25 September 2006

Aristotle on the Voluntary

I'm moving on to discuss Susan Sauvé Meyer, "Aristotle on the Voluntary." Today I'll simply raise some questions about a passage in the Eudemian Ethics.

Meyer begins her essay by claiming that Aristotle wishes to discuss voluntariness for two reasons, which are of unequal importance to him. The less important reason, she says, is that legislators need to be clear about which actions are voluntary and which are not: "legal sanctions are aimed at influencing behavior", Meyer comments, "and hence they are pointless if they are directed at actions that are not voluntary."

(Aside: Is this true? E.g. legislation imposing 'strict liability' is "directed at actions that are not voluntary"--or, rather, it is directed at voluntary actions qua not voluntary--and yet it seems to have a point.)

The more important reason is that "voluntariness is a necessary condition of praiseworthiness and blameworthiness".

(Aside: Is this really a distinct reason? Aren't legislative rewards and punishments, in Aristotle's eyes, simply a structured and public means of assigning praise and blame? And aren't praise and blame simply private forms of rewarding and punishing?)

In any case, Meyer supports these comments by citing a passage from EE (1223a9-18), which is my object of concern today. Here is the translation she provides (pp. 137-8):

[1] Since virtue and vice and their products are praiseworthy and blameworthy, ([2] for one is blamed and praised ... because of those things for which we are ourselves responsible) [3] it is clear that virtue and vice concern those actions for which one is oneself responsible [aitios] and the origin [archē]. So we must identify the sorts of actions for which a person is himself responsible and the origin. Now we all agree that he is responsible for his voluntary actions...and that he is not responsible for his involuntary ones.
I have inserted numbers for some of the claims. Meyer comments on this passage: "These [sic] and other passages indicate that Aristotlle investigates voluntariness because he is interested in the causal conditions of praise and blame. It is important to understand just what kind of causal relation Aristotle takes voluntariness to be. A voluntary action, he assumes, is one whose origin (archē) is in the agent" (138).

Here is the Greek, with corresponding insertions:
[1] e)pei\ d' h(/ te a)reth\ kai\ h( kaki/a kai\ ta\ a)p' au)tw=n e)/rga ta\ me\n e)paineta\ ta\ de\ yekta/ [2] ye/getai ga\r kai\ e)painei=tai ou) dia\ ta\ e)c a)na/gkhj h)\ tu/xhj h)\ fu/sewj u(pa/rxonta, a)ll' o(/swn au)toi\ ai)/tioi e)sme/n: o(/swn ga\r a)/lloj ai)/tioj, e)kei=noj kai\ to\n yo/gon kai\ to\n e)/painon e)/xei), [3] dh=lon o(/ti kai\ h( a)reth\ kai\ h( kaki/a peri\ tau=t' e)stin w(=n au)to\j ai)/tioj kai\ a)rxh\ pra/cewn. lhpte/on a)/ra poi/wn au)to\j ai)/tioj kai\ a)rxh\ pra/cewn. pa/ntej me\n dh\ o(mologou=men, o(/sa me\n e(kou/sia kai\ kata\ proai/resin th\n e(ka/stou, e)kei=non ai)/tion ei)=nai, o(/sa d' a)kou/sia, ou)k au)to\n ai)/tion. pa/nta d' o(/sa proelo/menoj, kai\ e(kw\n dh=lon o(/ti. dh=lon toi/nun o(/ti kai\ h( a)reth\ kai\ h( kaki/a tw=n e(kousi/wn a)\n ei)/hsan.
About the translation: Clearly there is sloppiness in the use of ellipses. Also, dia/ gets carried over, perhaps inappropriatedly, to o(/swn au)toi\ ai)/tioi e)sme/n. But, more importantly, I wonder if 'their products' isn't an undertranslation (for ta\ a)p' au)tw=n e)/rga), and 'those actions' isn't an overtranslation (of tau=ta).

About the argument: Claim [2], since it is a gar clause, presumably supports [1]. But then we are presumably meant to infer [3] directly from [1], yet it's certainly not 'clear' how that should follow. I grant that [3] is clearly true, but it is so on its own; and, if we needed [2] in support of [1], wouldn't we need it even more so in support of [3]?

About the passage: I generally subscribe to the view that Aristotle should be read backwards. Thus I would take the last line of this passage (left out in the translation) to be illuminating what comes before: "virtue and vice fall within the class of voluntary things". Yet, if so, doesn't the passage have a rather different upshot from what Meyer suggests? --since it would be advancing (or perhaps only adumbrating) an argument about the voluntariness of states, not of actions.