Free Will in the Nicomachean Ethics

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Free Will in the Nicomachean Ethics: Aristotle’s Account and Defense of Human Freedom
(Written for a class on the Nicomachean Ethics taught by Hillsdale College’s Dr. Arnn)

            In the Western tradition, the debate over free will is one of the most important and contested issues that has been, and continues to be, discussed in philosophy. This is especially true in the Judeo-Christian worldview wherein a person is believed to be held accountable for their right or wrong actions. The justice system assumes that a person is responsible for anything wrong that they have done. And we bestow honors upon people as if they chose to do something good or noble. However, the question remains whether or not a person truly did choose their course of action, or if that course of action was determined by external factors over which they had no control. In other words, we must ask whether a person could choose to knock over a line of dominoes, or if in making their choice they were essentially nothing more than a “domino” being acted upon.

Long before today’s determinists and free-will-libertarians, Aristotle set out to answer this fundamental question in philosophy since doing so is foundational to his arguments in the Nicomachean Ethics. The Ethics primarily discusses “the good” of things, and what it means to be a good human being. For Aristotle, to fulfill the full telos of a human is to live a life of “being at work” in accordance with virtue by reason. These virtues are the means between extremes. For example, courage is the mean between cowardice and rashness. As a person is deliberately at work in accordance with virtue, their ethos, or their character, becomes virtuous. Once a person becomes virtuous they can live a happy life (assuming that external circumstances such as health and government allow it). Happiness is the ultimate end because we do all things for the sake of happiness, and we do not seek happiness for the sake of anything else. However, if a person could not deliberately choose to act virtuously, then their ability to shape their character would be eliminated as would most of the key points in Aristotle’s ethics. A person who could not choose to act virtuously would never be able to pursue happiness, deserve honor, or deserve punishment. Without free will, the great souled man (a man who deserves honor and knows that he deserves honor) would be no better than a criminal since both were nothing more than dominos in the timeline of reality. Aristotle is not unaware of this issue, so he gives one of the most exhaustive accounts of freedom in ancient philosophy. By defining and contextualizing the ideas of will, choice, deliberation, and restraint Aristotle constructs a tenable account of free will.

Any discussion of freedom would be incomplete without an account of will. Whether I pick up a cup, and whether I pick up a cup willingly are entirely different things because I could be forced to pick up the cup.  Aristotle breaks down a person’s level of willingness into three categories: willing, unwilling (or forced), and non willing. A willing act is one in which the source of the action is internal to the doer, and one understands the circumstances surrounding the action. An unwilling, or forced, act is one wherein the source of the action is external to the doer and a person is not fully aware of the circumstances surround their actions. A classic example of an unwilling act would be wind carrying someone off because the source of the action would be external to the person being blown by the wind.

Of course, things are not always this clear. For example, we could consider Aristotle’s analogy of men on a ship in the middle of a storm who must throw their cargo overboard to survive. Without mitigating circumstances, throwing the cargo overboard would be an unwilling act. However, the men would be more willing to throw the cargo overboard in that situation since this would be in accordance with their desire for survival (and ultimately happiness since one obviously needs to be alive to be happy). Therefore, such an instance would be mixed between willingness and unwillingness since circumstances external to the men caused them to act, but they still acted out of their own desire for something else.

But what happens when someone does something out of ignorance? Aristotle says that a person who acts out of ignorance is in no way willing since they did not know what they were doing. However, they are not necessary unwilling either. A person is unwilling if they were ignorant and they feel the need to repent of whatever it is that they did. If a person feels no remorse for their actions, then we call them willing. Aristotle draws another distinction concerning ignorance by differentiating an act that is done on account of ignorance from an act that is done while being ignorant. For example, it is different to act out of ignorance in the sense that one is drunk than in the sense that one does not know what is good. Aristotle claims, “Now every bad person is ignorant of what one ought to do and what one ought to keep away from, and on account of being in error in such a way people come to be unjust [30] and generally bad…”[1]

It is important to note the full philosophical implications of that statement because in taking it to its logical consequences, it almost seems as though Aristotle refutes any significant idea of free will. If every bad person acts only out of ignorance of what one ought to do, then the inverse statement would be that a good person acts because of knowledge of what one ought to do. Furthermore, no good person could choose to do the wrong thing, nor could an ignorant person choose the good thing because they do not know what the good thing would be. This seems problematic in it implies that a certain level of knowledge or lack thereof causes people to act rightly or wrongly if Aristotle’s claim is true. Of course, that would completely defeat Aristotle’s hopes of defending free will.

The answer for this dilemma comes when Aristotle confronts the idea that a person could never take credit for doing a good thing because if they knew what the good thing was then they would have no choice but to pursue it. He says, “But if someone claims that things that are pleasant or beautiful are sources of compulsion (for they exert force while being external), everything would be forced according to that person, since everyone does everything for the sake of these ends.”[2] Aristotle acknowledges the challenge, and he responds by saying:


Also, those who act by force and are unwilling act with pain, while those who act on account of what is pleasant and beautiful do so with pleasure. And it is ridiculous to blame external things but not oneself, for being easily caught by such things, and to take credit oneself for beautiful deeds but blame the pleasant things for one’s shameful deeds. So it appears that what is forced is that of which the source is from outside, while the one who is forced contributes nothing.[3]


In one of the most important sentences in the book regarding free will, Aristotle points out how silly it is to “blame external things” for being “caught up by something.” Aristotle appeals to the idea of desire. A desire for something is strictly internal. Desires can be appealed to, but they still belong to the owner. Aristotle then reminds the reader that an unwilling action is one wherein the source of the action is external. However, desire is internal and it is what moves us to pursue things that are good. Therefore, the choice to pursue that which is good is a free choice.

One could still make the argument that it is desire that determines an action in a person, therefore the action is not really free. This is ridiculous. Desire is simple a description of what a person wants. Saying that a person is forced to do what they want makes no sense whatsoever because it is what they want to do

Therefore, a knowledge of the good does not force a person to choose something. It shapes their desire, which is internal. However, to a degree, a lack of knowledge of the good does inhibit a person’s ability to choose. But because they are still following their flawed, internal desires, even this person is acting freely. Ultimately, will has to do with the end that a person desires.

We have established that a person can willingly do things as opposed to being forced to do everything by some external influence. However, this does not entirely account for freedom in the philosophical sense. A person can willingly do something; however, that does not necessarily mean they have a choice to do it. Similarly, a person can wish to do something but not do it or do something which they do not desire (which would be an example of a lack of self control versus self control). Aristotle describes several things which can be confused with choice, but are not. He begins by saying, “Those who say that choice is desire, or spiritedness, or wishing, or some sort of opinion do not seem to speak rightly. For choice is not shared by irrational beings, while desire and spiritedness are.”[4] He goes into greater detail about how wishing is not the same thing as choosing since one can wish for but not choose impossible things. An example of this would be immortality.  Next Aristotle argues that choice is not the same as opinion. This is because, “…there seems to be opinion about all things, and no less about things that are everlasting or things that are impossible than about things that are up to us; and opinion is divided into the false and the true, not into the bad and the good, while choice instead is divided into the latter two kinds.”[5] Choice is a moral thing whereas opinion is an intellectual thing. An opinion is praised for being true, whereas, a choice is praised for being good.

Having thoroughly described what choice is not, Aristotle moves into describing what he believes choice is, and that is deliberation. Aristotle transitions into this argument by writing:


It [choice] is obviously something willing, but not everything that is willing is something chosen. But might it just be one that has been deliberated about first? For choice is involved with reason and thinking things through. And even its name seems to give a hint that it is something taken before other things. [6]


Aristotle appeals to man’s sense of reason as the faculty which allows for him to deliberate upon things. Having put forward the idea that choice is deliberation, and establishing that deliberation has to do with reason, Aristotle sets out to describe what deliberation actually is. He creates a distinction between things that a crazy person would deliberate upon and things upon which a normal person would deliberate. He writes, “Now no one deliberates about everlasting things, such as the cosmos, or about the diagonal and side of a square, that they are incommensurable; but neither does one deliberate about things that are in motion but always happen according to the same pattern, whether by necessity or else by nature or by means of some other cause, such as solstices and the risings of stars…”[7] The reason people would not deliberate upon these things is that they have no control over them. No matter how reasonably someone would like to change the cosmos, they will not be able to so it does them no good to deliberate upon the idea. It is clear that, “…among human beings, each sort deliberates about the things to be done by its own acts.”[8] Aristotle also points out that people cannot deliberate upon “the precise and self-contained kinds of knowledge, such as about letters (for we are not in doubt about how something ought to be spelled)…”[9] The point is that we deliberate upon things that are under our control and are uncertain because these are the only times we would need to deliberate upon things. For example, a doctor might deliberate upon a certain treatment for a patient because he needs to apply his sense of reason to the potential outcomes for his patient.

It is also important to know that when a person deliberates, they do not deliberate about ends. Rather, a person deliberates about the means to an end. Aristotle makes this very plain in writing:


We deliberate not about ends but about the things that are related to the ends, for a doctor does not deliberate about whether he will cure someone, nor a rhetorician about whether he will persuade, nor someone holding political office about whether he will produce good order, nor does anyone else deliberate about ends, but having set down the end, they consider in what way and by what means it would be the case.[10]


Aristotle continues on to say that when a person has thought of several means to an end, he will deliberate upon which of these will bring about the end “most easily and most beautifully…”[11]

Having decided upon the best course of action, a person will deliberate upon the steps necessary to attaining their end. They will typically think of things from the end to themselves, and once they have decided what they must do then they have chosen it. This, then, gives a solid foundation for an idea of free will. Our will guides us to an end since we desire things that will ultimately bring happiness, and by deliberation through reason we choose the means by which we will attain what we desire.

However, there are times where a man’s desires do not match what he has reasoned to. For example, reason may tell a man to be virtuous, but his base desires, which he knows are base tell him to do something different. This leads us to Aristotle’s discussion of self restraint. The idea of self restraint is the final critical piece in discussing philosophical free will. Without self restraint, we would be slaves to whatever desires we may have regardless of whether they are base or virtuous. Restraint is a necessary complement to reason which leads a man to do things which may require some displeasure for the sake of greater happiness. An example of this would be fear in the middle of a battle. A man may reason to believe that he ought to act bravely but not rashly. However, his base desires may tell him to be rash in battle. It is self restraint and endurance that would allow such a man to fight his base desires.

Now this raises the dilemma that it would be impossible for a person who knows what is good to do something otherwise since they would know that goodness brings them happiness, and nobody does anything that would not bring them happiness. If such a person were to act wrongly when they had knowledge of what was good, then it could be said that their knowledge was a slave to something else such as passion, and Socrates refused to accept such an idea.[12] Instead, Socrates proposed that a person could do wrong only out of ignorance of what the good thing would be. Before resolving Socrates’ challenge to the idea of restraint, Aristotle raises a second challenge to restraint which is that a person could exhibit self restraint in following poor reasoning which would cause them to act wrongly. Or, a person could display a lack of self restraint after deliberating upon a bad choice, and, by being unrestrained, do a good thing.

The answer to this second dilemma is simple: restraint or a lack thereof is amoral. It could be a good or a bad thing depending on a person’s ability to reason. What is far more important for Aristotle, however, is whether or not knowledge can be controlled by passion (passion being considered the natural power that could override knowledge). Aristotle claims that unrestraint is not due to passion overcoming knowledge. Instead, unrestraint is due to poor reasoning with the knowledge a person has (such as a chess player forgetting a pawn could take his queen while he got distracted by looking at other pieces on the board) or they could arrive at the wrong knowledge by fault of their senses. Aristotle claims:


For it is not when knowledge in the governing sense seems to be present that the experience of unrestraint occurs, nor is it this that is dragged around by passion, but a knowledge involving sense-perception. So about its being someone who knows or not, and how, while knowing, it is possible to behave without restraint, let it have been discussed to this extent.[13]


This resolves Socrates’ dilemma concerning self restraint. A person will still follow what they believe to be true. However, even with proper knowledge, an unrestrained person can reason poorly due to his base desires. A person could decide something, then perceive something different which, having not properly reasoned, leads him to make a different choice. For example, a man could decide not to place a bet at the horse races, but when he arrives at the track he sees a horse that he is certain will win the race. So with this new information in mind, whether correct or not, he goes against his prior deliberation and decides to bet on the horse.

With this emphasis on knowledge, a determinist could raise the objection that free will is still an illusion since we are slaves to whatever we believe. However, this line of logic is self defeating. If it is true, then the determinist would have no choice but to believe his own determinism and they would have no way to verify their beliefs. Aristotle’s account of free will is far more tenable given that it does not entirely rely upon knowledge since it also considers desire. Because we desire the good, we follow what we believe will bring us happiness. This brings us full circle to Aristotle’s discussion of willingness and how desire for the good is an internal thing.

Having considered will, choice, deliberation, and restraint we may now fully see Aristotle’s account of freedom. Will guides us towards the good (even though our desires may be misleading), choice allows us to follow or not follow that desire, deliberation is the logical process by which we make a choice, and restraint determines how well we are able to stick with our choices. Volumes more could be written on various challenges to free will. However, Aristotle’s account has stood the test of time as one of the most effective defenses of human freedom. He accounts for everything from our internal desires to our ability to make choices, and how it is we have liberty to do that by our own volition.

[1] Aristotle (2012-07-12). Nicomachean Ethics (Focus Philosophical Library) (Kindle Locations 1382-1383). Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] (Kindle Locations 1369-1371)

[3] (Kindle Locations 1371-1374)

[4] (Kindle Locations 1416-1417)

[5] (Kindle Locations 1429-1431)

[6] (Kindle Locations 1440-1443)

[7] (Kindle Locations 1446-1448)

[8] (Kindle Locations 1452-1453)

[9] (Kindle Locations 1454-1455)

[10] (Kindle Locations 1461-1463)

[11] (Kindle Locations 1464-1465)

[12] (Kindle Locations 3434-3435)

[13] (Kindle Locations 3524-3526)

Kyle Huitt
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Kyle Huitt

Part of the multitude that has lost their faith, but part of the few that has returned to it. This blog is my attempt to describe why I returned to the faith, and to maybe prevent somebody else from leaving it in the first place. Studying philosophy and history at Hillsdale College. Member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
Kyle Huitt
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