Summary of Nicomachean Ethics Book III

Part I: Voluntary Action

Spontaneous and Involuntary

Compulsory action is said to be that that originates outside of the agent. A rock, for instance, never acts from an internal principle to move away from the center of gravity of the earth, but must be thrown, for example, to move upward. This principle of movement obviously comes from outside the agent. Such action is said to be involuntary. Action that begins from within the agent, however, is in the power of that agent (at least to some extent) and, in an intellectual subject, is said to be voluntary. It is voluntary action which is our subject in ethics.

Voluntary Action and Merit

Returning to the example of the rock, we do not blame a rock when it hits us in the head, but rather the person who threw the rock at us. This is in keeping with the principle of voluntary action, and it is voluntary action that deserves praise or condemnation. Even when, say, a snake bites us, we may attribute (in a way) voluntary action to the creature, and be upset at the snake for biting us, we still do not see the snake as having acted in an immoral manner, but rather recognize its action as in keeping with its [determined] nature. Not so, the human that bites us, for being an intellectual creature, the latter has true voluntarity to its action.

Involuntary and Ignorance

Of course, ignorance can change the voluntary character of an action. If the same human bit my finger, but thought he had grabbed his chicken fingers, then I may be upset (and my finger may throb), but I also recognize that his action was not morally evil in the way I would claim if he bit my finger on purpose. However, if the same person often bit peoples’ fingers, repeatedly making a similar mistake, we could certainly say that he has a moral duty to check what he is eating before biting into it. His ignorance may not be completely without personal fault. Not all ignorance cancels out moral responsibility, but only ignorance that cannot be (at east reasonably) helped.

Definition of Voluntary

So the definition of the voluntary seems to be ‘that which the agent himself originates in such a way that the agent knows the individual circumstances that concur with the action.’


Choice and voluntary are not identical, but choice seems to be a species of the voluntary. Choice means that the decision between alternative options (and simply ‘not to act’ is a viable option) are known and considered. Choice always has to do with the means toward and end, and we choose by pondering and then deciding to achieve our intended end in one way or another.


We take council so as to make sure our choice aligns properly with it being voluntary, for as we said, we want to know the individual circumstances that concur with the action, and to know the truly best (that is, ‘good,’ in keeping with our true nature and true end) option to take. We take counsel especially in the practical arts, and in ethics most specifically, because there are no simple formulas, but as ethics is much like an art, many options in almost infinite different circumstances will exist in which we must apply the objective principles of moral science.

Object of Willing

The object of willing is the good. But, in each circumstance, and for the particular individual willing some action, the apparent good is the object of willing. It is necessary, for this reason, to seek counsel (whether from others or at least in personal reflection) so that the true good and the apparent good rightly align. This is what Aristotle says that ‘the virtuous person correctly passes judgment on each individual thing and in each case what appears to him is truly good.’

Aristotle wraps up the first half of this book by making clear that virtue and vice are within our power. He then goes on to refute other errors, such as the thought that no one is voluntarily evil (which overly emphasizes the intellect and disregards the will in moral education) and that we have no faculty of the cognoscitive good (but the true good and apparent good for each man does not mean that the true good is subjective).

Part II: Moral Virtues


‘A man is called brave principally because he is not afraid of death for a good cause nor of all emergencies that involve death.’

False Fortitude

True fortitude does not involve the actions of the daredevil or the uncontrolled actions that stem from wrath, because fortitude, like all virtues, must be in keeping the truly good and undertaken voluntarily and with right reason.


Temperance is a mean dealing with pleasures, and this virtue pertains primarily to the sense of taste and touch, inasmuch as these same senses are those that least set us apart from all other animals (remember, our concern is ultimately that we are intellectual creatures, and our end as man is in keeping with this). ‘Temperance and intemperance then have to do with such pleasures as the other animals have in common with man. Hence gratifications of touch and taste seem to be servile and brutish.’

Part III: Personal Reflection

I spoke the least on fortitude above, but want to reflect on it briefly here. When we read Josef Pieper on fortitude, he emphasizes the fact that this virtue really does pertain primarily to a willingness to die in battle, and he also emphasizes the patient suffering of the martyr as the way we most clearly see (graced) fortitude.

I think of fortitude in its relation to the Christian life, and its special relation to the sacrament of Confirmation. Confirmation makes us soldiers of God.  It has been variously designated a making fast or sure, a perfecting or completing, as it expresses its relation to baptism. It is, after baptism, the next Sacrament of Initiation.  But what does it do?

“Now it has been said above (1; 65, 1) that, just as Baptism is a spiritual regeneration unto Christian life, so also is Confirmation a certain spiritual growth bringing man to perfect spiritual age. But it is evident, from a comparison with the life of the body, that the action which is proper to man immediately after birth, is different from the action which is proper to him when he has come to perfect age. And therefore by the sacrament of Confirmation man is given a spiritual power in respect of sacred actions other than those in respect of which he receives power in Baptism. For in Baptism he receives power to do those things which pertain to his own salvation, forasmuch as he lives to himself: whereas in Confirmation he receives power to do those things which pertain to the spiritual combat with the enemies of the Faith.” (Aquinas, ST III, Q.72)


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