[lit-ideas] Re: Inner Moral :Law

  • From: Robert Paul <robert.paul@xxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Wed, 03 Aug 2005 17:00:26 -0700

Eric Yost wrote:

The Greeks' view (including Aristotle and Plato) was that one did wrong thinking, mistakenly, that some good would come out of that wrongdoing. But here's Augustine saying he did wrong knowing that NO good would come from it, yet doing it anyway.

Plato, or Socrates thought this, but not The Philosopher. One of the so-called 'Socratic Paradoxes' is that no one knowingly does evil; vice is merely a species of ignorance.


'If then whereas we wish for our end, the means to our end are matters of deliberation and choice, it follows that actions dealing with these means are done by choice, and voluntary. But the activities in which the virtues are exercised deal with means. Therefore virtue also depends on ourselves. And so also does vice. For where we are free to act we are also free to refrain from acting, and where we are able to say No we are also able to say Yes; if therefore we are responsible for doing a thing when to do it is right, we are also responsible for not doing it when not to do it is wrong, and if we are responsible for rightly not doing a thing, we are also responsible for wrongly doing it. But if it is in our power to do and to refrain from doing right and wrong, and if, as we saw,1 being good or bad is doing right or wrong, it consequently depends on us whether we are virtuous or vicious. To say that

'None would be vile, and none would not be blest,'

'seems to be half false, though half true: it is true that no one is unwilling to be blessed, but not true that wickedness is involuntary; [5] or else we must contradict what we just now3 asserted, and say that man is not the originator and begetter of his actions as he is of his children. [6] But if it is manifest that a man is the author of his own actions, and if we are unable to trace our conduct back to many other origins than those within ourselves, then actions of which the origins are within us, themselves depend upon us, and are voluntary.

'This conclusion seems to be attested both by men's behavior in private life and by the practice of lawgivers; for they punish and exact redress from those who do evil (except when it is done under compulsion, or through ignorance for which the agent himself is not responsible), and honor those who do noble deeds, in order to encourage the one sort and to repress the other; but nobody tries to encourage us to do things that do not depend upon ourselves and are not voluntary, since it is no good our being persuaded not to feel heat or pain or hunger or the like, because we shall feel them all the same.

'Indeed the fact that an offence was committed in ignorance is itself made a ground for punishment, in cases where the offender is held to be responsible for his ignorance; for instance, the penalty is doubled if the offender was drunk,4 because the origin of the offence was in the man himself, as he might have avoided getting drunk, which was the cause of his not knowing what he was doing. Also men are punished for offences committed through ignorance of some provision of the law which they ought to have known…'

This is pasted from the Perseus.org website


This is the Rackham translation; I've removed footnotes, etc.; forgive my laziness in not running down another translation and typing it out myself.

There's another passage in the NE in which Aristotle replies to Socrates on the issue of whether every person believes he is acting under the description of some good or other.

Robert Paul
Reed College

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