In Aristotle’s book The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle goes in depth on the differences between voluntary and involuntary actions. Aristotle poses and the question, as humans, what makes our actions voluntary or involuntary, and when should we be held responsible for our actions? Are there exceptions to the differences between voluntary and involuntary actions in certain scenarios? When can we truly hold an individual responsible for their actions, and are there exceptions for this too?

Aristotle makes it apparent that the differences between what is involuntary and voluntary can, at times, be difficult to identify, and often times there is a blurred, fine line between the two. Because of this, many possible scenarios are border-line between being voluntary and involuntary. This causes further dilemma when asked, “If someone’s action cannot decisively be determined to be one of the two, can you still hold the person responsible? In this paper, I will examine the differences, as described by Aristotle in The Nicomachean Ethics, between voluntary and involuntary actions, and argue when individuals should be held responsible for their actions. In order for us to be able to draw conclusions regarding a person’s responsibility for an action, it is critical that we first are able understand what it means for an action to be voluntary or involuntary. By definition, an involuntary action is something done by force or through ignorance. This definition is altered, however, when Aristotle argues that not all actions done in ignorance are necessarily involuntary.

The factor that determines if the action done in ignorance is voluntary or involuntary is regret. If the person regrets the action which was done in ignorance, it was involuntary, but if the person does not regret the action, it cannot be considered completely involuntary. This is where the blurry line between voluntary and involuntary begins. If the person has no regret, the action isn’t completely involuntary, but it’s not voluntary either; it’s split in the middle, but leans more towards involuntary. As we will discover further on, there truly is no clear line dividing voluntary from involuntary.

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In the words of Aristotle, “the terms, then, ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’, must be used with reference to the moment of the action,” meaning every action is entirely circumstantial. Now that we have a working grasp on what an involuntary action is, we must examine its polar opposite, a voluntary action. A voluntary action is an action committed when the person has full knowledge of the circumstances and knows the particulars surrounding the action. There are, of course, a number of scenarios which portray the blurry line between voluntary and involuntary.

For example, picture a scenario where a person commits an act in anger, rage or hate. Aristotle argues that these actions are blatantly voluntary because the person is well aware of what they are doing and the consequences surrounding it. A real life example of this is seen with Anders Breivik, who just several months murdered 77 people in Norway. His actions were motivated by hate towards a group of people. In this scenario, his actions were done in hate, so the actions, by definition, were voluntary. However, the dilemma deepens.

Anders was thought to be insane. Arguably, his mind was not right, and he couldn’t make logical decisions on how to act on his own. Can you consider his actions to still be voluntary, or was his brain forcing him to do things? If his brain was forcing him to do things, isn’t that still considered to be a voluntary action because, as previously noted, a person who does something as a result of force still had full knowledge of the situation? Another prime example of this is drunk driving. Is a person fully aware of what they are doing while they are intoxicated?

Another example is actions committed because a person is in fear or is being threatened. Aristotle argues that in this scenario, the action is more voluntary than involuntary, but is still slightly involuntary because there is the aspect of force. The list of examples that exemplify this blurred border between the voluntary and involuntary is endless. It is difficult to draw a straight line between involuntary and voluntary actions because there are always varying circumstances or exceptions to why someone did something. Another factor that can determine if a person’s action is voluntary or involuntary is intention.

Aristotle maintains that a person’s intention in a situation is a crucial factor for determining responsibility for actions. Intention is something a person has previously deliberated upon. People don’t deliberate about matters over which they have no control, but rather about things which they themselves can and plan to do. We, as humans, only deliberate about things which we know are possible for us, or which have an unclear outcome. We don’t waste our time deliberating about things that we know are not possible for ourselves to accomplish. To better determine if a person if fully responsible for their actions, we must understand what their ntention was; did this person plan on killing that man? Did they plan out how they would do it? Or was it an accident, a mistake? Generally, we hold people more responsible for committed actions that were pre meditated. One example of this is murder. Pre meditated murder has more severe consequences than accidental murder. In Aristotle’s book The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle goes in depth on the differences between voluntary and involuntary actions. There is a blurred line between what constitutes as a voluntary action, and what constitutes an involuntary action.


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