29 September 2006

Freedom to Do Otherwise

Do you know why, when he wants to characterize the domain of human action, Aristotle describes it as "that the originating causes (ai9 a)rxai/) of which are capable of being otherwise"? Do you understand what he means in saying that the originating causes are capable of being otherwise? Here is the relevant passage from NE (1139a6-8):

kai\ u(pokei/sqw du&o ta_ lo&gon e1xonta, e4n me\n w|{ qewrou~men ta_ toiau~ta tw~n o1ntwn o3swn ai9 a)rxai\ mh_ e0nde/xontai a1llwj e1xein, e4n de\ w|{ ta_ e0ndexo&mena:

And let us set down that the parts of the soul that have reason are two in number: one being that by which we study those sorts of existents, the originating causes of which do not admit of being other than they are, and one being that by which we study things that do so admit.
(Presume for the second: both the originating causes, and the things caused, admit of being otherwise than they are.)

I ask because, it seems to me, the position that Aristotle takes on 'freedom' (or 'freedom of the will') is to be located principally here. The EE, indeed, is clear about linking an action's being 'up to us' with a human being's being an arche which is capable of being otherwise.

w3st' ei1per e0sti\n e1nia tw~n o1ntwn e0ndexo&mena e0nanti/wj e1xein, a)na&gkh kai\ ta_j a)rxa_j au)tw~n ei]nai toiau&taj. e0k ga_r tw~n e0c a)na&gkhj a)nagkai=on to_ sumbai=non e0sti/, ta_ de/ ge e0nteu~qen e0nde/xetai gene/sqai ta)nanti/a, kai\ o4 e0f' au(toi=j e0sti toi=j a)nqrw&poij, polla_ tw~n toiou&twn, kai\ a)rxai\ tw~n toiou&twn ei0si\n au)toi/. w3ste o3swn pra&cewn o( a1nqrwpo&j e0stin a)rxh_ kai\ ku&rioj, fanero_n o3ti e0nde/xetai kai\ gi/nesqai kai\ mh&, kai\ o3ti e0f' au(tw|~ tau~t' e0sti gi/nesqai kai\ mh&, w{n ge ku&rio&j e0sti tou~ ei]nai kai\ tou~ mh_ ei]nai. o3sa d' e0f' au(tw|~ e0sti poiei=n h2 mh_ poiei=n, ai1tioj tou&twn au)to_j e0sti/n: kai\ o3swn ai1tioj, e0f' au(tw|~.

The upshot: if in fact some existing things admit of being in either of opposing conditions, then any originating causes of these must be like that as well--since what is a consequence of things that are by necessity is also necessary (yet things that simply follow later admit of becoming either of two opposites). Now what is up to us human beings accounts for many things of that sort, and we ourselves are the originating causes of those sorts of things. The upshot: as regards those 'actions' of which a human being is the originating cause and determining cause, it is clear that they admit of coming into existence or not, and that it is up to him, whether these come into existence or not--as he determines whether they are to exist or not. But whatever is up to him, whether he do it or not, he himself is responsible for these; and whatever he is responsible for, it is up to him .
(By the way, this is the passage that immediately precedes the one that Meyer translates in her essay.)

(Also by the way-- and a concession I am forced to make!--the abbreviation of the NE VI = CB II passage above, e4n de\ w|{ ta_ e0ndexo&mena, is more understandable on the hypothesis that the argument of the EE passage is being presupposed.)

Now I will say something more about this in subsequent posts. But I also wish to criticize what Meyer writes along these lines. As you can see, she brusquely dismisses the view that Aristotle accepts some notion of 'freedom' (that would be to 'misinterpret' him), and I am wondering what her grounds are.

It will help to have her remarks before us. The passage in her essay is interlaced with lists of putatively supporting texts. I leave these out but will refer to them when they are relevant. It appears a long paragraph in the book, but Meyer's actual remarks are relatively brief:
Aristotle regularly indicates that actions that "originate" in the agent are "up to him to do or not to do"... . It is important not to misinterpret this expression as attributing to agents a kind of "freedom to do otherwise". To be sure, Aristotle thinks that our actions, like much of what happens in the world, are contingent rather than necessary: they "admit of being otherwise"... . Their contingent status, however, is not a result of their being "up to us to do or not to do." On the contrary, Aristotle takes the former to be a precondition of the latter. It is because such occurrences (a) admit of being otherwise, and (b) can come about "through us", that (c) they are "up to us to do or not to do"... . Rather than attributing freedom to agents, the "up to us" locution used by Aristotle implies causal responsibility. Such agents are in control (kurios) of their actions... ; they are responsible (aitioi) for them: "A person is responsible [aitios] for those things that are up to him to do or not to do, and if he is responsible [aitios] for them, then they are up to him"... .