consideration of the implications and consequences that belong to each of the alternative courses of conduct that are being contemplated. After this has been done the choice that is being made can be guided not simply by ones wishes or desires of the moment but rather by what reason indicates will be in harmony with the person's long range interests and the total development of his personality.

In the latter part of Book III Aristotle gives an account of two specific virtues. They are courage and self-control. Courage has a very important place in Aristotelian ethics. It always involves a certain amount of risk or daring on the part of the individual for it means the giving up of something that is of value in order to achieve a greater or more lasting value. There are different kinds of courage and these are distinguished by the type of sacrifice that is made for the sake of a greater good. In some instances the sacrifice may be very slight involving no more than what would usually be regarded as courtesy with reference to the happiness of others. At other times it may mean the giving of one's time or his possessions to provide the necessary care for those who are in need. In extreme cases it may mean the giving up of one's own life for the sake of a cause which is inclusive of the welfare of many persons. In fact Aristotle tells us that the noblest form of courage is that which is displayed on the field of battle since it means the placing of oneself in a situation of extreme danger which may cost him his life. Courage is an example of the doctrine of the golden mean since it is defined as the point which is midway between the extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness. Just where this point is to be located in a particular situation must be determined by the individual in accordance with his rational nature and in view of all the circumstances that are involved.

The virtue of self-control has to do with the proper regulation of the so-called animal appetites and desires or that part of human nature which man has in common with the lower animals. The specific examples are food, drink, and sex. With reference to these elements Aristotle is certainly not an ascetic. He does not condemn any of these appetites or desires as ends in themselves. Each of them has a proper function to perform and so long as it is kept under proper control it makes a valuable contribution to the good

life. Because over-indulgence is often pleasurable at the moment there is a natural tendency to allow them to be carried to an excess. When this happens we have a vice instead of a virtue. The same thing occurs when through some form of asceticism or kindred motivation the appetites are limited to less than their proper function in relation to life as a whole.