What We Really Want

Aristotle distinguished willing from unwilling actions, noting that there are mixed cases in which we do something we ordinarily would not do, in order to avoid a greater evil or to further a greater good. Hegel suggested that what we actually do is the best guide to understanding what we really want. Does this make Aristotle’s distinction meaningless? I want to say no.

It may be that Hegel would reject Aristotle’s secondary distinction between unwilling actions and mixed cases. Hegel might even say that all of Aristotle’s “willing” and “unwilling” actions are better thought of as mixed. Paul Ricoeur has somewhat similarly argued that agency always involves a combination of active and passive aspects.

Aristotle said that we should either judge mixed cases by the particulars of the relevant tradeoffs, or simply consider them as occasions calling for forgiveness. I think this is compatible with Hegel’s perspective. What we actually did in some situation is not necessarily the key to what we really wanted, full stop, but rather the key to what we really wanted under the applicable conditions. (See also Context; Rethinking Responsibility; Brandomian Forgiveness.)