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In book III of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle presents the audience with theories to explain why individuals do things that they do. Although several theories have been offered to depict such actions, Aristotle believes his theory of responsibility gives a clear and accurate representation about whether or not an individual is responsible for his or her actions. Though Aristotle rejected his first theory of responsibility, which stated that a person is responsible for his or her voluntary actions only, his new theory that said that a person may be responsible for his or her not voluntary actions was accepted by many. To portray this theory in his text, Aristotle gives examples and supports this theory with other theories, such as the theories of character acquisition and action, to explain how actions form a person’s character and what actions are voluntary or not voluntary. Because there are some that critique and objection to Aristotle’s responsibility theory, it is important for the reader to consider how Aristotle could have created a better response to these objections and determine how adequate his resulting views on his theories are.


Aristotle’s theory of responsibility was established through his theories of character acquisition and action. His theory of character acquisition states that people get their character from repetitively demonstrating actions they think are best, while his theory of action distinguishes between what actions are voluntary or not voluntary. A person that chooses to do his or actions and deliberate upon them performs the actions voluntarily. On the other hand, a person who is forced into doing actions or is doing them out of ignorance is performing the actions not voluntarily. According to Aristotle, a person is acting involuntarily if he or she acts not voluntarily but feels no pain or regret. Because Aristotle notes in his theories that ones character is developed over time and certain actions may be considered voluntary or not voluntary, it may be difficult to determine if a persons actions in certain circumstances would make that individual responsible or not responsible. For that reason, Aristotle developed his theory of responsibility. This theory states that a person is responsible for his or her actions if he or she did it voluntarily or he or she deliberated and made the best decision based on the deliberation. Aristotle adds,


“It is only vices of the soul that are voluntary; vices of the body are also voluntary for some people. [Means and states] are up to us and are voluntary. Actions and states, however, are not voluntary in the same way. For we are in control of actions from the beginning to the end, when we know the particulars. With states, however, we are in control of the beginning, but do not know…what the cumulative effect of particular actions will be” (Aristotle, -40).


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According to Aristotle, a person who acts voluntarily is responsible no matter what but depending on the circumstances, a person may or not be held responsible after making a not voluntary or involuntary action.


In Chapter 5 of Book III in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle presents an objection to his responsibility theory. He states that people may believe that everybody seeks what may seem good to them but they have no say as to what appears to them. For instance, a person with a bad character may repetitively do bad things voluntarily, but are they really responsible if they are doing what they believe to be best? Some may also believe that ones character is caused by nature, and one cannot not be responsible for what nature dishes out and how they choose to react to it. To this objection, Aristotle says that, “If each person is in some way responsible for his own state [of character], he is also himself in some way responsible for how [the end] appears” (Aristotle, ). Aristotle believes that because we determine our ends, both virtues and vices are voluntary. Just as Aristotle stated in his theory of character acquisition, people are they way they are because they have made their character that way through habituation and repetitive actions. When people act voluntarily they have the ability to deliberate and make the right decisions and therefore are responsible. This objection relates closely with Jason’s situation in Geoff Sayre-McCord’s Philosophy Lecture. Jason was asked to partake in an experiment and sign a waiver allowing Geoff to control his desires which is turn made Jason do silly actions such as singing “Happy Birthday,” barking like a dog, and giving out money. Because Jason had no say in what desires Geoff gave him, it would seem as if Jason’s actions were not voluntary, but according to Aristotle he was able to deliberate and choose his actions so his actions are voluntary. Jason did sign a waiver to be in the experiment, and therefore was held responsible for his actions. Some may object, just like some may object to Aristotle’s responsibility theory, that Jason was not told what he would be doing or the extent of the experiment. Therefore, these critics would believe his actions were voluntary because but he is not responsible because Geoff was controlling his desires and making him think about doing things that were out of his character. Although Jason was acting voluntarily, he decided and deliberated on being in the experiment and he was able to deliberate about his actions, which made him responsible for whatever desires Geoff gave him. Though it may have been out of Jason’s character to follow orders from Geoff, it was in his character to partake in the experiment and therefore he should be held responsible for his actions.


To make his responsibility theory clearer to those who may object, Aristotle could strengthen his argument on how individuals are able to make decisions and act voluntarily and are therefore responsible for his or her actions. He could question that if that individual is not responsible, who is? Why would the person be able to think in the first place if his choices would not matter? If people continued to believe that nature rules over what they do, everybody would be lazy and not do anything and be very unjust because they would make themselves believe that is their character and there was no way of changing that. To most people blaming their bad decisions and actions on nature will let them off the hook. To make his point stronger, Aristotle could look at the views of those that may criticize his theory and reject all possible reasons for why nature does not create an individuals character since people do have the power to make decisions.


Concerning Aristotle’s theory of responsibility, I agree that people are who they are because they have made their character that way. Like Aristotle, I also believe that people are responsible for all of their voluntary actions, and some may be responsible for their actions that are not voluntary as well. The girl that drove drunk in the story A Vignette on Drunk Driving is a prime example. The girl did not choose or deliberate on hitting the woman’s car but she is held responsible because she did choose to drink and drive; she therefore did not do it voluntarily but she is held responsible. I also agree with Aristotle’s theories of character acquisition and action. Peoples character is based on the actions they do repetitively and are acting voluntarily if they choose and deliberate on an action, but are not acting voluntarily if they are forced or are acting out of ignorance. The objection states that though the girl did drive voluntarily, she should not be responsible for hitting the woman because it was in her character that was formed based on outside forces. People have the ability to choose their character, despite what people that believe in the objection may think. It seems as if people make the best decisions to get to an end and they do the actions that they feel that can best take them in that direction. Therefore, I think that Aristotle’s resulting views are adequate, “For in fact we are ourselves in a way jointly responsible for our states of character, and the sort of character we have determines the sort of end we lay down. Hence the vices will also be voluntary, since the same is true of them” (Aristotle, ). Aristotle believes that everybody is responsible for his or her voluntary actions and people do what they do in order to get to an end. Furthermore, his views are not far fetched; rather they seem realistic and adequate in labeling a persons actions and character acquisition.


Aristotle developed wonderful theories in his work Nicomachean Ethics, such as his theory of character acquisition, theory of action, and theory of responsibility. He is fair and practical in his labeling of whom should be held responsible or not responsible due to the individual’s actions. Though some may criticize his theories, similar to how many do not agree that Jason should be responsible for his actions, Aristotle stands firm in his beliefs and provides evidence to help support his opinions. I believe that Aristotle has strong, rational views but with a bit more evidence and taking others beliefs into consideration, he could have developed theories to persuade everybody.





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