Skip to main content



Involuntarity is the privation of voluntarity; a characteristic of acts performed through ignorance of the circumstances or under compulsion. The voluntary act is one performed with an adequate knowledge of the circumstances and without external restraint or force. Any deficiency in the relevant knowledge, any compulsion from outside forces, thus deprives an act of its voluntarity.

The act done under compulsion may be defined as one whose source is outside the agent and to which the agent contributes nothing. One who is seized and borne away against his wishes, who is compelled to go where his captors take him, is not held responsible for such activity. Acts done in fear present more difficulties. The captain who, out of fear of sinking, orders his cargo to be thrown overboard cannot be said to be doing what he wants to do, at least not without qualification. He certainly does not want to lose his cargo. He does, however, want to save ship, self, and crew; and if the jettisoning of the cargo is the sole means of securing the ship, then in these precise circumstances he does voluntarily jettison his cargo. aristotle speaks of such acts as mixing voluntarity and involuntarity; he suggests that, considered concretely, acts done out of fear are voluntary. [see force and moral responsibility; force and fear (cannon law)].

Not every ignorance deprives an act of its voluntarity. St. thomas aquinas distinguishes three kinds of ignorance: concomitant, consequent, and antecedent (Summa theologiae, 1a2ae, 6.8). (1) Concomitant ignorance does not necessarily render an act involuntary, as in the case of a man who wants to kill his enemy and does kill him while mistakenly thinking he is shooting a bear. Since the result, when he discovers it, does not go contrary to his desires, he can hardly be said to have acted involuntarily. (2) One can desire ignorance in order to escape

responsibility. For example, one who has difficulty with purity may choose not to inform himself of his obligations lest the knowledge hamper his activities. So too one whose disordered appetites prevent him from thinking of what he knows he should do ignores the moral dimensions of his situation. In both these cases, ignorance is consequent upon freedom and does not make the acts done in such ignorance involuntary. (3) The kind of ignorance that makes acts involuntary is antecedent and innocent; when one is unaware, for example, that his target is not an enemy but a comrade. A sign that he has acted contrary to his wishes is the sorrow and anguish that follow upon the shock of recognition.

(For bibliog. see voluntarity; human act.)

[r. m. mcinerny]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Involuntarity." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 22 Apr. 2019 <>.

"Involuntarity." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (April 22, 2019).

"Involuntarity." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved April 22, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.