02 October 2006

The Freedom Essential to a Rational Power

The propositions "p" and "~p" have opposite senses, but to them corresponds one and the same reality.

One could say, the denial is already related to the logical place determined by the proposition that is denied.

--L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4.0621, 4.0641

o( de\ lo/goj o( au)to\j dhloi= to\ pra=gma kai\ th\n ste/rhsin, plh\n ou)x w(sau/twj, kai\ e)/stin w(j a)mfoi=n e)/sti d' w(j tou= u(pa/rxontoj ma=llon.

-- Aristotle, Metaphysics Q.2.1046b7-8

I have been wondering whether we can ascribe to Aristotle the following argument as regards responsibility for action:
  1. It is impossible to formulate a rational judgment, without at the same time being able to formulate the negation of that judgment. (See above.)
  2. Thus, a rational power is of its nature a power which involves the capacity to do otherwise, as circumstances warrant. (See Q.2 passim.)
  3. The origin of human action (a)rxh\ pra/cewn) and of character is a rational power.
  4. Moreover, human action is operative in contingent matters, that is, in which there is an absence of prior necessitation.
  5. Thus, the origin of human action involves a capacity to act in either of opposite ways, as circumstances warrant, in the absence of prior necessitation --and this may aptly be called a "freedom to do otherwise".
That this line of thought is at work in Aristotle's account of the voluntary is, I believe, suggested by his curious appeal to affirmation and negation in the linchpin passage of his entire discussion:

1Ontoj dh_ boulhtou~ me\n tou~ te/louj, bouleutw~n de\ kai\ proairetw~n tw~n pro_j to_ te/loj, ai9 peri\ tau~ta pra&ceij kata_ proai/resin a2n ei]en kai\ e9kou&sioi. ai9 de\ tw~n a)retw~n e0ne/rgeiai peri\ tau~ta. e0f' h(mi=n dh_ kai\ h( a)reth&, o(moi/wj de\ kai\ h( kaki/a. e0n oi[j ga_r e0f' h(mi=n to_ pra&ttein, kai\ to_ mh_ pra&ttein, kai\ e0n oi[j to_ mh&, kai\ to_ nai/: w3st' ei0 to_ pra&ttein kalo_n o2n e0f' h(mi=n e0sti/, kai\ to_ mh_ pra&ttein e0f' h(mi=n e1stai ai0sxro_n o1n, kai\ ei0 to_ mh_ pra&ttein kalo_n o2n e0f' h(mi=n, kai\ to_ pra&ttein ai0sxro_n o2n e0f' h(mi=n. ei0 d' e0f' h(mi=n ta_ kala_ pra&ttein kai\ ta_ ai0sxra&, o(moi/wj de\ kai\ to_ mh_ pra&ttein, tou~to d' h}n to_ a)gaqoi=j kai\ kakoi=j ei]nai, e0f' h(mi=n a1ra to_ e0pieike/si kai\ fau&loij ei]nai.

Since, then, wish takes a goal as its object; and deliberation and choice have, as their object, things that contribute to a goal; then actions involving these would be governed by choice and voluntary. But actions which actualize the virtues involve these. Thus virtue, too, is up to us, and similarly also vice. The reason is that, in matters in which it is up to us to act, it is also up to us to refrain from acting, and in matters in which [it is up to us to say] ‘no’, also [it is up to us to say] ‘yes’. The upshot is that, if to act, when doing so is admirable, is up to us, so also to refrain from acting, when doing is disgraceful, will be up to us; and if to refrain from acting, when doing so is admirable, is up to us, so also to act, when doing so is disgraceful, [will be] up to us. But if it is up to us, whether we do admirable or disgraceful actions, and similarly whether we refrain from them; and this is what being a good or a bad person amounted to; then it is up to us, whether we are decent or bad persons (NE III.5.1113b2-14).

The idiom of "yes and no", I believe, appears nowhere else in the corpus. This is an unusual manner of speaking, and its use needs to be explained. Furthermore, one might think that that line could be left out of the above argument without loss. And yet Aristotle goes out of his way to include it. Why? It looks like a gloss which is meant to explain the power either to act or not to act, as the case may be. It locates human freedom in the nature of a rational power to be simultaneously open to affirmation and denial.