My project is to analyze Aristotle’s claims in Book III of Nicomachean Ethics regarding actions performed out of ignorance and determine whether or not they are valid in respect to Biblical teaching. First he claims that a man who performs a wrong action out of ignorance does so neither voluntarily nor involuntarily, but what he calls “non-voluntarily”. Second he claims that if a man is ignorant not just of the morality of a particular action but of the universal moral rule itself, then he is wicked. My thesis is that Aristotle’s first claim is valid in respect to the Bible, but not his second claim. My plan is to briefly summarize Aristotle’s discussion of what constitutes voluntary and involuntary action, then to explain in more detail the two claims I have mentioned above, and finally to critique those two claims from a Biblical standpoint.
Aristotle begins his discussion of voluntary and involuntary actions by addressing what he sees as the differences between them. Essentially what he ends up claiming is that the only way an action can be considered involuntary is if it is totally compelled by some force which is external to the agent of the action, while the agent takes no willful part in the action whatsoever. So, suppose a man’s family is taken hostage and a ransom is demanded. Though the man may not want to pay the ransom he will choose to pay it anyway because he wants his family back safely. In this case, we would not call the action involuntary because the man chose to act and caused, by his own power, the action to occur. Thus, even though external forces were compelling him, it was a voluntary action.
Continuing from this first claim, Aristotle also concludes that it would be foolish to blame external circumstances rather than oneself for performing any action that the agent chooses to perform. External circumstances, he says, can be said to be involved in every action that one does, whether it be good or bad. If we are going to blame those circumstances for our actions instead of blaming ourselves when the actions are bad, we must also give credit to those circumstances rather than give credit to ourselves when our actions are good. As Aristotle observes, not many are readily willing to admit that they are not responsible when they do good things.
With a basic understanding of voluntary and involuntary action established, Aristotle moves on to actions performed out of ignorance. Here Aristotle adds the third class of actions; the non-voluntary acts. He claims that if a man is ignorant of the fact that he has performed a wrong action he cannot be considered voluntary, from a morally culpable standpoint, for he was unaware of the fact that the action was wrong. Had he not been ignorant, had he known that the action was wrong, he may not have done it. However, if he never learns of his ignorance, if he never discovers that the action was wrong and thus he is never regretful for it, neither can he be considered involuntary. He was not aware of the moral implications of the action either way, thus he was simply non-voluntary. Having established this conception of ignorance with regard to moral action, Aristotle then makes a distinction between being ignorant of particulars and ignorant of universals. For example, if a man knows that it is wrong to steal the property of others, but he does not know that a certain animal belongs to his neighbor and so he takes it, he is aware of the universal (namely, that it is wrong to steal), but he is unaware of the particular (namely, that this particular animal belongs to his neighbor and thus taking it would be stealing). In this case, Aristotle would excuse the man and say that his action was non-voluntary (and, if the man later discovers his misdeed and is penitent, the action is then involuntary). However, if a man is unaware of the universal, that it is wrong to steal the property of others, Aristotle says that such a man is not innocently ignorant, but wicked! He further asserts, “Every wicked man is in a state of ignorance as to what he ought to do and what he should refrain from doing.” Thus his conclusion is that a wicked person is such because he is ignorant of the right thing to do. This he would consider a moral defect on the part of the person, and thus he is still responsible for his wickedness.
Aristotle then ends this discussion of voluntary, involuntary and non-voluntary actions with one final thought on moral responsibility. He claims that voluntary actions must be those whereupon the initiative lies within the agent performing the action, even if that initiative be the baser passions or appetites. This effectively rejects the modern notion of “crimes committed in the heat of passion” as a defense for ones actions. The next question is, do we not also perform good acts out of passion or appetite? It would seem that we do. As before, with the attempt to blame ones bad actions on circumstances, this is merely an attempt by some to blame bad actions on passions. But this would effectively categorize all good actions as being voluntary and all bad actions as being involuntary, which Aristotle says is “ridiculous, since the cause in both cases is one in the same.” He concludes that, “Both are to be avoided; but the irrational emotions are considered no less a part of human beings than reasoning is, and hence, the actions of a man which spring from passion and appetite are equally a part of him.”
With all this in mind let us consider the validity of Aristotle’s claims when held up to scripture. The first claim seems rather self-evident. If a person is ignorant that an action is wrong; say they offended someone without knowing it or honestly forgot to do part of a homework assignment and said that they had completed it all, we would not hold them morally responsible for such actions. It seems obvious to me that this claim is valid in respect to Biblical teaching and no more need be said about it. What is truly important, both to Aristotle and to the Christian, is that a man be aware of the universal rules that should guide the way he lives, for example, that it is not right to offend others or to lie about completing your homework. This is Aristotle’s next point.
Essentially Aristotle is saying that men’s wickedness is intimately tied to their ignorance of universal moral principles, in a kind of causal relationship. So the most immoral person you can imagine is one who is ultimately ignorant of the fact that lying, stealing, murder and so forth are all morally wrong. What first struck me as odd was that he considered this ignorance to still be worthy of reproach. Most modern thinkers would use the excuse of ignorance to free people from moral responsibility, not to condemn them. Upon reflection and a deeper reading of the text I realized that what Aristotle is really saying is this: men who are ignorant of the fact that it is wrong to steal are still voluntarily stealing, and thus are still responsible for their actions. On the other hand, the man who knows that stealing is wrong, but who does not know in a particular instance that he is stealing, is not voluntarily stealing, and thus is not responsible for the action.
Scripture is very clear, however, that no man is ignorant of the universal moral principles, which we would call God’s law. To use Biblical language, we would say that all men are “without excuse.” God’s invisible attributes are plainly revealed in nature and His law is written on our hearts. We cannot claim ignorance of what we ought to do.
A counter-example might seem to fit here: what of the psychopath? A person who seems so apart from reality and reasonable thinking that he must be ignorant of what is right and wrong? This is where Aristotle’s comment on wrong actions committed due to the passions comes in. I would argue that the psychopath is no more ignorant of right and wrong than anyone else, but rather he is ruled by his passions and not his reason. When the psychopath desires to kill he kills, when he desires to steal he steals, and so on. There is no rationality guiding his actions, but as Aristotle aptly points out, his appetitive and passionate desires are no less a part of his humanity, his self, then is his reason. Thus we can reasonably conclude that such a person is merely ruled more by passion than reason and is still very much aware of moral universals.
What Aristotle didn’t have, what we might say is the final piece he needed to finish the puzzle, was a right view of human nature. Specifically, that our nature is fallen and in bondage to sin. Aristotle seems to conclude that the only reason a person would willingly choose to do evil is if he is at least partially ignorant of the fact that his action is actually evil. But the Bible shows us that men choose to do evil because our sinful nature naturally inclines us to do so. We are well aware that stealing is evil, but we choose to steal anyway because we cannot help but sin.
This still leaves us with some questions. Again, let use the psychopath as our example. It seems that the psychopath really doesn’t know that what he’s doing is wrong, even if his appetites rule him. Or perhaps a better example might be that the majority of people in today’s society don’t see anything wrong with having premarital sex with multiple partners, aren’t we to conclude that they are ignorant that such acts are wrong? Here we are forgetting an important metaphysical quality of humanity, namely the conscience. Immortalized by the Disney character Jiminy Cricket, the conscience is the exemplification of the law of God that is written on our hearts. It is that nagging feeling that people get when they know something is wrong. The more people suppress their consciences, the shorter and smaller those nagging feelings become until they are barely noticeable at all. But would it be reasonable to conclude that once a person no longer notices his conscience he is now suddenly ignorant of a moral principle that he knew before? Of course not. Moreover, most people understand why monogamy is such a good thing, but they choose to ignore that knowledge because promiscuous sexual activity is, in the moment at least, more desirable to them. In addition to this, scripture tells us that God gives depraved people over to their depravity, in essence giving them over to a place where they no longer feel that little nagging feeling.
Finally, Aristotle was equally unaware of the fact that, due to man’s corrupted moral state, he can only perform good actions and be a moral person by the grace of God. It is not a simple matter of knowing universal moral principles, because scripture is clear that all men know these. As with all things, it is entirely a matter of God’s sovereign grace.
Thus Aristotle provides an excellent definition of what constitutes voluntary and involuntary actions, but he fails to determine what makes men wicked. Ultimately this is due to the fact that Aristotle was lacking the divine or special revelation necessary for him to fully grasp the relationship between God, man, and sin. But for his part, Aristotle was certainly on the right track, and actually ends up providing a good philosophical case for how men can still be responsible for sinful actions in the face of their corrupted sinful natures.