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Ethics - Book Three - Aristotle

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Themes: CourageModerationViceVirtue.


In Chapter One of Book Three Aristotle continues his investigation of virtue by first examining what makes an action voluntary or involuntary. He uses the measure of the praise or blame commonly given to an action, and also of when forgiveness is fitting; for example, in “some actions, not praise but forgiveness arises, whenever someone does what he ought not to do because the matters involved surpass human nature and could be endured by no one” (1110a 24). After making a distinction between “involuntary,” where someone feels disgust at an action he performed, and “nonvoluntary” where the person feels no regret, Aristotle concludes regarding the difference between voluntary and involuntary: “Since what is involuntary is that which is the result of force and done on account of ignorance, what is voluntary would seem to be something whose origin is in the person himself, who knows the particulars that constitute the action” (1111a20)

    In Chapter Two, Aristotle turns to treat choice, since “choice seems to belong very much to virtue and to distinguish people’s characters more than actions do” (1111b5). Choice is voluntary, he points out, but is not the same thing as choice, since some things are voluntary (namely what children and animals do), but are not necessarily chosen. He then turns to show why choice is not desire or spiritedness, why choice is not wish (for “wish has more to do with the end, where as choice has to do with things conducive to that end” [1111b26]), and why choice is not opinion. Before coming to an answer to the question of what is choice, Aristotle in Chapter Three inquires into what is deliberation. Eliminating other possibilities, he discovers that “we do deliberate about things that are up to us and subject to action” (1112a35). He points out that deliberation is never about ends but is rather always about what will enable one to reach the end. He closes Chapter Three by defining choice as a deliberative longing for something that is up to us. He explores wish in Chapter Four, and examines the difference between wish and choice in Chapter Five. Chapter Five uses the discoveries about choice to return to the discussion of virtue, this time regarding what people say is voluntary or not, and therefore blameworthy or not, in the moral realm. He returns to the questions of ignorance and vice as up to us or not. 

    Chapter Six marks the beginning of Aristotle’s focused treatment of individual moral virtues. Courage is defined and explained in Chapters Six, Seven, Eight, and Nine. As he addresses the virtues, he discusses how they are a mean between extremes, what the excess and defect look like, and what the vice most opposed to the virtue is. In Chapters Ten and Eleven he treats the virtue of moderation and its objects, and in Chapter Twelve he considers the vice of licentiousness and how it compares to cowardice.  


Opening questions:


How do the voluntary and the involuntary relate to virtue in Aristotle’s account? 


What is the place of choice in a treatment of moral virtue? 


What is deliberation and how does it relate to choice?


What is courage and how does it relate to cowardice and recklessness? 


What is moderation and what do pleasures have to do with it?

Suggested Pairing:


Plato, The Republic; Aeschylus, The Oresteia

Series on Happiness:

Seneca, On the Happy Life; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics; Gospel of St. Matthew, Sermon on the Mount and The Beatitudes; Augustine, The Happy Life; Julien La Mettrie, Man a Machine; Bentham,  An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents; Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness; Kringelbach and Berridge, The Neurobiology of Pleasure and Happiness; Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works.