Aristotle on Impulsiveness, weakness and knowing what you are doing

If people can’t be held accountable for their actions, then there’s really no such thing as ethics. If “good’ and “bad” are really purely relative, then obviously moral codes or legal codes would simply be arbitrary systems and we could do anthropology or sociology or political science to understand why different groups made the arbitrary choices they did.

What Aristotle has argued so far is that people indeed can be held accountable for their actions when they know what they are doing, even if they don’t necessarily see all the consequences of their choices right off. Now we need to build on this and see if there’s anything else interesting going on ethically.

We humans in fact sometimes do what we know we should not and fail to do what we know we should. And according to Plato and Aristotle, the reason for these failures is the pursuit of pleasure – the satisfaction of our desires. We don’t always choose to pursue pleasure rather than what we are supposed to do, sometimes it can be involuntary – but then again we often succumb to pleasure even after deliberation.

Aristotle says the reason we sometimes choose to go for what is pleasant as if it is good and we avoid pain as if it is bad, is that pleasure often appears to be good even when it isn’t. In a word, the promise of pleasure fools us.

Lack of Self Control: Impulsiveness or Weakness

Understanding how we get fooled by pleasure that is only apparently good requires us to understand what self control is and why it sometimes disappears. Doing this requires having a solid grasp of what the emotions are and how they work to strengthen or undermine our deliberation and resolve. This is so important that failure to do so leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of ethics.

Aristotle explains that there are two ways a person can lack self control: impulsiveness and weakness. Impulsive people have a sensitive temperament and are hasty, irritable, intense and act without deliberation. They have a strong natural inclination to follow perceptual appearances (as we do when we are walking around thinking of nothing in particular) rather than waiting for reason to do its work. In Plato’s terms, these people are ruled by their spirit. In Homer’s terms, the thymos of people like Achilles is calling the shots for them. These people tend to find themselves acting without knowing what they should do. Weak people on the other hand, act after deliberation so they do know what they should do, but fail to stick to their conclusions. In Plato’s terms, these people are mastered by their appetitive part. Aristotle says that weak people are held in greater disdain than impulsive ones because they lose self control from a much more manageable state of emotions.

Aristotle and Phyllis

Legend has it Aristotle was seduced by Alexander's girlfriend. Was this weakness or impulsiveness?

So lets recap: humans can deliberate and therefore our actions can be voluntary. As long as we know what are doing we are acting voluntarily. So really, its largely up to us whether we are going to do what we believe to be the best thing to do in any given situation. But sometimes we don’t. We either get so riled up that we act without knowing what we are doing or we know what to do but chose not to do it because we think we’ll get more pleasure from doing something else. And if something is done unknowingly it is done counter-voluntarily.

But we still need to know whether emotionally based actions are voluntary or not.

Aristotle says all emotional actions are done knowingly. So that would mean that they are always voluntary. But you might recall that if something is done knowingly, it can’t be done out of ignorance. This might ring some alarm bells for you because after all, we do talk of people being “blinded by rage” or “made dumb by fear”. Yet at the same time we do punish people for acts committed under the influence of intense emotion, even if we do often consider the outcome to be mitigated somewhat by the presence of strong emotions (killing someone in a fit of rage for attacking your child or sibling is likely to get you much less of a sentence than calmly killing that same person weeks after the incident.)

So there’s a tension there in the common sense, practical ways we think of and handle emotional action. Aristotle wants to capture this tension rather than hide it and explain whether and how it is that emotional actions can sometimes be voluntary yet lacking in reasoning, at other times completely calculated, and still other times be completely uncontrollable.

The way he captures the tension and explains the three tiers of emotional action is by distinguishing two ways of being ignorant: You can act by reason of ignorance or in ignorance of something. Acting by reason of ignorance means choosing to act based on the wrong reasons. Acting in ignorance means you are literally not in a position to use knowledge you may have or ought to have. So if you had way to much to drink and then do something stupid, well your actions while so very drunk are done in ignorance of things you probably know. But if you choose to do something like buy a bunch of stuff you really can’t afford because “you deserve it”, yet you know you shouldn’t but you are rationalizing it with a mountain of B.S., you are acting by reason of ignorance.

Together Aristotle’s weakness/impulsiveness distinction and the two types of ignorance allow us to organically formulate a complicated, insightful distinction between emotions of greater and lesser strength and cognitive content. And thus Aristotle’s ethics has a well-grounded, intellectually legitimate, common-sense understanding of the emotions in ethics.

Taking all this together, we can see that Aristotle identifies for us two types of emotion:

Emotions that are rapid, strong and nearly impossible to overcome, those that get the best of us especially those of us who are quick tempered

Emotions that burn slowly, and are informed by reflection. A person should be able to either decline to follow them or bring their force in line with the conclusions of deliberation.

Aristotle knows that this is everyone’s basic stance since it is everyone’s general assumption that when issuing blame or praise, we ought to have more sympathy or at least understanding for those who due to emotional influence act unintentionally but voluntarily (voluntarily but w/o prior deliberation) and harm others than we do for those who harm others out of, e.g. drunk driving.

In the next post we’ll take on relativism and finalize the explanation for how we act good or bad with respect to the emotions.


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