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J. R. Lucas

Print publication date: 1995

Print ISBN-13: 9780198235781

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198235781.001.0001

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(p.274) APPENDIX 1 Aristotle

(p.274) APPENDIX 1 Aristotle



Oxford University Press

Aristotle was the first to discuss responsibility, and much of our understanding derives from him. It is appropriate to acknowledge and assess his thoughts from the standpoint of this book, but with some hesitation and caveats. Aristotle wrote from a very different standpoint, and was the heir of a very different tradition—Adkins says his Merit and Responsibility arose from his difficulty in understanding Plato and Aristotle’s moral philosophy. In particular Aristotle’s discussion is under the shadow of the Socratic paradox, APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (oudeis hekon hamartanei), nobody errs voluntarily. Much of his argument is devoted to reinstating the common-sense view that people do in fact do wrong deliberately. Hence he is primarily concerned with the cases where something has gone wrong, and considering then to what extent the action was voluntary, and the agent culpable; in particular he discusses APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (akrasia), weakness of will, and this discussion has attracted a lot of attention in recent years. To do justice to Aristotle, one needs to see what he was trying to do, and what alternatives were available to him, but here I am only concerned with a partial view, more to define the focus of this book in relation to Aristotle than to discuss him in his own terms and from his own point of view.1

Aristotle discusses responsibility in terms of the Greek words APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (hekousion) and APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (akousion). It is reasonable to translate APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (akousion) as ‘involuntary’, but, as J. L. Austin points out,2 it is a mistake then to translate APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (hekousion) as ‘voluntary’. The opposite of ‘voluntary’ is sometimes ‘compulsory’, sometimes ‘required’, sometimes ‘paid’, but never ‘involuntary’. In so far as APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (hekousion) is the opposite of APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (akousion), we might translate it ‘non-involuntary’, though this is ugly. But no translation is really satisfactory, inasmuch as Aristotle himself sometimes uses the terms APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (hekousion) and APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (akousion) as contraries rather than contradictories.

(p.275) Aristotle begins his discussion in Nicomachean Ethics III by locating APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (hekousion) on his moral map, as a necessary condition for praise and blame, which are clearly connected with APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (arete) (usually translated ‘virtue’ but better thought of as a desirable quality of character or mind). What is APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (akousion) is a matter for APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (suggnome) (rendered ‘pardon’ by Ross, but better ‘exculpation’) or pity. He says that an action is APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (hekousion) when the agent himself is the spring of the action, APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (arche tou kinein), and APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (akousion) when the initiating cause is external, APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (arche exothen).3 Thus far he can be regarded as elucidating responsibility.

Aristotle reckons that the ascription of responsibility for an action can be defeated in two ways:

  1. 1. that what was done was done by compulsion, APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (bia), or

  2. 2. it was done through ignorance, APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (di’agnoian).

1. The paradigm example of something that happens by compulsion is being carried somewhere in a boat by the wind. In that case, it is clear that one is not responsible, because one did not do anything: T did not go—I was carried’ is the proper disclaimer of responsibility. We make the point by using the passive voice. Aristotle, however, is concerned to identify the cause as being outside—APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (exothen)—the agent, the agent himself contributing nothing, and so talks of ‘the wind carrying one somewhere’, and then adds ‘or men who are in control’. The added words have been taken in two ways: the natural reading is that they are just a further instance of being carried, for example in a ship after a mutiny, or simply being manhandled; but they have also been read as introducing the different case of actions under duress, which Aristotle then goes on to discuss in the following sections.4 He takes a rather tough line. There is some doubt whether actions undertaken by someone at the behest of a tyrant who holds one’s family hostage should be regarded as APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (hekousion) or APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (akousion), as also in the case of jettisoning cargo in a storm: one would not do it voluntarily (in the ordinary, English sense of the word, adumbrated by Austin above), but any sensible person would in the circumstances. Aristotle concludes that these are ‘mixed’—APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (miktai)—actions, but more resembling those that are APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (hekousia) since they were chosen at the moment of choice.

Aristotle’s account of actions under duress is distorted by his emphasis on blame. He has confused two different ways of escaping blame: I may be not blameable because I am not responsible, but I may also be (p.276) not blameable because although I am responsible, I have a perfectly good justification for what I did. The ship’s captain escapes blame under the latter head: he was responsible; at the moment of choice he was able to make a choice, and did make a choice, a choice which in the circumstances was entirely reasonable, even though it would not have been reasonable in other, more normal circumstances. So too in most other cases of actions under duress. The agent did them because he had no acceptable alternative. This is often an adequate excuse, and we pity, rather than blame, the man who finds himself in such a predicament, though sometimes even death is better than the commission of a really wicked deed. In all these cases there is a choice, though a choice of evils, and we can properly ask why a man acted as he did, and detail the special circumstances of the case as exculpating him for doing what would in ordinary circumstances be reprehensible. Only in extreme case—torture or terror—would we reckon the man to be no longer himself, and not to be regarded as an agent at all. In almost all cases, however, he is an agent, responsible for his actions though not for the circumstances in which he has to act, and we can properly ask him about the former, though being ready to allow that it is in regard to the latter that blame, if there is any blame, is to be assigned, and about them we must address our questions elsewhere.

2. Aristotle reckons that for some actions the agent should be exculpated because they are done through ignorance, APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (di’agnoian). Again, the simple distinction between APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (hekousion) and APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (akousion) is inadequate, and he introduces a further distinction: everything done through ignorance is APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (oukh hekousion), but it is APPENDIX 1 Aristotle(akousion) only if it is subsequently a matter of repine and regret.5

Intuitively we agree. If I throw a javelin in a tournament, and an unforeseeable gust of wind blows it so that it wounds a bystander, I cannot be said to have wounded him; but if the bystander was my greatest enemy, and I go on my way rejoicing at this lucky mischance, I make myself responsible for the consequences of my action. Responsibility is attributed to me on the strength of my subsequent lack of regret for the incident. The fact that I was causally involved—I threw the javelin—establishes a prima-facie case for asking me why I did it; the fact that I did not know that the javelin would be blown off course and hit a bystander defeats the ascription of responsibility; the fact that I did not feel sorry at this unforeseen outcome defeats the defeater, and renders me answerable again. I was causally involved, and though I did not in point of fact foresee the outcome, nevertheless it was one I should have been happy to bring about, so that if I had foreseen it, I would have (p.277) acted exactly as I did. Hence, if I had known I would have had the result to answer for, and I cannot plead ignorance to get me off the hook.

It is an important point. It is an example of “Cambridge Change”, where a subsequent event alters the antecedent state of affairs: my not regretting now makes me to have been responsible then. It shows that responsibility is not just a physical concept subject to the standard physical constraints of locality and temporal antecedence, but is, rather, concerned with the significance of actions and their interpretation, where it is perfectly possible for the meaning to be altered ex post facto. Just as my not being subsequently sorry can make me responsible for the unintended consequences of my previous action, so I may become responsible for wrongs previously done by my society, and we, by punishing the wrongdoer after the event, may make us not to have been responsible for what he did.6

Aristotle has yet to draw a further distinction, between actions done through ignorance—APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (di’agnoian)—and those done where the agent is being ignorant—APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (agnoon). He needs this distinction to block the defence of not knowing that the action was wrong. I can reasonably hope to exculpate myself if I can say that I did not know that the wind would blow the javelin out of its course and on to a bystander, but not, without thereby abdicating my role as a responsible agent altogether, if I say that I did not know that killing people was wrong. It is a demerit of Aristotle’s approach that it is open to this defence, whereas if we see the issue as the correct description of the action, there is no opportunity to assimilate ignorance of morals to ignorance of facts.

In book v (the first of the common books), ch. 4, 1131b25–1132b, Aristotle deals with punishment and reparation in the course of his discussion of “diorthotic”, or rectificatory, justice. His account is dominated by his need to accommodate and neutralise its conceptual links with equality. So far as distributive, or social, justice is concerned, he takes over from Plato a distinction between geometric and arithmetic equality.7 Equi-angular figures are “geometrically equal”, or, as we should say, similar. Their angles are the same, but their sides are only proportional to each other, in contrast to congruent figures which are not only the same shape but the same size too. Their sides are “arithmetically equal”. Plato and Aristotle hold that when benefits are to be distributed, they should be distributed in proportion to APPENDIX 1 Aristotle (axia), merit. Perhaps partly to redress this, Aristotle finds a role for arithmetic equality in his account of “diorthotic” justice. He follows a distinction Plato draws in book Ix of The Laws between voluntary and involuntary transactions, the former being the province of commutative, or economic, (p.278) justice, the latter of diorthotic justice. Aristotle’s thought is that in an involuntary transaction one party gains an advantage at the expense of the other, who suffers a corresponding loss. What is needed then is to equalise the situation by taking away the illicit gain from the one, and restoring it to the other. The just outcome is thus a sort of equality, and also a mean between the one party being left with too much and the other with too little.

Aristotle’s account is too schematic, and hence confused. He assumes simple theft as the paradigmatic involuntary transaction, where the thief’s gain is the victim’s loss, and taking away the stolen goods from the thief and giving them back to their rightful owner will restore the status quo. But such cases are rare. The typical involuntary transaction is not a zero-sum game, in which the gainer’s gain is exactly equal to the loser’s loss, but a negative-sum game, where the losses exceed the gains. Even when goods are restored to their rightful owner, he has been inconvenienced by not having them to hand in the interim. In general, therefore, we have to distinguish the loser’s loss from the wrongdoer’s gain, and address ourselves to entirely different questions, as we concern ourselves primarily with the one or the other.

If we address ourselves to the loser, our concern is with the loss he suffered, and how to make that good. Our aim is to compensate him, not to punish the wrongdoer. It is a case for the civil courts, not the criminal law: the wrongdoer has committed a tort, not a crime.8 We do not need to make out that he flouted some precept or principle, only that he was careless, or even just unlucky, and that he failed to see to it that his actions did not have unfortunate consequences for the plaintiff. If that case is made out, then it is for him to compensate the plaintiff, and restore his position, so far as possible, to what it was before the involuntary transaction. It does not at all follow that the defendant only loses what he has illicitly gained. He may be much worse off: he may have gained nothing, but still have to pay considerable damages.

If we address ourselves to the wrongdoer rather than the person wronged, the case is very different. Our concern then is with the wrongdoer rather than the person wronged, and with the intention revealed in his wrongdoing rather than the consequences of his action; our purpose is, as we have seen,9 to make sure that the wrongdoer does not get away with it, to see to it that crime does not pay. It is a different person’s outcome we are seeking to alter—there may be no victim, or it may be impossible to repair the wrong—and we are not concerned with equality but with a less than relation: it would not serve our purpose if the wrongdoer were no better and no worse off than he had been before he (p.279) did the wrong; we need rather to make him worse off, so that from his, and other potential wrongdoers’, point of view wrongdoing was a bad policy.

Once we recognise that most involuntary transactions are non-zero-sum games, with the losses outweighing the gains, the temptation to assimilate the wrongdoer’s gain to the loser’s loss disappears, and we see that we have to consider their positions separately, in the one case trying, so far as we can, to restore the person wronged to the same position as he occupied previously, in the other seeking to ensure that the wrongdoer is worse off than he would have been had he committed no wrong.

Some defence is needed for an account which is confessedly not fair to Aristotle, and is criticizing his account from my own standpoint, and pointing out what I think are confusions, and saying what I think he ought to have said. Plato gives one in his Theaetetus.10 Philosophy is an activity, not just a set of doctrines, and in order to understand a philosopher, it is necessary to engage in argument with him, not just hear what he says. With those who are no longer living, we do not give them their due if we merely learn what they have said: we need also to engage them in dialogue, so far as we can, and do them the compliment of arguing with them as though they were still alive and able to answer back. Although on occasion an entirely scholarly approach is proper, and we ought always to take into account what a philosopher was trying to do, and what options were open to him at the time he was operating, he will not really speak to us unless we also speak to him, and say how his doctrines appear to us from our point of view. Reading philosophy is like reading poetry: the text by itself is dead. In order to come alive it needs to be lived by us, and the inevitable distortions of our subjective viewpoint have to be accepted as a necessary part of the process, though they should also be recognised and on occasion discounted for what they are.


(1) There are excellent scholarly discussions in Sarah Broadie (Waterlow), Ethics with Aristotle, Oxford, 1991, pp. 124–74; D. J. Furley, “Aristotle on the Voluntary”, in Jonathan Barnes et al, Articles on Aristotle, ii, London, 1977; T. H. Irwin, “Reason and Responsibility in Aristotle”, in Amelie Rorty (ed.), Essays on Aristotle, Berkeley, Calif., 1980, pp. 117–55; Richard Sorabji, Necessity, Cause and Blame, London, 1980; and A. J. P. Kenny, Aristotle’s Theory of the Will, London, 1979.

(2) J. L. Austin, “A Plea for Excuses”; repr. in his Philosophical Papers, Oxford, 1961, pp. 139–41.

(3) Nicomachean Ethics III. 1. 3, 1110a1–3, and 1. 6, 1110a15–18; cf. Eudemian Ethics, 11. 6, 1223a9–18.

(4) Jonathan Glover, Responsibility, London, 1970, p. 6.

(5) Nicomachean Ethics, 1110b19–24.

(6) See §5.2, p. 77, and §64, p. 96, n. 9.

(7) Laws VI, 757.

(8) See §5.2, p. 77, §6.9, pp. 111–12, and §12.3, pp. 262–3.

(9) See §6.4, pp. 97–9.

(10) Theaetetus, 169e.