Can Aristotle’s Theory of Action Account for a Mentally-Ill Serial Killer?

Aristotle’s theory of ethics states that the ultimate goal of all human action is happiness called eudaimonia — a state of fulfillment and success than an emotion for Aristotle. This is axiomatic — we all want a life of fulfillment and joy, and according to Aristotle, in order to live a happy life, one must live a life of action in accordance with reason and virtue. Since Aristotle is ultimately concerned with the decisions we make and the actions we carry out, and how they produce a happy life, we must understand when agents (individuals) are responsible for their actions. In Nicomachean Ethics Book III, Aristotle outlines what constitutes voluntary and involuntary actions, since we generally blame agents for their voluntary actions, and pity or pardon them for their involuntary actions. In this essay, I will reconstruct Aristotle’s argument concerning action, choice, and deliberation. I will then critique Aristotle’s argument by analyzing the case of Charles Whitman which I believe constitutes an exception, and finally offer a possible defense from Aristotle himself. Throughout this essay, it’s imperative to be cognizant of Aristotle’s distinctions and revisit them if necessary, as they can be extremely convoluted.

Generally, I find that Aristotle’s conceptions of action are agreeable on readily available and simplified classes of actions, but are simply incompatible with more labyrinthine cases, like that of Charles Whitman, the “Texas Tower Sniper.” This is because of the ambiguity in his definition of “voluntary action” and “internal,” a lack of clarity that manifests in his subsequent definitions of “deliberation” and “choice.”  Aristotle defines voluntary actions as those which people are personally responsible for, where the moving principle is within the agent — an internal source of motion (EN III. 1. 1111a). These acts are those we can assign praise and blame to. Involuntary actions are those with which we bestow pardon, “and sometimes also pity,” and an action is considered involuntary when it is done under the compulsion of some external force, where “nothing is contributed by” the agent, or through ignorance (EN. III. 1. 1109b-1110a).

Aristotle’s divisions of action from “St. George’s paraphrase (1897),” from

Aristotle’s first category of involuntary action is compulsion: an act carried out by some external force where the agent contributes nothing (e.g. being carried to a different location by a tornado). Actions under duress are thought to be similar to those under compulsion, but are defined by undergoing pain to escape some greater evil or pursue a nobler object: “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” (EN III. 1. 1110a). Cases of duress have the form of voluntary actions because they involve some degree of choice, but, in the abstract, have components of involuntary action since no one would choose the acts for themselves (EN III. 1. 1110a – 1110b).

Aristotle’s second category of involuntary acts, those of ignorance, has three specific variations which determine whether actions are involuntary or not: ignorance of universals (e.g. purpose, principles, etc.), ignorance of particulars (e.g. circumstances of a situation), and a state of ignorance (e.g. drunkenness, rage, etc.) (EN III. 1. 1110a-1111a).

Before covering the cases of ignorance, Aristotle states that actions resulting of ignorance do not fit the binary model established previously. If one is incapable of realizing the consequences of their actions, like in ignorance, the act can’t be voluntary, but if they are not pained by the outcome of the action, the act can’t be involuntary. Thus, we get the distinction that “everything that is done by reason of ignorance is not voluntary,” unless one is pained by the outcome (EN III. 1. 1110b). This third categorization of “not voluntary” is important to keep in mind for the remainder of this essay, as well as what constitutes voluntary and involuntary.

Aristotle determines that while many of us are ignorant of universals (e.g. what is good in life), this does not make an act involuntary (e.g. punching your friend in the face and claiming you didn’t know it was wrong does not make the act involuntary). The only ignorance which can be excused as involuntary is an ignorance of particulars: “the circumstances of the action and the objects with which it is concerned. For it is on these that both pity and pardon depend, since the person who is ignorant of any of these acts involuntarily,” (EN. III. 1. 1111a). For example, Hercules’s killing of his wife and children. When Hera fills Hercules with madness, it causes him to believe that his family members are his enemies, so he slays them all. Hercules killed his family out of ignorance because he was unaware of the actual circumstances; had he been aware of the true circumstances of his actions, he, presumably, would’ve acted differently.

Aristotle’s final category of ignorance is actions done in a state of ignorance (e.g. drunkenness or rage), which Aristotle claims is voluntary, because it is often the case that one induces themselves into such a state or haven’t sufficiently tempered themselves, so any acts that proceed from the state are voluntary. An example of such a case would be getting deliriously drunk and then driving. The consequences that follow are voluntary. If you become intoxicated through some involuntary circumstance (e.g. someone drugged you), then the act would be involuntary (EN. III. 1. 1110b-1111a).

Another illustration of Aristotle’s divisions of actions from R.W. Browne (1889), from

In the introduction, we defined voluntary action as an internal source of motion, but more specifically, for an action to be voluntary “the moving principle [has to be] in the agent himself, he being aware of the particular circumstances of the action” (EN III. 1. 1111a). In Chapter 2, Aristotle discusses the concept of choice, which “seems to be voluntary, but is not the same thing as the voluntary; the latter extends more widely. For both children and the lower animals share in voluntary action, but not in choice, and acts done on the spur of the moment we describe as voluntary, but not as chosen…  At any rate choice involves a rational principle and thought” (EN III. 2. 1111b- 1112a). The essence of what Aristotle is broaching is the process of deliberation, the production of the choices we make. The things we deliberate upon are real possibilities — things that can be “brought about by our own efforts… since the moving principle is in ourselves” (EN III. 3. 1112b). We deliberate about a course of action, and the product of our deliberation is the choice we make and action we eventually carry out.

Aristotle’s conceptions of choice, deliberation, voluntary and involuntary action appear satisfactory superficially, but when applied to a class of action where internalities impair the deliberative process by no choice of the agent, his distinctions are obfuscated. Such a case was raised by Professor Robert M. Sapolsky in his book Behave:The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst; Charles Whitman, the “Texas Tower” sniper, killed his wife, mother, and sixteen others from atop a tower at UT Austin. As Sapolsky states:

“In the prior year he had seen doctors, complaining of severe headaches and violent impulses (e.g., to shoot people from the campus tower). He left notes by the bodies of his wife and his mother, proclaiming love and puzzlement at his actions: ‘I cannot rationaly [sic] pinpoint any specific reason for [killing her],’ and ‘let there be no doubt in your mind that I loved this woman with all my heart’” (Sapolsky 33).

The expression of puzzlement is indicative of problems concerning what factors were influencing his action, and certainly, Whitman was aware of such a factor: “His suicide note requested an autopsy of his brain, and that any money he had to be given to a mental health foundation” (Sapolsky 33). Whitman’s autopsy revealed that he had a glioblastoma tumor pressing on his amygdala (Sapolsky 33). Awareness does not necessarily predicate control and this is true with many of our cognitive abilities. For example, sleep deprivation decreases cognitive abilities and often we are aware of our decreased ability to think, but this awareness, nonetheless, does not increase cognitive skills.

new ap photo dr dechenar
Dr. C. de Chenar using an image of the human brain to show the location of Whitman’s malignant tumor. From the Daily Texan

The question then is, was Whitman acting voluntarily, and if so, was it his choice? Under Aristotle’s definition of voluntary action, it would seem that he was acting both voluntarily and deliberately. Whitman’s actions were not done “in the spur of the moment” when he expressed puzzlement, indicating awareness, opposed to a state of unawareness in rage. The notes he left near his wife’s and mother’s dead bodies are also indicative of thought or self-awareness of what he was doing. Whitman’s actions couldn’t be considered involuntary because Aristotle defines voluntary action as when the moving principle is inside themselves (the agent). Whitman’s tumor, and subsequently, any biological processes, are internal. Whitman’s deliberative capabilities were hamstrung by an unwanted, uncontrollable cell growth that was inside him, but by no means produced by him deliberately. So, can we truly call his actions voluntary, seeing as he wasn’t responsible for the state of his being and had no capacity to control his deliberative capacities, like an involuntary state? Therein lies the issue with Aristotle’s definition of voluntary action: it is far too ambiguous to ascribe a case like Whitman’s to voluntary action, because he had no choice in the debilitation of his rational faculties.

We can elaborate on the difficulties of categorization by using Aristotle’s other distinctions. First is the case of ignorance of particulars (e.g. someone spiking your drink, putting you in a sort of state of ignorance), where the issue of internality appears again. The tumor itself is inside Whitman, thus making his actions voluntary according to Aristotle, since no external force acted upon him, but the tumor, like being drugged, debilitated Whitman’s rational capabilities. Both states are thrust upon the agent, not chosen, the only difference between tumor and drug is origin. Here, I think, is where a broader discussion of moral luck and free will comes into play. Whether or not we can be held responsible for the actions that proceed from us on account of our nature and nurture lies at the center of Whitman’s case. Nonetheless, for the time being, such a topic lies outside the scope of this paper and may be revisited in another.

Second is Whitman’s actions compared to a case of duress, specifically, where a tyrant forces an action upon you in order to save your family from death. This can be simplified to a limited number of courses of action that an agent must assess. In the case of the tumor, Whitman was simply unable to weigh the options — the tumor compromised his ability to assess courses of actions. If one’s deliberative process is hampered, can they still make a choice? Or, if an action proceeds from them with a debilitated deliberative process, can the action be considered a product of choice? This clearly isn’t the case, as the defining characteristic of choice is an “involvement of rational principle and thought.” Whitman’s ability to rationalize was impaired, similar to a state of involuntary drunkenness, but the impairment and the action are still coming from within Whitman — they are Whitman. Again, the locus of the impairment prevents us from categorizing Whitman’s actions as involuntary, but are similarly incompatible with voluntary action.

Charles Whitman in 1963 from Wikimedia Commons

We’ve shown that Whitman’s actions were neither voluntary nor involuntary, so what about not voluntary, Aristotle’s third categorization? Whitman’s actions weren’t ‘not voluntary,’ this is evidenced by the notes that he left “by the bodies of his wife and his mother, proclaiming love and puzzlement at his actions,” showing that he both understood the consequences of his actions (the puzzlement he expresses) and expressed remorse (his reassurance that he indeed loved both women) (Sapolsky 33). This elaboration displays how Whitman’s actions are unique, not fitting neatly into any of Aristotle’s categories.

As a rebuttal to my argument, Aristotle may conclude the tumor was, though internal to Whitman’s body, external to the rational soul or deliberative process, acting like a parasite that controls the host’s mind, making his actions involuntary. This defense would, in turn, narrow the definition of within and internal to those internal processes that are naturally part of and not willingly harmful to the agent’s rational faculties. A redefinition of voluntary, deliberation and choice would then follow from the new definition of what would constitute internality. Aristotle may narrow the definition of choice to action that proceeds from an undiseased, or otherwise unimpaired, deliberative process and rational principle without being of ignorance. These precise definitions would ameliorate similar issues of the same class (biological processes which people have no control over) that could be raised concerning classes of action.

The ambiguity of the terms “within” and “internal” is the source of the difficulties in assessing Whitman’s actions; it’s unclear what actually defines internal according to Aristotle. The definitions throughout this essay, literally inside the agent, establish the incompatibility between Aristotle’s categories of action and unique instances like Whitman’s. In order to resolve such a case, Aristotle would precisely define what internality might constitute and conclude that cases like Whitman’s tumor are really external circumstances (insofar as they are external to the rational soul) compromising the rational faculties of the agent, regardless of the fact that it resides within the agent. Thoughts and actions are not produced in a vacuum and in order to adjudicate responsibility, we must consider the influences that contribute to their production, both natural and nurtural in origin.





“One Second Before.” Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert M. Sapolsky, Penguin Press, 2017.

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