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Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

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A virtuous person is someone who exhibits morally excellent characteristics and promotes collective and individual greatness. Aristotle's defines virtue as a balance point between a deficiency and an excess of a trait. The point of the greatest virtue lies at the golden mean between the two. He characterizes a virtuous person as someone who sees or perceives what is good, fine or right to do in any given situation. He also points out that actions are not always clear indicators of an assessment of a person's trait or character. (Carr & Steutel, 1999; Kemmerling, 2001)

Aristotle states that only voluntary actions can be considered virtuous. In Book III of Nicomachean Ethics he discusses a number of questions that have to do with the nature of a moral act and the degree to which a person is responsible for what he does. He states that virtuous acts require conscious choice and moral purpose or motivation. Praise and blame can only be given when feelings and actions are voluntary. A moral judge has an obligation to know the facts of a situation, to see and understand what is morally relevant and to make decisions based on these findings. In order to evaluate a person's actions, it is necessary to determine whether or not those actions are voluntary, involuntary or nonvoluntary. (Carr & Steutel, 1999; Ross, 350 B.C.E.)

Man has personal moral responsibility for his actions only when they are voluntary. When a man chooses a course of action he is responsible for his choice and the consequences of the chosen action. Since a man is praised and rewarded or blamed and punished only for things that are done voluntary it is important to distinguish what it means for an action to be voluntary or involuntary. (Ross, 350 B.C.E.)

According to Aristotle, there are two instances where actions are considered involuntary actions; when something is done under coercion or when it is done through ignorance. Actions that are produced by some external force or under extreme duress are considered involuntarily, and the person is not responsible for them. If I am walking and I trip over an object on the ground, the coffee that was in my hand spills onto another person and burns them; I cannot be reasonably blamed morally for burning another person. There was an external element that caused the action and I did not contribute anything to the action. An action done through ignorance is considered involuntary if the person regrets the action. If he does not regret the action that was done out of ignorance it cannot be considered completely involuntary, it would then be classified as nonvoluntary. If I open a door and hit a person on the other side, not knowing that they were there, I cannot be held responsible for having hit that person with the door. That would be considered involuntary as long as I was sorry for hitting them. If I did not like the person that I hit and I was not sorry for hurting them, then that would become a nonvoluntary action. (Kemmerling, 2001; Ross, 350 B.C.E.; SparkNotes Editors, 2003)

A voluntary action is one in which the person responsible for the action knows the particulars on which the action depends. A decision to act voluntarily relies upon deliberation about the choice among alternative actions that the individual could perform. During the deliberative process, individual actions are evaluated in light of the good, and the best among them is then chosen for implementation. Under these conditions, Aristotle supposed, moral actions are within our power to perform or avoid; therefore, we can be held responsible for them and their consequences. (Kemmerling, 2001; Ross, 350 B.C.E.)

Having distinguished between involuntary and voluntary actions, Aristotle felt that we must dig a bit deeper and examine the nature of our choices. This is where it can get very complicated. Situations that man encounters and problems that we face may not be entirely of free or determined. Our responsibilities to these matters vary by the degree of freedom which we are permitted to have when the choice is made. This appears to be connected with virtue, and to afford a surer test of character than do our actions.

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