Nicomachean Ethics - Book III Summary & Analysis

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Book III Summary and Analysis

Aristotle opens the next section with an examination of what makes an action voluntary. He proposes that any action that takes place in ignorance or out of force is involuntary.

He raises examples of actions that are performed under threat, such as if someone threatens to harm a family member unless you do something "shameful" at their direction. Another example is when sailors throw cargo overboard in a storm to save the ship from capsizing. These examples complicate the question of what makes an action voluntary, for they include both an element of force from outside but they also include a voluntary decision to perform a certain act. In other words, the sailor's wisest choice to save his own life in a storm is to throw the cargo overboard but he still has to make a conscious decision to do so. These are "mixed" sorts of actions, Aristotle explains, and cannot be considered completely involuntary. For an action to be considered "forced," he concludes, it must originate outside the person performing the action, and the person must not contribute toward the action.

Aristotle next discusses actions that are performed in ignorance. A person cannot be blamed for actions that he performs out of ignorance, but his reaction to his own actions indicates the state of his character, he argues. A person who performs a wrong act out of ignorance but feels no regret for it cannot be said to have done it either willingly or unwillingly. This is because Aristotle defines "unwilling" as something that one does that causes some kind of pain to oneself. The person who does something out of ignorance is obviously not acting willingly, because he does not know what he is doing. Moreover, because he feels no pain from his action in the form of regret, he is not acting unwillingly either. Aristotle chooses to make a distinction for this kind of ignorant action by calling it non-willing. By following this logic, Aristotle concludes that the element of regret is necessary to call an ignorant action involuntary.

Having shown what makes an involuntary action, Aristotle now concludes that what is voluntary must be the opposite. In other words, the voluntary action must take place with the knowledge of the performer and be originated by the performer himself. He next addresses the aspect of decision and its role in character.

Decision is something unique to humans, Aristotle proposes. Animals and young children can be said to make voluntary actions, but not to engage in decisions about actions. He discerns it from simple wishes, which might be for something impossible or out of our own control. Decisions are made based on what a person thinks he himself might possibly make happen. Neither is decision a belief, he adds, for beliefs are either true or false and decisions are not described in this way. Decisions are judges as being good or bad.

Aristotle suggests that decisions are perhaps things that have been deliberated using reason. Not everything is open to deliberation, he adds. Some things are eternal or plainly demonstrated, like the existence of the universe and relationships in geometry. Only things that can possibly be one way or another and that a person can have direct control over can be deliberated, Aristotle proposes. Furthermore, what are deliberated over are not the final ends, but what will produce those ends. A doctor does not deliberate over whether he will heal a patient, for example, but he might deliberate over what actions to take toward that end. It is a kind of inquiry, he adds, but not all inquiries are deliberations, such as in math, where one inquires in order to find the one true answer.

These ends toward which we deliberate our actions are wishes, Aristotle explains. He addresses the belief that some hold that all people wish for the good. This cannot be entirely right, however, he claims, since not everyone can know what is good and might wish for something that is not good. This would create a contradiction where someone wishes for something that is not wished for. Others claim, then, that people wish for what is apparently good. Following this line of thinking results in the conclusion that there is no universal function to wishing because each person will wish for something different relative to his own circumstances, and these wishes will often contradict the wishes of others.

Aristotle combines these two beliefs about wishes and proposes that all people wish for the good, and that what is apparently good to each person is based on state of his character. People of good character wish for good things, people of low character wish for bad things, although they think them good.

Aristotle now takes up if and how a person is responsible for his own character. He argues that, as we are able to deliberate and take voluntary actions that accord with either virtue or vice, that being virtuous or "vicious," in the sense of being full of vice, is up to us. He raises a rhetorical objection to this assertion and asks if it is not true that since our wishes are based on our character, and our actions are chosen based on these wishes, that our virtue or vice is controlled by our character and so we cannot be held responsible. To this, Aristotle partly agrees. It is true that our character determines our wishes and thus our actions, but we are each ultimately responsible for our character, at least partly. He uses the example of a drunken person who does something wrong while drunk. He is responsible both for the action he commits and for becoming drunk.

Aristotle now concludes his general discussion of the virtues with a summation. Virtues are means between two extremes, and they are states of being. They are produced by actions, which are voluntary. He is now prepared to return to the virtues spelled out in Book II for further examination.

The first virtue Aristotle discusses is bravery. Earlier, he suggested that bravery is the mean between overconfidence or rashness and cowardice. He now adds that these extremes must be of a certain type to affect what we call bravery. A brave person is fearless, perhaps, but his fearlessness must exist under certain circumstances to be considered bravery. These circumstances, Aristotle explains, are when a person faces death in honorable conditions, such as at war.

Aristotle continues that the truly brave person fears the proper things and in the proper amounts. A person with too little fear who is overconfident in the face of frightening things is rash. A person with too much fear and fear of the wrong things is a coward. Bravery is an intermediate state between the two, but it must come about from the proper motives in order to be true bravery.

Aristotle now spells out some of the motives that are improper to true bravery, even though the associated actions are usually called brave. He mentions the bravery of politically active citizens. This is not truly bravery, because it comes from the desire for honor or to avoid punishment from the state. Likewise, the bravery of soldiers who are compelled to fight under threat of death by their commanders is not true bravery, for their firm stand arises from fear of something worse, and not from a desire to be brave. So-called bravery may also be associated with those who have experience in a certain area, such as military matters or science. This kind of bravery stems from overconfidence, however, Aristotle states, and is not true bravery. Neither is mere spirit, as when a wounded animal turns to attack. This is only impulse, however, and Aristotle does not count it as true bravery. Hopeful people are not truly brave although they are called so, he continues. They are usually simply overconfident. The same is true of ignorant people, who may appear to act bravely, but because they are not motivated by a desire for bravery itself, they do not truly act bravely.

Thus, Aristotle again uses real world examples to support his assertion of what bravery is not. He returns to the definition of bravery. It is somewhere between confidence and fear, but associated more toward fear. He digresses slightly and adds that bravery is unusual in that it requires the presence of pain in order to achieve its end. Brave soldiers can expect to be wounded, and so their actions in one way are unwilling, yet their firmness of character drives them toward the end of bravery.

Aristotle now turns to the virtue of temperance. Temperance is a mean "concerned with pleasures," Aristotle writes (p. 45) and proceeds to enumerate the kinds of pleasures that exist. There are pleasures of the soul, he claims, such as the love of learning and honor, and pleasures of the body. Pleasures of the soul seem to have no excessive state that is called intemperance, Aristotle notes, and concludes that temperance is thus primarily concerned with pleasures of the body.

Pleasures arise through the senses, Aristotle proposes, but not all sensual pleasures lead to intemperance. Nobody is called intemperate for using sight to enjoy beautiful works of art, for example, or using hearing to enjoy music. Smell does not lead to intemperance except as it is related to taste. Taste, along with touch, is the senses that are associated with intemperance, Aristotle claims, and of the two, touch is primarily associated with intemperance. Aristotle extends the sense of touch to include the physical gratification one receives from eating and drinking.

There is a natural inclination to eat and drink, of course, Aristotle explains, but those who indulge in more than is necessary are called gluttons. They are intemperate, and feel pain when they cannot get all that they want. Temperate people do not find pleasure in the excessive satisfaction of their appetites, nor do they experience pain when they cannot get more than enough.

Even more than cowardice, Aristotle suggests, intemperance is a voluntary state because it involves making choices about pleasures. These choices arise completely internally and are not related to outside forces like cowardice is, he explains. It is easy to fall into intemperance because of its relation to pleasure, Aristotle writes, and it is reason that must prevail in order to remain temperate.

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