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Nicomachean Ethics   

something base, having one's parents and children in his power, and if
one did the action they were to be saved, but otherwise would be put
to death), it may be debated whether such actions are involuntary or
voluntary. Something of the sort happens also with regard to the
throwing of goods overboard in a storm; for in the abstract no one
throws goods away voluntarily, but on condition of its securing the
safety of himself and his crew any sensible man does so. Such actions,
then, are mixed, but are more like voluntary actions; for they are
worthy of choice at the time when they are done, and the end of an
action is relative to the occasion. Both the terms, then, 'voluntary'
and 'involuntary', must be used with reference to the moment of
action. Now the man acts voluntarily; for the principle that moves the
instrumental parts of the body in such actions is in him, and the
things of which the moving principle is in a man himself are in his
power to do or not to do. Such actions, therefore, are voluntary, but
in the abstract perhaps involuntary; for no one would choose any such
act in itself.
For such actions men are sometimes even praised, when they endure
something base or painful in return for great and noble objects
gained; in the opposite case they are blamed, since to endure the
greatest indignities for no noble end or for a trifling end is the
mark of an inferior person. On some actions praise indeed is not
bestowed, but pardon is, when one does what he ought not under
pressure which overstrains human nature and which no one could
withstand. But some acts, perhaps, we cannot be forced to do, but
ought rather to face death after the most fearful sufferings; for the
things that 'forced' Euripides Alcmaeon to slay his mother seem
absurd. It is difficult sometimes to determine what should be chosen
at what cost, and what should be endured in return for what gain, and
yet more difficult to abide by our decisions; for as a rule what is
expected is painful, and what we are forced to do is base, whence
praise and blame are bestowed on those who have been compelled or have
What sort of acts, then, should be called compulsory? We answer that
without qualification actions are so when the cause is in the external
circumstances and the agent contributes nothing. But the things that
in themselves are involuntary, but now and in return for these gains
are worthy of choice, and whose moving principle is in the agent, are
in themselves involuntary, but now and in return for these gains
voluntary. They are more like voluntary acts; for actions are in the
class of particulars, and the particular acts here are voluntary. What
sort of things are to be chosen, and in return for what, it is not
easy to state; for there are many differences in the particular cases.
But if some one were to say that pleasant and noble objects have a
compelling power, forcing us from without, all acts would be for him
compulsory; for it is for these objects that all men do everything
they do. And those who act under compulsion and unwillingly act with
pain, but those who do acts for their pleasantness and nobility do
them with pleasure; it is absurd to make external circumstances
responsible, and not oneself, as being easily caught by such
attractions, and to make oneself responsible for noble acts but the
pleasant objects responsible for base acts. The compulsory, then,
seems to be that whose moving principle is outside, the person
compelled contributing nothing.
Everything that is done by reason of ignorance is not voluntary; it is
only what produces pain and repentance that is involuntary. For the
man who has done something owing to ignorance, and feels not the least
vexation at his action, has not acted voluntarily, since he did not
know what he was doing, nor yet involuntarily, since he is not pained.
Of people, then, who act by reason of ignorance he who repents is
thought an involuntary agent, and the man who does not repent may,
since he is different, be called a not voluntary agent; for, since he
differs from the other, it is better that he should have a name of his

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