Agency and Responsibility in Aristotle's Eudemian Ethics

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I defend two main theses. First, I argue that Aristotle’s account of voluntary action focuses on the conditions under which one is the cause of one’s actions in virtue of being (qua) the individual one is. Aristotle contrasts voluntary action not only with involuntary action but also with cases in which one acts (or does something) due to one’s nature (for example, in virtue of being a member of a certain species) rather than due to one’s own desires (i.e. qua individual). An action can be attributed to one qua individual in two distinct ways depending on whether one is a rational or a non-rational animal. One is responsible for one’s action in both cases, but only in the former case is one also responsible for being the sort of individual that performs it. Aristotle also distinguishes two ways in which an action can be compelled while still being an action of the agent. In the first case, one is compelled by (physically) external forces or circumstances to act against one’s internal impulse. In the second case, one is compelled to act on (internal) impulses that are fixed by one’s nature against one’s own individual impulse. This latter kind of compelled action is only possible in the case of rational agents. Secondly, I argue that Aristotle’s conception of what it is to be a cause of an action inevitably brings in certain normative features which support evaluative judgments and the practice of praise and blame. On Aristotle’s view, any goal-directed behavior that is properly attributable to an individual is (normally) subject to standards that pertain to behavior of that sort. At the most basic level, these standards establish what counts as a successful realization of the goal that one aims at. Thus even in the case of non-rational animals (or children), one can judge the success of what they are doing and encourage (or discourage) similar behavior by praise or blame. These standards are applicable to one’s conduct simply insofar as one is the controlling origin (or efficient cause) of one’s action qua individual. In the case of rational agents the practice of praise and blame can involve a further normative layer since they can be praised or blamed not only for acting in a certain way so as to encourage or discourage them with a view to the future, but also for being – and having become – individuals of a certain sort. Nevertheless, the applicability of such evaluative judgments and of praise and blame is still warranted by one’s being the controlling origin of one’s actions qua the individual one is (in this case, qua rational individual).
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