Summary and Analysis Book III: Chapter V - Man's Moral Responsibility as an Agent


The object of wish is an end. The objects of deliberation and choice are the means to that end. Since actions are concerned with means, it is clear that actions are based on choice and are thus voluntary. In any given situation, men voluntarily choose the means they apply. It is always in their power to act or to refrain from acting. Every man is personally responsible for his acts.

This conception of personal moral responsibility is supported by the empirical experience of many people, including judges and legislators.

Laws reward moral acts and punish immoral, which would be foolish if men didn't choose to act as they do. Moreover, the law penalizes evil doers, but not those who have acted involuntarily due to compulsion or ignorance (i.e., in cases where there are extenuating circumstances). The agent is held responsible, however, in situations where it is fair to claim he is the cause of his own ignorance (e.g., in cases of drunkenness).

Socrates used to say that no man is willingly bad. This is false, unless we claim that man is not the source of his own actions, but we have already shown that human actions in the moral sphere are voluntary.

Some thinkers try to escape the question of personal moral responsibility by saying that men seek their apparent good and cannot be blamed for holding erroneous ideas of what is good. In our view a man is as much responsible for what appears good to him as he is for his actions.

It has also been claimed that some men cannot be held responsible for their actions because they have become habitually self-indulgent or unjust and can no longer control themselves. Since such men initially became that way voluntarily, it is impossible to excuse them for their acts or present state. It must be definitively stated that all virtues and all vices are voluntary. Every man is fully responsible for his own actions.

To sum up the whole discussion:

  1. Virtues are means and characteristics.
  2. Virtues (and vices) tend to produce the same kind of actions as those to which they owe their existence.
  3. Since they find their expression in voluntary action, the existence of virtue and vice is dependent on how a man decides to act in any given situation.
  4. Action and character are both voluntary, but not in the same sense. Men control their actions from beginning to end, so long as they know the particular circumstances surrounding their actions, but they control only the beginning of their characteristics. The particular steps in the development of characteristics are imperceptible, just as they are in the spread of a disease, but their beginning is voluntary.
  5. Since action and character are both voluntary, it is possible to hold a man morally responsible for the consequences of his actions and state of character.

A discussion of the individual virtues now follows, with emphasis on definitions, explanation of the areas in which they operate, and their modes of operation.

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