Moral Responsibility Essay

Moral Responsibility Essay:

Within the scope of this research, we will elaborate on Aristotle’s view on ‘moral responsibility’. Merely accepting the idea that ethics is a practical enterprise in the sense outlined above, however, does not commit one to a more specific conception of the relationship between attaining a general knowledge of virtue and being able to perform the activities that are essential to cultivating virtuous states of character. The extent to which one can acquire a general knowledge of ethical matters before one has engaged in the practical affairs of life, for instance, remains an open question.

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In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle embraces what might be called an ‘experience first’ approach to ethical development. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle places constant emphasis on the importance of gaining a knowledge of particulars that comes from practical experience not only in order to act well, but to be able to acquire and to benefit from a general knowledge of ethical matters. This emphasis on experience results from a clarification that Aristotle makes in the Nicomachean Ethics of the relationship between actions, emotions, and states of character in order to avoid a puzzle or aporia to which the account of the acquisition of virtue is left open.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle outlines the dilemma and offers a response in which he clarifies the relationship between actions and emotions that are virtuous and virtuous dispositions. Although actions are just when they are the sort of actions that just and temperate people would perform, a moral agent is not just or temperate simply because he performs such actions. Rather, the agent is just or temperate when he consistently performs such acts in the way in which just and temperate people do, that is, when (1) he acts knowingly, (2) he deliberately chooses the act for its own sake, and (3) the act springs from a fixed and permanent state of character. (Aristotle, 1992)

“The question of what we are doing when we hold people responsible has not been adequately treated in discussions of freedom and responsibility. A common assumption is that moral responsibility can be understood primarily in terms of moral blame and sanction, so that to hold people morally responsible is to be prepared to blame or sanction them for their moral offenses, where the sanctions tend, at the limit, toward punishment.” (Wallace, 1998) An integral part of acquiring a virtuous character, therefore, is developing the proper affective orientation to virtuous actions.

But in the first four chapters of Nicomachean Ethics book 2, Aristotle is clear that we develop these affective responses by repeatedly performing the right kinds of actions. It is only by acting in dangerous situations and developing the proper reactions of fear or confidence, for instance, that we become courageous or cowardly. (Aristotle, 1992) The gust step to becoming just and temperate, therefore, is to perform just and temperate actions.

This explains Aristotle’s repeated insistence in the Nicomachean Ethics that virtue is concerned with both actions and emotions. (Aristotle, 1992) In the case of justice, liberality, magnificence, and perhaps others as well, what makes a particular action appropriate need not depend on one’s affective orientation to the action. Magnificence, for instance, requires knowing when and how to give the right amount of money to the right cause. Having the appropriate affective orientation to such an action may be necessary for cultivating a virtuous disposition, but it need not be part of what makes it magnificent to give this sum of money to this end on this occasion.

The reason that “we have to examine matters pertaining to actions and how we should act,” is that “our actions determine what sort of character we develop.” (Aristotle, 1992) In this case, one must develop the appropriate affective orientation to an instance of giving whose rightness is independent of one’s affective orientation to it. To say, therefore, that virtue is a mean on account of its ability to aim at and hit the mean in emotions and in actions is to say that it is able to choose and perform actions that are in a mean and also to express affective responses that are in a mean. (Aristotle, 1992)

In the Nicomachean Ethics, however, Aristotle also emphasizes repeatedly that actions are “in the particulars” and that these differ greatly from case to case. (Aristotle, 1992) With this special emphasis on the importance of actions in the NE comes a shift in emphasis on the kind of knowledge it is most important for an agent to have if he hopes to become virtuous. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle repeatedly emphasizes the importance of having practical experience with particulars in order to perform the right actions and, perhaps more important, in order to benefit from philosophical inquiry into ethics.

Take, for instance, Aristotle’s statement early in NE book 1 that the young and the immature are not fit to be students of politics. In part this is because they are led about by their passions, and Aristotle says that the study of politics will be of no use to them because the end of our inquiry is not knowledge but action. But, at a deeper level, the young lack experience of the actions of life, and Aristotle says that our investigation proceeds from and is concerned with such matters. (Aristotle, 1992)

This passage directly challenges the idea that those who have come of age but who lack practical experience will be able to engage in and benefit from philosophical moral inquiry on two fronts. On the one hand, even if the young and immature could acquire such general knowledge, it would not help them constrain and control their passions. For this, they require experience and habituation, not theory. On the other hand, the young and the immature lack the kind of practical experience which our inquiry is about and which provides the data on which the inquiry draws.

The epistemic deficits of youth and inexperience are elaborated a few pages later when Aristotle claims that “in order to be a competent student of the noble and the just, and the subject matter of politics in general, the pupil must have been well trained in his habits.” (Aristotle, 1992) The reason he gives is that “the that is the first principle or starting point” and the person who has been raised with good habits “either knows first principles already or can easily acquire them.” (Aristotle, 1992)

The young and the immature thus suffer from two interrelated problems. First, without knowing the that, they will be unable fruitfully to inquire into the why. Second, their ability to perceive the that is impaired because their habits and affective dispositions have not been shaped in a way that would make them responsive to the appropriate features of the world. Without the appropriate affective dispositions, they may be unable to perceive as salient the features of a situation to which they ought to respond.

“People who are morally responsible may be made to answer for their actions, in the sense that their actions render them liable to certain kinds of distinctively moral responses.” (Wallace, 1998) In the Nicomachean Ethics, the idea that our inquiry is constrained by its subject matter is a recurring theme. Throughout the book we are told that actions are “in the particulars”. (Aristotle, 1992) We are also told that there is a great deal of variation in the particulars. (Aristotle, 1992) Our ethical theory is thus constrained to be inexact because it deals with matters concerning actions and there is nothing fixed or invariable about these because they are in the particulars. Likewise, because particular cases of conduct fall under no science or set of prescriptive rules, Aristotle tells us that the agents must consider for themselves what is suited to the circumstances on each occasion. (Aristotle, 1992)

Throughout the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle repeatedly emphasizes the relationship between actions and particulars and the importance of cultivating one’s powers of perception and judgment in order to navigate the variations that hold among particulars. The Nicomachean Ethics also reflects more deeply the importance of the individual’s ability to discern and to be a competent judge of particulars in its standard description of moral virtue; virtue aims at and hits or attains the mean. When he first introduces the doctrine of the mean in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle remarks that if it is true that virtue, like nature, is better and more precise than any of the arts, then it follows that virtue has the quality of being able to aim at and hit the mean. (Aristotle, 1992)

He goes on to clarify that by virtue he means moral virtue because this is concerned with emotions and actions and the mean in these is praised and constitutes success. So he concludes that virtue is a mean state in the sense that it is able to aim at and hit the mean. Finally, near the end of book 2 Aristotle concludes his discussion of the doctrine of the mean with the following: “Enough has been said by now to show that moral virtue is a mean and how this is so, namely, that it is a mean between two vices, one of excess and one of defect, and that it is such a mean on account of its ability to aim at and hit the mean in emotions and in actions.” (Aristotle, 1992) The context from which these passages are taken suggests that Aristotle describes virtue in order to convey the idea that it is a mark of virtue to discover and adopt the mean in both emotions and in actions.

“To understand what we are doing when we hold people morally responsible, we must clarify the nature of moral blame and moral sanction.” (Wallace, 1998) Aristotle says that knowledge of particulars is more important for success in action than knowledge of universals, and in doing so he points out that the practically wise resemble men of experience much more than theoreticians. He returns to this thought a few lines later when he says that although the young may become expert geometers and mathematicians, they cannot be practically wise. The reason is that practical wisdom is concerned not only with universals, “but also with particulars which become known through experience, but a young man does not have experience as experience takes many years to acquire.” (Aristotle, 1992)

“Hence if adult self-necessitation calls into question responsibility for actions, so that we can save the agent’s own responsibility only by grounding it in an earlier stage, the necessitation of child by parent or early circumstances raises the identical spectre, but this time in a temporal context from which there is no escape to an earlier point of freedom in the agent’s lifetime.” (Broadie, 1991) The claim that the young cannot be practically wise because they lack experience with particulars and because they are led on by their passions serves as a further elaboration of some reasons why the young and the immature are excluded from the audience in Nicomachean Ethics book 1. Success in action crucially requires knowledge of particulars. This knowledge, however, requires experience in the actions of life, the sort of experience that perfects an agent’s own powers of moral judgment.

To conclude, in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle insists throughout that when it comes to acquiring virtue, it is crucially important, more important than the knowledge of universals, to have practical experience in the actions of life. Those who know the particulars have a better chance of acting well than those who simply know the universal, and the acquisition of virtue begins with the performance of the right actions. Because there is no science or set of prescriptive rules which can fully account for the variation that exists among particular practical situations, Aristotle places a great emphasis on the importance of experience and the development of an agent’s abilities to judge such matters for himself. Without the proper practical experience and without the training of one’s affective dispositions that comes from this experience, moral theories have little or no practical value.

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