The character of a human act that is free, i.e., performed with adequate knowledge of the circumstances and without necessitation from external forces. As with human freedom or free will, the concept of voluntarity includes both cognitive and appetitive factors. This article provides an explanation of the concept from the viewpoint of Aristotelian-Thomistic psychology and moral philosophy; for other views, see voluntarism; will; choice; determinism.
End of the Human Act. The specifically human act is one that proceeds from antecedent deliberation and without necessitation by forces outside the agent. As in the case of deliberation, choice bears formally on means rather than on ends. Some goods, it may be noted, are means from one perspective and ends from another; yet there is an overall good of human action, an ultimate end, that is only an end and must be loved and sought for itself alone. With respect to this end man is in one sense necessitated and in another sense not.
Each human appetite has the good for its end. This statement is true by definition. The good may be nominally defined as that which all things seek as perfective of themselves. Any good is sought or pursued as making up some lack or lacuna in the agent. Every human agent, insofar as to be a human agent implies having a mind and a will, cannot not seek its good. Aristotle held that verbal agreement could be achieved concerning the comprehensive good sought by man; for him, all men seek happiness. This is intended to be a purely factual or descriptive statement: to be a human agent is to direct oneself toward some end as perfective and as constitutive of happiness.
Unanimity is not so complete, however concerning where human happiness is to be found. Aristotle grouped these differences under three general headings, speaking of a life lived for pleasure, the political life, and the contemplative life. So too S. A. Kierkegaard attempted a classification of the goals that de facto define human lives in his notion of spheres of existence: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. In either case, attention is directed to the fact that men live their lives in many ways, that some men seek happiness in ends that differ from those sought by others. From this it would appear that, though no man is free not to intend some ultimate goal of action, men are free to choose what ultimate end they will.
This is not exactly true. Speaking generally and from the vantage point of philosophy, there is only one ultimate end that truly perfects the human agent. Aristotle's search for, and definition of, this end is classic and provides the basis for the following analysis (see man, natural end of).
Only a good commensurate with the agent can be perfective of the agent. For this reason the human good, human happiness, cannot consist in the activity of the vegetative faculties or in that of the sensitive faculties as such (see faculties of the soul). The specifically human function (ἔργον) is rational activity, and the human good consists in the excellence (ἀρετή) of that activity. Consequently, Aristotle observes, the human good must consist in excellent, or virtuous, rational activity. And since "rational activity" is ambiguous, covering both the activity of reason itself and the acts of other faculties insofar as they can be brought under the sway of reason, the excellences, or virtues, that constitute the good perfective of the human agent are either intellectual or moral.
To employ the schema of the cardinal virtues, man is not free to choose whether or not his happiness or perfection consists in prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. These can be considered as so many articulations of the end that, in the natural dispensation, is given man as alone perfective of him as a human agent. Deliberation and choice bear on the means to achieve, or realize, this end in particular acts. It is to this arena of deliberative choice that the concept of voluntarity applies.
The Voluntary Act. The concept of voluntarity arises when one asks, and this not simply theoretically but on the basis of experience, what is required if man is successfully to direct himself to the end that is naturally his. Once more man is not free to choose just any end as perfective of the kind of agent he is, anymore than he can constitute his own nature otherwise than as it is. But, unlike other cosmic agents, man must direct himself to the end he recognizes as his. He must choose, in the various and fluctuating circumstances in which he finds himself, the way in which he can achieve his good, or perfection. In order so to choose, he must be aware of his circumstances so that, given these, he can deliberate about and assess the best way to act here and now. The voluntary act is one that proceeds from such deliberation and involves a choice that is not necessitated by any external force.
The voluntary act is deliberate, flowing knowingly from a principle intrinsic to the agent. Since voluntary activity involves acting for an end, and since many animals obviously act for an end and with knowledge, the question can arise whether brutes are capable of voluntary activity. St. thomas aquinas, by distinguishing between a full, or perfect, knowledge of the end and an imperfect knowledge of the end, is able to distinguish between the perfect and imperfect voluntary act.
The voluntary in the full sense follows on a perfect knowledge of the end which is had insofar as one is able, once the end has been apprehended, to deliberate concerning the end and the means of achieving it and to direct or not direct himself to the end. A lesser sense of the voluntary follows on the imperfect knowledge of the end, which is had when the agent apprehends the end but does not deliberate, being immediately moved toward it. Hence the voluntary in the full sense belongs only to rational agents, while brute animals may be said to act voluntarily in a lesser sense of the term. [Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 6.2.]
Aquinas indeed maintains that every agent, whether cognitive or noncognitive, acts for an end (see finality, principle of). Yet it is the knowing agent who deliberates about the way to achieve the end, in his view, who has voluntarity in the full sense. One may dispute at length concerning the degree of, or approximation to, deliberation present in brutes, but for present purposes it suffices to note that voluntary activity is obviously found in the human agent.
A further point about the voluntary act can be made in terms of the traditional distinction between the elicited and commanded acts of the will. As the very term suggests, an elicited act is the act of the will itself, whereas the commanded act is the activity of a faculty other than the will that comes under the sway of will. Thus, just as acts can be rational either essentially or by way of participation, so too acts can be denominated voluntary either essentially or by way of participation.
Furthermore, it can be pointed out in the interest of clarification that sometimes inaction or not willing is said to be voluntary. A mark of the voluntary agent is that he has it within his power both to act and not to act; and although it is the positive action that first comes to mind when one speaks of the voluntary, the refusal to act, the refusal to will, can be praiseworthy or culpable—itself a sign that not acting too is sometimes voluntary.
Privations of Voluntarity. The nature of the voluntary act can better be seen by examining cases in which the voluntarity of an act is seemingly or really, wholly or partially, impeded, and thereby gives rise to what is known as involuntarity.
Violence. The most manifest privation of voluntarity is had when a human agent is subject to violence. Thus, if a person is taken forcibly where he does not wish to go, his going can hardly be described as voluntary. His activity proceeds not from his own inner powers but from outside forces. One can say that Igor went to Siberia; but, if one knows the circumstances, he may regard it as odd to attribute the trip to Igor without qualification. The whole thing may have been forced upon him and thus is not something he brought about; in this event, Igor has been reduced to the status of a thing.
Fear. Another privation of voluntarity, one to which Aristotle pays particular attention, is found in actions done through fear.
But with regard to the things that are done from fear of greater evils or for some noble object (e.g. if a tyrant were to order one to do 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. [Eth. Nic. 1110a 4–11.]
The very nature of the first case indicates that the assertion that human acts are voluntary cannot be equated with the unrealistic view that human action is easy. A man who acts treasonably because of a threat to loved ones in hostage may be performing an act that, in the abstract, he finds reprehensible and immoral; yet, in the given circumstances, he acts under a kind of suasion that is difficult to resist. One can, however, as Aristotle suggests, allow that there is an element of the involuntary in what he does, since by committing treason he is doing something that goes contrary to what he wills. On the other hand, since he is not powerless to act otherwise than as he does, it does not seem right to say that his action is unqualifiedly involuntary. Indeed, considered concretely, the action can be judged voluntary. In the case of the captain, one might say that he does not wish to throw his cargo overboard, and yet, in the concrete circumstances, this is just what he deliberately and voluntarily does. He is acting out of fear, and yet he chooses to do what he does.
The seeming harshness of this conclusion is alleviated when one takes account of the fact that fear may be so intense as to be productive of severe psychic disorder and that acts performed in such a state, whether of long or short duration, whether temporary or permanent, do not fully qualify as human acts. Even without this addendum, Aristotle notes that it is not easy to lay down rules for deciding which of two alternatives (voluntary or involuntary) is to be chosen, since particular cases do differ widely (cf. ibid. 1110b 1–8). When one takes into account fuller knowledge of the mountains of the mind, "frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed," the difficulties of laying down rigid rules for, or boundaries of, the voluntary increase enormously. However, and this must be insisted upon, the difficulties could not even be defined if one did not have certitude that there are human acts, and these by far the majority, that are unquestionably voluntary.
Ignorance and Nonvoluntarity. The human act proceeds from the deliberative will of the agent. In the case of violence or fear the agent is aware of what is going on; but his will is either utterly contrary to what is happening, or he is acting in conflict with what he wishes because of fear. Voluntarity can be absent from action because of ignorance as well. The following is Aristotle's analysis.
Everything that is done by reason of ignorance is non -voluntary; it is only what produces pain and repentance that is in voluntary. 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 nonvoluntary agent; for, since he differs from the other, it is better that he should have a name of his own. [Eth. Nic. 1110b 18–24.]
Pain and repentance are introduced here as signs of the involuntary, since for Aristotle they indicate that what has happened is actually contrary to what the agent wills. Something done without awareness and that, when recognized, does not cause pain and regret cannot be said to be contrary to the wishes of the agent. Nevertheless, because the agent did not know what he was doing, his act cannot be called voluntary either. So Aristotle suggests that one call such a man a nonvoluntary agent to indicate the negation of deliberative action but not the privation of his desires.
Culpable Ignorance. Aristotle raises the question whether, since violent activity is such that its cause is wholly outside the agent without any assent being given by the agent, one may say that the pleasurable object does violence to the agent and thus that actions performed under its influence are involuntary. The objection is hardly serious, but it becomes the occasion for introducing a necessary distinction with respect to the way in which one can act without knowledge. "Acting by reason of ignorance seems also to be different from acting in ignorance; for the man who is drunk or in a rage is thought to act as a result not of ignorance but of one of the causes mentioned, yet not knowingly but in ignorance" (ibid. 1110b 25–30). Aristotle goes on to say that wicked men in general are ignorant of what they ought to do; one must here be aware of his variation on the Socratic contention that to know the right thing is to do it and that, consequently, not to do the right thing is to be ignorant.
Aquinas adds somewhat to Aristotle's reasoning:
One who like the incontinent man acts because of concupiscence loses sight of his original desire, which would repudiate what he now desires, since he has changed and now desires what earlier he would have repudiated. Therefore, what is done out of fear is in a certain sense involuntary, but that which is done because of concupiscence is in no way so. For the incontinent man, under the influence of concupiscence, acts contrary to what he at first wished but not contrary to what he wishes now. [Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 6.6 ad 2.]
A man who, because of moral weakness, does something contrary to what he earlier and generally knew he ought to do ignores the knowledge he has when he acts. In that sense he is acting through ignorance, an induced ignorance thanks to which he does not actually consider what he ought to do in this particular case. In short, in every instance of wrongdoing there is a failure of knowledge; and, in the case of the incontinent man, this failure is a result of concupiscence. But the ignorance involved is responsible and culpable; moreover, because at the moment of choice nothing contrary to the will of the agent is involved, such acts can scarcely qualify as involuntary.
Innocent Ignorance. What kind of ignorance, then, makes an act involuntary? It is useful at this point to invoke the Aristotelian analysis of fortune, or chance, because it is possible to link the involuntary act resulting from ignorance and bad fortune, on the one hand, and the nonvoluntary act and good fortune on the other. One says that something has come about by fortune, or luck, when an agent who is acting to achieve a given goal unwittingly brings about an effect he did not intend, which is accidentally connected with what he intends and which relates to him as good or evil. Thus, a man who digs a well and discovers a buried treasure has come upon something he did not expect to find, which he cannot count on finding when he digs a well and which, being found, puts him in a state of high elation. In short, the example is one of good luck. Since the man in the example did not set out to find the treasure, his finding of the treasure can hardly be called voluntary. However, since the finding of it does not go contrary to his wishes, one cannot say he acted involuntarily. Consequently, one can apply to the agent who luckily brings about a beneficent result Aristotle's notion of nonvoluntary agent. In the case of bad luck, however, it is more appropriate to speak of the agent as acting involuntarily. Thus, one who drives home with caution and circumspection and hits a child who darts into the street brings about a result he did not intend, which is rare and unexpected and exceedingly painful to him. This is not the sort of thing he wants to do. Since it goes contrary to his will, this act must be classified as involuntary (cf. Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 76.3). Thus, not every instance of acting in ignorance is a case of the involuntary act due to ignorance, but only one bringing about a painful or evil effect that is contrary to the wishes of the agent.
Human Responses to Voluntarity. It is useful, in speaking of types of voluntarity, to consider human responses to the acts involved, for these are often signs of the differences one seeks to explicate. In the case of acts performed in fear, people praise the man who, despite his fear of painful consequences, does the right thing. In the case of a man who, out of fear, does the wrong thing, and this does not outweigh to any great degree the harm he fears, their tendency is to forgive and pardon. However, if the evil done is completely out of proportion to the evil he fears, they are more severe and, in many cases, condemn the act outright. Pity they reserve, Aristotle suggests, for a man caught in the plight of the tragic hero. Such a one unwittingly brings about a tremendous evil, one that goes massively contrary to his wishes. The tragic consequence, though not intended, though proceeding from no culpable defect of knowledge, is so great that the man involved may feel the need to make expiation. The witness can only pity such a man. He will feel, as Aristotle puts it in the Poetics, pity and fear. The fear arises from the recognition that men are all subject to such eventualities, that their occurrence illuminates something essential about the human situation.
There is, as already noted, a range of deeds that are responsible and voluntary; it is extremely important to insist on this. But at the same time that one asserts that man is, within the range of such deeds, the master of his destiny, a free agent, one must also take into account that there is an encompassing darkness, a perpetual possibility of results of choice that man can neither foresee nor intend. In many cases such unintended effects introduce surprise and joy into men's lives; in many other cases they cause sorrow and pain, evils that escape the canons of morality because the actions in question are involuntary. Grievous misfortune is one example of the limit-situations of which Karl Jaspers speaks. It is when, in lived experience, men are brought face to face with the limitations on their freedom and responsibility that they find their attention inescapably drawn to ultimate questions.
See Also: morality; circumstances, moral; habit.
Bibliography: m. j. adler, ed., The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, 2 v. (Chicago 1952) 2:1071–1101. a. carlini, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (VeniceRome 1957) 4:1687–91. a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50) 15.2:3300–09. j. a. oesterle, Ethics: The Introduction to Moral Science (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1957). r. zavalloni, Experience of Voluntary Activity (Milan 1955).
[r. m. mcinerny]
"Voluntarity." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/voluntarity
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