29 October 2005

What Makes an Action 'Mixed'?

What's the difference, if any, between these two cases?

1. A captain wants to sail to Piraeus. A strong wind blows his ship --there's nothing he can do about it--toward Aegina instead. So he capitulates and steers the ship safely into the port of Aegina.

2. A captain wants to bring his cargo safely to Piraeus. A violent storm arises which will sink the ship unless --there's nothing he can do about it--he has the ship's valuable cargo thrown into the sea. So he does that and saves the ship.

In both cases, there is something that will happen, no matter what the captain does: in case 1, the ship will go toward Aegina; in case 2, the cargo will end up at the bottom of the sea. In both cases, too, the captain acts to make that inevitable result happen faster. And yet--or so Flannery wished to claim--Aristotle classifies or would classify the two cases differently. Case 2 is a 'mixed action'; case 1 is merely 'forced'.

Are the cases significantly different? If so, how?


Anonymous said...

If I understand the account of NE III.1, the captain’s jettisoning his cargo is called “mixed” because though he chooses and performs that act—unlike an involuntary act—it is an act that no sane man would choose except under threat of death. When the only alternative to doing x is a course of action that will cause your death ( or some other terrible harm), Aristotle feels the need to distinguish your coerced choice and doing of x from a paradigmatically voluntary choice.
Your Case One seems to me different from what Aristotle has in mind as a paradigm of involuntary action. Imagine a trireme in a winter gale, demasted and perhaps with its rudder fouled. Whatever the captain does will make no difference, his ship is going where the gale blows it, if not to the bottom. But in your example, the captain remains in control of ship and just gives up fighting a headwind he can’t beat. The course he takes to Aegina is the one he chooses and accomplishes. He remains free, note, to continue his Sisyphean battle with the headwind, though eventually he will be blown to Aegina. But for the fact that the captain is not coerced in his choice by any terrible harm, I think Aristotle would call his choice & actions “mixed.”

Anonymous said...

I don't believe that there was a choice in case 1, in that the principle of the action was independent of the captain. He did steer his ship, but he did not control the direction of the ship by choice, he merely adjusted the direction so that he ended up in the actual port of Aegina. If you look at the final outcome, the captain was forced to go to Aegina, and nothing he did would have changed his overall direction. However, as pointed out, in the second example the dire circumstance was forced on the captain by the storm, but he was free to make the choice to overthrow the cargo (a choice that he would only have made in dire circumstance). In case 1 the captain was forced into an action (taking his ship to Aegina), but in case 2, the captain was forced to make a choice about which action to take. It seems that the distinction lies in that both were forced, but one case was an entirely forced action, and the other case was a forced call to action.

Anonymous said...

In Michael's Case One, the captain cannot know that the headwings will not abate if he continues to fight them. Headwinds do quit suddenly & unpredictably. Maybe he thinks it's improbable that the winds will subside, but still, from his perspective, he has the choice of continuing to try for Piraeus or of giving up and running for Aegina. His choice to quit, a voluntary one I think, stems apparently from his assessment that the probability of successs and risks of persisting are unacceptable.

Wes DeMarco said...

Both Father Flannery's analysis and that of the anonymous reviewer lean on the element of choice to mark the difference between voluntary and involuntary in mixed actions. That is natural enough, and fine, up to a point. However, isn't the issue the *voluntariness* of mixed actions, and not simply whether they are chosen? The voluntary is, after all, the genus of choice. If an act is chosen, it is voluntary, but if it is not chosen, it still may be voluntary.

In the two seafaring cases, what distinguishes between the case of the pilot diverted (by the wind let us assume) into an unintended port and the case of the pilot who throws goods overboard is not choice. (The diverted sailor has a sort of choice, if only the choice not to foolishly resist the wind.) The difference has something to do with control, but it is the kind of control that is at issue. Whether it is voluntary control or not will emerge with the pertinence or impertinence of praise or blame.

I want to say that in these mixed cases, the pertinence of praising or blaming functions as a criterion (in something like Wittgenstein's sense, without the implication of the irrelevance of a theoretical supplement) of voluntariness. The normative element, I want to argue, is indispensable. Moreover the pertinence of praise or blame cannot in the central cases follow merely as a conclusion from facts about whether choice is involved or not. (Plus, as I noted above, ‘choice’ is too narrow to capture whether something is voluntary anyway.)

Dogs and kids can be coerced. An account of coercion that rests solely or primarily on choice and a conception of non-per-se-goods (as did Father Flannery's) will fail to capture this fact. Aristotle’s account, which leans on the action’s having an internal source and its being the appropriate object of praise or blame, *can* account for it. Dogs and kids can also be praised and blamed. A good explanation of coercion, or actions-under-duress, in Aristotle should apply to dogs and kids and therefore take stock of the full domain of the voluntary. An appeal to praise and blame as criteria of voluntariness, criteria that are ineluctably normative, can help us to see this.

P.S. One may object that Aristotle’s examples focus on human choice (I have 3.1 in mind; the 5.8 discussion does have a narrower scope). But these examples are apt, given the purpose of the Ethics to understand the good achievable by human action, and the fact that cases of choice are more clearly cases of the voluntary than other, more marginal examples. I believe we should not be misled by these examples to suppose that choice is the issue, instead of voluntariness which is the real issue. The situation is comparable to Kant’s *Grundlegung*, where the main examples of duty involve opposition to desire. This choice of examples has misled some commentators to believe that genuine duty is essentially opposed to desire and must resist desire—the desire for happiness, for instance. But this is not the view. The view is that duty is indifferent to desire and happiness as a sum of hedonic satisfactions, not opposed to it. Kant picked the examples because they made the contrast between duty and desire more sharply. Similarly, Aristotle’s examples may be there not to lead us to focus on choice and a conception of good, but rather to provide a sharper contrast.

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