Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics Summary and Analysis of Book Three

Section 1:

Since only voluntary actions can be considered virtuous, it is necessary to examine what it means for an action to be voluntary. An involuntary action is something done by force or through ignorance. An action done through fear or for the sake of some noble deed is more voluntary than involuntary, although they are mixed. For an action to be involuntary, there must be some external principle causing the action and the person must not contribute anything to the action.

Section 2:

An action done through ignorance is not necessarily involuntary. If the person regrets the action which he did in ignorance, it was involuntary. But if he does not regret the action, it cannot be considered completely involuntary even if he did it in ignorance; we will therefore call it "nonvoluntary."

Section 3:

A voluntary action is one in which the agent of the action knows the particulars on which the action depends. An action performed through temper or desire is still voluntary.

Section 4:

Intention is crucial for virtuous actions and for judgment of character. Intention is not the same as volition, because non-rational beings can act with volition but not with intention. Intention is not a desire, a wish or an opinion. It is something previously deliberated upon, and is formed with reason or thought. [The Greek word which Aristotle uses for intention is "proaireton" which is compound verb literally meaning, "to choose before."]

Section 5:

People don't deliberate about matters over which they have no control, but rather about things which they themselves can do. We deliberate about things which are possible, which have an unclear outcome and in which there is something indeterminate. We deliberate about means, not about ends; deliberation occurs after an end has been posited and it is necessary to determine the means by which to achieve it. Thus not all inquiry is deliberation, but all deliberation is a type of inquiry. The object of deliberation is the same as that of intention, but the object of intention is the specific reason for which a person acts. Intention is a deliberate desire of things which are in our power to bring about.

Section 6:

The object of a wish is, in the unqualified sense, the good, but for each person it is the apparent good. For a virtuous man the object of the wish is the truly good, but for a bad man it may not be. A virtuous man judges things rightly. But the majority of people are deceived in their judgment of the good because of pleasure‹they consider the pleasant as equivalent to the good and the painful as equivalent to the bad.

Section 7:

Actions concerning the means to an end are in accordance with intention and are voluntary; the activities of virtues are also concerned with these things. Therefore virtue is also in our power, as is vice. It is unreasonable to think that only good is voluntary while evil is involuntary, for that would contradict our previous conclusion that human beings are the cause of their own actions.

Section 8:

Actions and habits are not voluntary in the same way, because in actions we are in charge of what we are doing at every step of the way, but in the case of habits we make a deliberate choice only at the beginning. Yet habits are still voluntary because one can choose whether to act or not to act in a certain manner from the outset.

Section 9:

Now we will discuss each of the virtues specifically. Bravery is the mean with regard to fear and courage. It is noble to fear some things, such as a bad reputation. Bravery regards the greatest of fearful things: death. But it concerns death only on the noblest occasions, such as war, in which the dangers are both the greatest and the noblest. A brave man is thus one who is fearless in facing a noble death.

Section 10:

One may err with regard to bravery by fearing what he should not, or by fearing something in an incorrect manner or at the wrong time. A brave man is one who faces and fears what he should for the right reason, in the right manner and at the right time. A brave man performs his actions for the sake of what is noble. Those who err by excess with regard to this virtue are called rash, but one who is exceedingly fearful is called a coward.

Section 11:

Thus bravery is the mean with regard to matters which inspire courage or are fearful. Dying to avoid poverty or pain is not bravery but cowardice.

a) Political bravery is the closest thing to bravery as we have defined it. It concerns people who face dangers to avoid legal penalties or for the sake of honor. It resembles what we have defined as bravery because it regards a desire of what is noble and a fear of that which is disgraceful.

b) Bravery is sometimes confused with experience and knowledge of warfare, but an experienced soldier may still be a coward.

c) Spirit is also often confused with bravery, but brave men act for the sake of what is noble and are helped along by their spirit. Right intention and right purpose need to be added to spirit for it to be genuine bravery.

d) Men who show courage because they are optimistic and they think they will win are not brave, because they do not act for the right reasons, and when the situation does not turn out well, they end up being cowards.

e) Men who are ignorant of danger are also not brave, but only appear to be so because they have no knowledge of the danger.

Section 12:

While the end of bravery is pleasant, the things that go along with it are painful and distressing. Not every virtuous activity is pleasant, except in the attainment of its end.

Section 13:

The next virtue we will discuss is temperance. Temperance is a mean with regard to such bodily pleasures that the animals also share, which are the pleasures of touch or taste. Some desires are common to all men, such as the desire for nourishment or the desire for a woman's love, although the particular type of food or the particular type of woman which a man desires varies according to the individual. Few natural desires are in error, and they err only the direction of excess. A man is intemperate when is he more pained than he should by the absence of pleasurable things.

Section 14:

The intemperate man desires pleasurable things and chooses them because they are pleasurable; he is pained when he fails to get what he desires. A temperate man is moderately disposed with regard to pleasures and pains. He loves such pleasures as right reason dictates.

Section 15:

Intemperance seems to be more involuntary than cowardice, because it regards choosing pleasure; intemperance is therefore more subject to reproach. The desiring part of the soul should not go contrary to right reason, just as a child should live according to the direction of his tutor. The desiring part of the soul should thus be in harmony with reason.


The premise of moral virtue is that human beings appear to be the cause of their own actions. It is in this light that we need to look at Aristotle's lengthy discussion of volition and intention. For if human beings act only as a response to external stimuli or even to internal stimuli such as desires, then there can be no such thing as virtue, nor can there be any such thing as culpability. If a person cannot truly cause his own actions intentionally and with volition, then it would make no more sense to reprimand a man for committing murder than to reprimand a bolder for falling from a cliff and crushing someone when it lands. Because it is possible to act voluntarily, moral virtue exists and is attainable.

Aristotle's emphasis on volition is also significant in contrast to Plato. For Plato, vice is the result of ignorance, and no one ever actually intends to do evil but only does so because he lacks knowledge of what is truly good. Aristotle, however, believes that evil can be done by intention, not only by ignorance. If everyone had full knowledge of the good, Plato thinks that everyone would act according to virtue. Yet knowledge is not a matter of volition or intention, and having knowledge of the good is not a matter of virtue, but rather a matter of intelligence and proper education. By positing that acting according to virtue concerns volition and intention rather than just knowledge, Aristotle makes moral virtue possible.

The first two virtues which Aristotle examines‹bravery and temperance‹concern the desiring or spirited part of the soul, for they deal with the natural aversion to pain and desire for pleasure. In both cases, the virtue lies in directing those natural fears and desires according to right reason. Thus one needs to show courage in the face of mortal danger in order for the sake of a noble end, such as defense of the city in battle. Likewise, one must moderate one's desires for food or sensual pleasure so that they remain in accordance with right reason, being used for their proper purposes. Animals also have these desires, but their desires are kept in order by instinct. Human beings, on the other hand, have the ability to reason and are thus supposed to moderate their desires in accordance with reason. For example, the purpose of the desire for food is proper nourishment and bodily health. This desire goes outside the bounds of right reason when a person is gluttonous, eating excessively and possibly damaging the person's health. Aristotle likens the desiring part of the soul to a child who needs to be guided and directed by a tutor or some other adult. Thus just as a child needs to be subject to his parents for his own good, the desiring part of the soul needs to be subject to reason for the good of the person.