September 3, 2012

Aristotle on Choice

On page 129 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, he states that, "The irrational animals do not exercise choice, but they do feel desire and also passion. Also, a man of defective self restraint acts from desire but not from choice; and on the contrary a self restrained man acts from choice and not from desire." This passage is very perplexing to me because I have issues with his idea of what choice is. In my understanding of what Aristotle is saying choice is, he is saying that it is a voluntary act. But at the same time, he says that a voluntary act is not a choice. (p. 129) He says that the most common misinterpretation of Choice is when people couple it with Desire, Passion, Wish, or Opinion. So then what is choice? Is it the nature of the act and the effect it will produce?

During this whole section on Choice, especially when Aristotle says that animals do not have the ability to make it, I keep thinking of the time when I raised pygmy goats. Every morning when I went to feed them, I stored their grain in a metal trash can that was right outside their pen. As soon as I came to the door and unlocked it, the goats would rush out, sprint to the trash can, and flip the lid off with their lips. Now-they KNEW that I would  twist their ears when they did this because every time they made a run for the trash can, they ducked their heads out of my reach-even as they were stuffing their faces with grain. So, is this choice, or ignorant involuntary action? Or is it something else entirely?

Kari K


Joel Bergholtz said...

Aristotle claims that lower animals-as well as children-do not exercise choice, but act upon desire and passion. Barring this in mind, it would seem your goats would be giving into their own desire to eat the food. This desire is overriding the ability to have a choice of not eating the food out of respect. Because of the goats intelligence level, it is acting on desire (and/or passion).

One such reason Aristotle warns the reader not to couple choice with desire, passion, wish, or opinion is because desire and passion can be felt by levels of intelligence (the goat) that cannot make choices. The error to be made here is thinking the goat chooses to give in to his/her desire, or has any voluntary will at all(although this is more questionable). Opinion cannot be paired with Choice because one can have the correct opinions on things but still make poor choices.
If anything is clear about Aristotle's def. of Choice I find it in is his assertion that choice is based on things within our control. We make choices about the means, not the ends, because we can control the means and find different solutions to the end. This is where choice lies.
Of course, this is just my own understanding/interpretation.
Joel Bergholtz

rachel rivera said...

(I agree with Joel; his explanation made this passage make much more sense to me!)

I think that when Aristotle argues that lower animals and children are not capable of exercising choice, I agree that it's because of their intelligence level. Think of when you were younger: a lot of your choices were probably determined more by desire than by an informed choice; you acted out because your parents would not get you a toy you wanted and that was your passion flaring up whereas now that you're an educated adult, you would (I hope) never behave that way.

Then think about your goats - they have been warned time and time again (just like you probably were scolded as a child for acting out) not to rush towards the pen but unlike you, they have not grown out of that passionate stage. Because they are essentially acting out of their desire for food, that is their passion overriding the impending pain at being scolded.

So, to give my best interpretation of an answer to your first question, I think that choice becomes voluntary only when we have the mental capacity to control the outcome. He states that unless you're mad (or a lower animal), it's unlikely that you're ignorant to all the circumstances of his act (pg 125). Your goats cannot possibly be at the mental capacity to understand all of those circumstances - but you should be. There is the line between voluntary choice making and involuntary ignorance.

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