Abstract–Aristotle’s Treatment of Force and Compulsion as Exculpatory Conditions for Moral Responsibility

Béatrice Lienemann

This paper explores Aristotle’s conception of responsibility in the Eudemian Ethics and the Nicomachean Ethics by focusing on one representative example:  his treatment of force and compulsion as exculpatory conditions. This case is revealing both for Aristotle’s specific views on the appropriate reactions to actions undertaken under conditions of force or compulsion and for his methodological approach to demanding questions on moral responsibility. Starting with Aristotle’s determination of clear cases of forced actions, the paper mainly investigates Aristotle’s analysis of intricate cases which he labels “mixed actions” due to the fact that they seem both voluntary and involuntary. He presents a typology of various cases that deserve different reactions and to which Aristotle gives answers some of which are certain and others more vague. The examination of the individual cases poses several challenges. First, it reveals important differences among the Aristotelian Ethics which leads to the question for what reasons Aristotle modifies his position. Second, the analysis of mixed actions provokes the interpretative question whether Aristotle recognizes so-called “dirty hands” actions (Walzer, Stocker), namely actions that are simultaneously “right, even obligatory”, but nevertheless “wrong and shameful”. Third, the case of actions done under overwhelming coercion that overpowers human nature induces particular problems because of Aristotle’s apparently inconsistent remarks. This paper is part of a larger project investigating Aristotle’s opinion about the conditions of moral responsibility and the application of his conception of responsibility to certain problematic cases mentioned in his ethical and non-ethical texts.



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