Superphysics Superphysics
Chapter 1

Volutary and Involuntary Actions

by Aristotle Icon
4 minutes  • 743 words

Virtue is concerned with the regulation of feelings and actions.

Praise and blame arise upon such as are voluntary, while for the involuntary allowance is made, and sometimes compassion is excited,

We must distinguish between what is voluntary and what involuntary.

This is certainly useful for legislators, with respect to the assigning of honours and punishments.

An action is either voluntary or involuntary at the time of doing it.

Involuntary actions are of two kinds:

  1. Done on compulsion

This is when the origination is external to the agent. In it, the agent contributes nothing. This is like wind blowing you anywhere, or men having power over your person.

  1. Done by ignorance.

But when actions are done, either from fear of greater evils, or from some honourable motive, then it is not automatically totally voluntary or involuntary.

For instance, if you were ordered to commit a crime by a despot who held your parents hostage, and they would die if you refused to do it.

A similar question arises with respect to cases of throwing goods overboard in a storm.

No man throws away his property willingly. But when it is needed for his own and his shipmates’ safety anyone would do it.

Such actions are of a mixed kind, but are most like voluntary actions.

They are choice-worthy when they are being done, and the end or object of the action must be taken with reference to the actual occasion.

now in the given case the man acts voluntarily, because the originating of the motion of his limbs in such actions rests with himself; and where the origination is in himself it rests with himself to do or not to do.

Such actions then are voluntary, though in the abstract perhaps involuntary because no one would choose any of such things in and by itself.

But for such actions men sometimes are even praised, as when they endure any disgrace or pain to secure great and honourable equivalents; if vice versâ, then they are blamed, because it shows a base mind to endure things very disgraceful for no honourable object, or for a trifling one.

For some again no praise is given, but allowance is made; as where a man does what he should not by reason of such things as overstrain the powers of human nature, or pass the limits of human endurance.

Some acts perhaps there are for which compulsion cannot be pleaded, but a man should rather suffer the worst and die; how absurd, for instance, are the pleas of compulsion with which Alcmaeon in Euripides’ play excuses his matricide!

But it is difficult sometimes to decide what kind of thing should be chosen instead of what, or what endured in preference to what, and much moreso to abide by one’s decisions: for in general the alternatives are painful, and the actions required are base, and so praise or blame is awarded according as persons have been compelled or no.

What kind of actions then are to be called compulsory? may we say, simply and abstractedly whenever the cause is external and the agent contributes nothing; and that where the acts are in themselves such as one would not wish but choice-worthy at the present time and in preference to such and such things, and where the origination rests with the agent, the actions are in themselves involuntary but at the given time and in preference to such and such things voluntary; and they are more like voluntary than involuntary, because the actions consist of little details, and these are voluntary.

But what kind of things one ought to choose instead of what, it is not easy to settle, for there are many differences in particular instances.

But suppose a person should say, things pleasant and honourable exert a compulsive force (for that they are external and do compel); at that rate every action is on compulsion, because these are universal motives of action.

Again, they who act on compulsion and against their will do so with pain; but they who act by reason of what is pleasant or honourable act with pleasure.

It is truly absurd for a man to attribute his actions to external things instead of to his own capacity for being easily caught by them;[1] or, again, to ascribe the honourable to himself, and the base ones to pleasure.

So then that seems to be compulsory “whose origination is from without, the party compelled contributing nothing.”

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