Background information: Aristotle writes, “Since virtue and vice and the works that are their expressions are praised or blamed as the case may be…it is clear that virtue and vice have to do with matters where the man himself is the responsible source of his actions. We must then ascertain just what are the actions of which he is the responsible source” (24). Once again, Aristotle wants to dive deeper into these topics to achieve a greater level of specificity—what exactly does it mean to be responsible for ones actions? Aristotle combines the notion of voluntariness and choice related to responsibility.
Voluntariness is defined as something that one does that they had the power not to do. In other words, it is thoughtfully thinking about your actions and why you do them. But he classifies it further by stating that, not only does something have to be within one’s power, they also have to know what they are doing. For example, if a doctor hurts someone by prescribing a certain medicine, that action is only described as voluntary if the doctor knew they were hurting their patient. If they were in error, they cannot be blamed for it morally. However, Aristotle quickly clarifies this by describing different kinds of error. If the doctor was in error because they goofed off in medical school, or if they misdiagnosed the problem because they didn’t feel like taking the time to properly understand it then they still could be considered culpable. So if an action is made unknowingly, the action was involuntary and therefore not morally blameworthy. However, if the lack of knowing was the result of a voluntary action, than the error may still be considered voluntary and morally blameworthy. This works in terms of praise as well. If I give my friend poison, thinking that it will hurt them, and it somehow helps them, my action is not morally praiseworthy because I did not know what I was doing.
Voluntariness also means that the action was not made under coercion. If someone grabs my hand and hits someone with it, that action was forced and therefore involuntary. Likewise, if I am threatened with punishment unless I do something unjust I am being coerced and my action could be considered involuntary. Although, Aristotle admits that this is harder to justify. What if the threat is less bad than the outcome of the commanded action? Is it still involuntary? For example, if my boss threatens to fire me unless I murder someone, obviously getting fired is not as bad as getting killed and therefore if I choose to kill it would be considered voluntary.
Aristotle is quick to qualify that if the coercion was a result of a voluntary action, than the coerced action may be voluntary. For example, if I voluntarily join a gang which then coerces me to do something unjust, can that action be considered involuntary? Does this work in the positive? If I choose to surround myself with people who force me to make good decisions, am I praiseworthy for these decisions?
So voluntariness needs to be within one’s power, knowledgeable, and not coerced. But Aristotle is concerned also with choice. What relationship does choice have with the voluntary? Aristotle describes it first in this way: everything that is chosen must be voluntary, but not everything that is voluntary is chosen. Again, Aristotle starts with common assumptions and reformats them. He spends quite a lot of time disregarding each one of them in turn and concludes that choice must be a product of all three. He defines choice then as “belief plus desire when these follow as a conclusion from deliberation” (34). And this therefore is voluntary, which means within our power, within our knowledge, and without coercion.
I need to clarify however, that deliberation is not something that can often be done in the moment. When confronted with a decision, we don’t usually have the luxury of deliberation. Remember that virtues, while being rational operate as states of character within the non-rational part of our soul. Choice then is not to be understood in the moment but in terms of our entire lives. Deliberate choice means taking the time to reflect on who we want to be and how we want to become that way. So a virtuous person acts not only within their power, and knowledgeably about what the outcome will be, and without coercion, but also does it for the right reasons, as part of a deliberative choice to be a person that is good. Virtue is more than just knowing what is right but doing what is right and doing it for the right reasons. And if we accept this argument, it’s extremely important for biomedical ethics. It is important to spend time now deciding what kind of person you want to be, what the good life actually is, and what kind of actions will reflect that life. That way, when confronted with situations in the future, you are acting out of a deeply reflective attitude. In this way, you can have confidence that your decisions are the best.
Journal question to be answered: Explain how virtues will directly affect how a medical professional practices their work. (150 words)