In Nicomachean Ethics Book 3, Aristotle states that a certain type of involuntary action that arises through ignorance of a particular can be exonerated. However, I believe that Aristotle is short-sighted in his notion, particularly in cases concerning sexual assault. Sexual assault is a heinous crime and is not only underreported but also under prosecuted. As history indicates, our society continually pardons those who commit sexual assault. In my paper, I will argue that involuntary actions that arise through ignorance of a particular cannot always be exonerated, especially in the actions of perpetrators of alcohol-related sexual assaults.
To begin, Aristotle notes that there are three types of actions. A voluntary action is one in which the action arises in the agent, and the agent is aware of the particulars (NE III 1, ?§20). This definition is analogous to consensual sex because both parties are aware of the particulars, and they both willingly participate. In contrast, sexual assault is defined as any type of sexual activity or contact that one does not consent to (Sexual Assault). In Aristotelian terms, sexual assault is analogous to an involuntary action. This is because an involuntary action is one in which the action arises through force or by ignorance of the particulars (NE III, 1 ?§3). For the sake of my argument, I will focus on involuntary actions that arise through ignorance. According to Aristotle, involuntary actions caused by ignorance of the particulars allow both pity and pardon (NE III 1, ?§15). These particulars include: who is doing it; what he is doing; about what or to what he is doing it; sometimes also what he is doing with it (NE III 1, ?§16).
Additionally, Aristotle says that there are borderline cases where involuntary actions and voluntary actions are mixed. He states that in these mixed cases, the action is more voluntary than involuntary because the action itself would not be pursued without qualification (NE III 1, ?§6). Mixed actions mirror the grey areas of alcohol-related sexual assault. A case of alcohol-related sexual assault would be considered partly voluntary because the agent engages in an intemperate action or a desire for sex. The particular actions are the results of his appetite and desire, and so they are voluntary (NE III 12, ?§4).
Yet, in the case of the alcohol-related sexual assault, the mixed action would also be involuntary because the agent is under the influence of alcohol, and therefore, the action arises through ignorance of the particulars.
According to Aristotle, ignorance of the particulars means that the agent unwillingly committed the action and can therefore be exonerated of the misdeed. In NE III 1, ?§7, Aristotle says, In some [mixed] cases, there is no praise, but there is pardon, whenever someone does a wrong action because of conditions of a sort that overstrain human nature. He uses a chilling example to manifest this principle. If the agent is drunk or angry, his action seems to be caused by drunkenness or anger, not by ignorance, though it is done in ignorance, not in knowledge (NE III 1, ?§14).
Essentially, Aristotle states that although a person is ignorant of what he is doing, his actions are excusable, no matter how wicked the action may be. For example, Aristotle mentions that if Aeschylus accidently kills his son by thinking he was the enemy, Aeschylus would be pardoned because Aeschylus was unaware of the particulars, specifically the particular of what he was doing (NE III 1, ?§17).
In a similar sense, Aristotle’s presupposition insinuates that in the case of alcohol-related sexual assault, if a man is intoxicated when he commits the action, his action is committed in ignorance of the particulars. Someone who was ignorant of one of these [particulars] seems to have acted unwillingly (NE III 1, ?§18). Aristotle correlates this with an earlier notion in that ignorance of the particulars allows for both pity and pardon (NE III 1, ?§15). Essentially, in the case of alcohol-related sexual assault, the perpetrator can be acquitted according to Aristotle, given that the perpetrator is also aware of his ignorance. Ultimately, I disagree with Aristotle’s notion.
I believe that in alcohol-related sexual assaults, the agent should not be forgiven, even if his action was in ignorance because he violated the fundamental principles of morality. If one has knowledge of the particular after committing the involuntary action that he now feels pain and regret about, then he should not be pardoned. The agent still knew that there was a moral fundamental principle to the action, and he wronged that very principle. His actions ultimately had consequences.
To illustrate, a female friend of mine was sexually assaulted by a mutual male acquaintance of ours. They were both intoxicated. The next morning, he was guilt ridden and wholeheartedly regretted his actions. He claimed that he did not know what he was doing in that moment. Meanwhile, she suffered the consequences of the action.
When she sought justice through the police, she was asked what she was wearing, how she was dancing, who she talked to that night, and whether she was drinking and taking drugs. She did not remember consenting. His alcohol-related rape was a mixed action, more voluntary than involuntary, according to Aristotle’s definition. However, he can still be pardoned, according to Aristotle’s argument, because he acted in ignorance of the particulars (in this case, he did not know what he was doing), he was aware of his ignorance, and he felt pain for his actions of the previous night. In reality, though, could she or any other person in a similar situation ever forgive her perpetrator for such a wicked crime? He knew that he violated her fundamental principle of autonomy and should not be forgiven for such a base action.
I believe that this example reflects our current cultural and political climate. Most of the time, in these mixed grey actions, the victim is blamed while the perpetrator is vindicated and met with pity. We see it time and time again with Brock Turner, Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, and countless others. I acknowledge that my perspective on my topic is quite limited given that these specific cases also consider a fair amount of knowledge on the justice system. However, in Nicomachean Ethics Book III, Aristotle insinuates that a perpetrator be pardoned (given that he is aware of his ignorance of the particulars and feels regret about his action) because his action is committed in ignorance. I disagree. Ignorance or not, sexual assault is a serious matter and should be treated in a such a way.
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