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Aristotle (384–322 BC)

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 18, 2018, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/aristotle-384-322-bc/v-1

20. Desire and voluntary action

Perception, appearance and thought are connected to goal-directed movement by means of desire. The appearance of something as desirable is the source of an animal’s tendency to pursue one sort of thing rather than another. External objects, however, appear desirable to different agents in different ways. Aristotle distinguishes the appetite (epithymia) that animals have from the wish (rational desire; boulēsis) that only rational agents have; appetite is for the pleasant and wish is for the good (On the Soul 414b2–6, 432b5–7, Politics 1253a15–18).

A rational agent’s wish differs from appetite in so far as it is guided by deliberation resting on one’s conception of one’s good. Such a conception extends beyond one’s present inclinations both at a particular time and over time. Rational agents are aware of themselves as extending into past and future. Deliberation that is guided by reference to these broader aspects of one’s aims and nature results in the rational choice that Aristotle calls ‘decision’ (prohairesis; Nicomachean Ethics III 3).

Agents who act on desire and appearance also act voluntarily (hekousiōs), in so far as they act on some internal principle (archē). While voluntary action is not confined to rational agents, their voluntary action has special significance, because it is an appropriate basis for praise and blame. Since it has an internal principle, it is in our control as rational agents, and therefore we are justly praised and blamed for it. We are held responsible for our actions in so far as they reflect our character and decisions (Nicomachean Ethics III 1–5).

Aristotle’s defence of his belief that we are appropriately responsible agents does not confront the questions later raised by Epicurus’ claim that responsibility is incompatible with the complete causal determination of our actions (see Epicureanism §12). An incompatibilist position is ascribed to Aristotle by Alexander in On Fate (see Alexander of Aphrodisias §4.) Aristotle neither explicitly presents an incompatibilist position nor explicitly endorses a compatibilist position of the sort later defended by the Stoics.

A discussion of time, truth and necessity (the ‘Sea Battle’; De Interpretatione 9) has suggested to some interpreters that Aristotle is an indeterminist. His opponent is a fatalist, who assumes that (1) future-tensed statements about human actions (for example, ‘There will be a sea battle tomorrow’) were true in the past, and infers that (2) the future is necessarily determined, independently of what we choose. Aristotle certainly rejects (2). If he accepts the validity of the fatalist’s argument, and rejects (1), then he accepts indeterminism.

An alternative reply to the fatalist would be to accept (1) and to deny the validity of the argument. We might argue that the past truth of statements about my actions does not imply that my actions are determined independently of my choices. If on Friday Socrates decides to walk, and he acts on his decision on Friday, then it was true on Thursday that Socrates would walk on Friday, and also true that on Friday he would act on his decision to walk, but it was not true on Thursday that he would walk whether or not he decided to (see Stoicism §21). Probably Aristotle accepts this alternative reply to the fatalist, and hence does not endorse indeterminism.

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Citing this article:
Irwin, T.H.. Desire and voluntary action. Aristotle (384–322 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/aristotle-384-322-bc/v-1/sections/desire-and-voluntary-action.
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