Tragic Error and Agent Responsibility

In his ethical writings Aristotle restricts moral responsibility to those actions an agent performs voluntarily. Only voluntary actions are candidates for praise and blame, reward and punishment. Voluntary actions meet two conditions: they have their causal origin in the agent, and they are performed knowingly.1 In the Poetics Aristotle tells us that actions are the primary ingredient of tragedy, and that the pivotal action of an exemplary tragedy is an hamartia or error.2 An error, like Oedipus’ murder of his father, is committed unknowingly, and so does not satisfy Aristotle’s epistemic condition for voluntary action. It would seem, therefore, that the heroes and heroines of tragedy, in Aristotle’s opinion, are simply not responsible for their deeds and the awful consequences of what they have done.3 Bad things happen to them. This conclusion is problematic. The difficulty appears once we consider the kinds of dramatic plots Aristotle prefers. Aristotle favours plots in which a good person’s reversal of fortune is brought about unintentionally by his own actions over plots in which the reversal occurs because of the agent’s bad character or by accident or external cause. (Poet. 1452a32-33; 1453a7-12)4 The choice of unknowing action rather than intentional wrongdoing or sheer accident raises the question of agent responsibility. Indeed, it seems intended to do so. In the finest kind of tragedy the moment of recognition depicts a character coming to understand what he has unknowingly done, and coming to understand that his own actions have precipitated his change in fortune. (Poet. 1452a29-33) That Aristotle requires a moment of recognition, in addition to a reversal of..
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