I'm struggling to understand Aristotle's argument for moral responsibility. From what I could gather, he seems to claim that the cultivation of virtues comes out of habit and is our responsibility to "practice" their application, so that, as adults, we can better distinguish what is good from what is bad.

Since this is our responsibility, the fact that when we are adults we pursue bad ends and are ignorant as to what good means is morally blameworthy.

The textbook I'm using likens this ignorance state to the state of being drunk. In the sense that, one knows that while drunk our actions are done in a state of ignorance (unconsciously), however the fact that we are drunk in the first place is our fault, therefore all the "actions while drunk" are blameworthy.

This doesn't seem right though. Say, I have a poor education and I am not taught the right way, and so by no fault of mine have a very different notion of righteousness from what most people have. When I become a fully grown adult, I strive for bad ends, performing bad actions as means to those ends. Should I really be blamed for my actions?

3 Answers 3


A few thoughts on your question.

First, the specific concept of "moral responsibility" is foreign to Aristotle's ethics. But it's not completely foreign; instead, he's going to look at people and their actions in terms of praise and blame. He addresses voluntary action in BK III of the Nicomachean Ethics (hereafter NE). On his picture, ethical action must be voluntary choices built chosen freely and built on deliberation.

Second, Aristotle specifically mentions poor upbringings and bad circumstances in several places in the NE (for instance I.10). But these do not affect whether or not a given action is ethical. Similarly, as you note, Aristotle suggests that only someone who is raised well can act ethically on his account.

But it does not follow that someone who is not raised well or incapable of discerning the good is then excused from blame when they fail. To understand this, we need to recognize that Aristotle's ethical is not the same as Kant's moral. I'll skip over many of the details of Kant's views but a key feature for the purposes of this point is that "ought implies can." In other words, for Kant, everyone has the power to act morally but not everyone chooses to act morally.

Aristotle's picture is different. Sometimes we distinguish this by being careful about using "ethical" instead of "moral" (regrettably, these two terms are used in many different and confusing ways). But in Aristotle's case, the idea is this: the good action is the one that reflects correctly human nature and is the wisest action that mirrors this (building on the function argument in NE BK I.7). In other words, the standard is not whether you personally can do the action but rather what a human being trained and reasoning appropriately would do in those circumstances. If it is the case that you cannot do, then you will act badly (which for Aristotle means you will be blameworthy). In other words, his account lacks "ought implies can" and with this lacks any sense in which the inadequacy of one's circumstances or prior training legitimating or justifying a wrong action.

Aristotle makes this point explicit in NE BK I.8 (and again at I.13) where he maintains that to truly flourish, you will need (a) external goods and (b) proper upbringing. He repeats the point in BK VIII where he identifies friendship as necessary to our lives. Also, he thinks a certain political structure is necessary for human flourishing (BK IX).

In an answer to your specific worry,

Say, I have a poor education and I am not taught the right way, and so by no fault of mine have a very different notion of righteousness from what most people have. When I become a fully grown adult, I strive for bad ends, performing bad actions as means to those ends. Should I really be blamed for my actions?

For Aristotle, none of this abrogates (eliminates) blame. The fact that you're upbringing did not enable you to be ethical doesn't for Aristotle exempt you from the requirement to be ethical.

This is one of the harder points to accept in Aristotle and some contemporary virtue ethics seeks to soften this point, but Aristotle's own language is not ambiguous on this point.

Put another way, if the task of excellence were to be running a mile in 4:00, then there's only blame if the best you can do is 6:00 and no time to listen to your excuses about why you cannot do it.

This is harsh, but Aristotle's ethics doesn't have the same virtues as later Christian and post-Christian ethics. Mercy is not a key value of the ancient Greeks nor is allotment for disabilities or poor upbringing.

(In the above count, I've skipped over two things that I want to mention now.

First, the example with running a mile in 4:00 is not ideal -- but it's not ideal for reasons that are immaterial to answering the question here. One problem is that Aristotle's ethics are adaptive in that the mean is excellence with respect to your own nature, time, and circumstances. But, this does not mean that Aristotle adjusts this to the point where someone disabled is going to reach his bar of excellence.

Instead, it's something that raises a far more complex problem. Specifically, to know what is most excellent is something that is limited to the man of practical wisdom (phronemos), and those who are not phronemos are not going to be able to find the exact mean of excellence for action).

The second issue is that there's some question as to whether actions or people are the one's who receive praise/blame in Aristotle or how the two relate if both are involved (as they seem to be in his account).


  • I am unclear about your argument to the conclusion that Aristotle would find Anton Chigurh morally blameworthy. May 21, 2017 at 5:55
  • First off, the name "Anton Chigurh" doesn't occur in the question -- only in your answer. Second, maybe I was insufficiently clear, but for Aristotle, "ought implies can" is false. In other words, what you ought to do is what the ethical person (the phronemos) would do regardless of whether you had the environment necessary to cultivate the virtues. (There is some distinction, however, based on differences in abilities -- i.e. for instance if I'm 6' tall and you're 4'6" then expectations might differ but that's for the phronemos to explain to us).
    – virmaior
    May 21, 2017 at 6:30
  • Thanks. Follow up: If a proper upbringing is necessary, doesn't this mean that in his eyes bad people can never become good?
    – Scb
    May 21, 2017 at 8:42
  • As far as I read Aristotle himself, there's no recovery from a bad upbringing because of BK II.3 where Aristotle argues that only the phronemos takes pleasure and pain at the right things. The rest of us are to differing degrees able to take pleasure out of evil things or take pain ( not take pleasure) in good. Contemporary virtue theorists can and do of course differ from Aristotle on this point.
    – virmaior
    May 21, 2017 at 9:10
  • Thanks for the clarification of your position. I am shocked to see that you reduce Aristotle into a doctrinaire (Rawls is, ironically). I have been impressed by Aristotle's common sense, reasonableness in his work. The Aristotle that I know would respond with aporia to your example. Aristotle will not blame a physically handicapped person for being unable to meet the mark of 4.00 May 22, 2017 at 16:38

Sean Cobb's challenge to Aristotle is whether Anton Chigurh is morally responsible for his evil actions, given that his set of morality is qualitatively different from our common sense morality, due to his uncommon socialization. According to Aristotle, virtue or excellence is the outcome of conscientious habituation. A virtuous man not only tries to aim for the mark, but also is successful in hitting the mark. In a strange way, Chigurh does fit the descriptions of the virtuous man of Aristotle. Chigurh is excellent in what he is doing. He is determined, persistent, principled and restrained. Their only difference is the mark. The mark for Aristotle is the good; the mark for Chigurh is the outcome of a coin toss.

To Aristotle, ethics is an inductive science, built from given human nature and human society. He urges us to choose the good as the mark due to the human condition. For this reason, Aristotle maintains that, to be a moral agent, a person must have acquired correct moral upbringing. This can be why Aristotle called his book Nichomachian Ethics: his son is named Nicomachus.

Based on this interpretation of Aristotle's ethics, it seems that Aristotle must concede that Anton Chigurh is not morally responsible for his evil doing. Aristotle built his moral theory based on the old Western country, where the distinction between the good and the evil is self-evident. Our understanding of moral responsibility gets murky as the old country becomes no country for old men.


I am interested not in defending Aristotle, but in what Aristotle's reaction to the Sean Cobb challenge (his forth paragraph) might be.

Aristotle's virtue ethics is based on two items: excellence (perfection) and essence. To Aristotle, things exist for reason (or purpose). What is the purpose of knife? To cut things. Ergo an excellent knife is a sharp knife. Aristotle employs the same reasoning to human beings. What is the purpose of human existence? To live a good life (or happiness). How to live a good life? When a person is excellent in perfecting human essence. What is the essence for humans? The rational capacity. To Aristotle, when we use rational capacity we can realize that our actions must aim for the good. Aristotle admits that the realization is rather through experience (ergo, inductively).

From here, Aristotle can move on to say that a person is morally responsible if he is not in the causal chain of movements (i.e., when he has freedom to act differently) and when he knows what is the good and what is the evil.

Now, Anton Chigurh is a guy of excellence but ignorant of (Aristotelian) human essence, and subsequently the good. His ignorance is assumed to be not his fault. Since Chigurh is epistemically incapable, it seems to me that Aristotle must say that Chigurh cannot be morally responsible for his actions.

  • Aristotle called his book Nicomachean Ethics ... this is not substantiated. We call the book this. / I don't see any argument as to why Aristotle must concede that Anton Chigurh is not morally responsible for his evil doing ...
    – virmaior
    May 21, 2017 at 0:35
  • Thanks Virmaior for pointing out the seeming non-existence of argument in my first attempt! May 21, 2017 at 5:46
  • When you state What is the essence for humans? The rational capacity. This is actually a major point of contention in Aristotle studies. On a certain level you're right (see NE BK X), but if that's correct, then most of BK I-IX are a waste of time. A good (but dated) volume is Essays on Aristotle's Ethics edited by Amelie Rorty
    – virmaior
    May 21, 2017 at 6:36
  • Response on human essence: Scholars do disagree on Aristotle's human essence since Aristotle himself never says clearly what it is. It would be daring to say such a thing, as existentialists had said "Existence precedes essence." But Aristotle believes in human essence (informed by his metaphysics). I have wondered for years what it might be for Aristotle, and rational capacity (the ability to deliberate) has to be what he means. May 22, 2017 at 15:45
  • Response on wasted books: They are not, since Aristotle needs to respond to Plato, his frenemy Plato posited the world of the Good: thus Plato can easily preach people to choose the good. Once denying the existence of the Platonic world, Aristotle has to reconstruct this transient world so as to plant the Good in this world. This is why ethics become inductive science to Aristotle. Once we observe enough that good deed is rewarded while evil deed is punished, we can see that we should choose the good. Why we should choose the good is the most difficult question for any normative moralists. May 22, 2017 at 16:06

"Say, I have a poor education and I am not taught the right way, and so by no fault of mine have a very different notion of righteousness from what most people have. When I become a fully grown adult, I strive for bad ends, performing bad actions as means to those ends. Should I really be blamed for my actions?"

When you became a fully grown adult, what prevented you from redressing your educational deficits? It would have to be pretty significant to excuse your failure to do so.

  • This is a very common view in our era, but the question is about Aristotle. His reason for believing you cannot remedy the deficit is that an adult who was not educated well will enjoy things that are not function and and not enjoy things that are. (In other words, there signals are all crossed about what to do and not do). Thus, for this type of individual, the good will be a pain and the bad will appear pleasant but actually be harmful over time to them as a person.
    – virmaior
    May 26, 2017 at 0:49

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