Book 3: The Will.

Chapter 3: We deliberate on what we can do—not on ends, but means.

Now, as to deliberation, do we deliberate about everything, and may anything whatever be matter for deliberation, or are there some things about which deliberation is impossible?

By “matter for deliberation” we should understand, I think, not what a fool or a maniac, but what a rational being would deliberate about.

Now, no one deliberates about eternal or unalterable things, e.g. the system of the heavenly bodies, or the incommensurability of the side and the diagonal of a square.

Again, no one deliberates about things which change, but always change in the same way (whether the cause of change be necessity, or nature, or any other agency), e.g. the solstices and the sunrise; nor about things that are quite irregular, like drought and wet; nor about matters of chance, like the finding of a treasure.

Again, even human affairs are not always matter of deliberation; e.g. what would be the best constitution for Scythia is a question that no Spartan would deliberate about.

The reason why we do not deliberate about these things is that none of them are things that we can ourselves effect.

But the things that we do deliberate about are matters of conduct that are within our control. And these are the only things that remain; for besides nature and necessity and chance, the only remaining cause of change is reason and human agency in general. Though we must add that men severally deliberate about what they can themselves do.

A further limitation is that where there is exact and absolute knowledge, there is no room for deliberation; e.g. writing: for there is no doubt how the letters should be formed.

We deliberate, then, about things that are brought about by our own agency, but not always in the same way; e.g. about medicine and money-making, and about navigation more than about gymnastic, inasmuch as it is not yet reduced to so perfect a system, and so on; but more about matters of art than matters of science, as there is more doubt about them.

Matters of deliberation, then, are matters in which there are rules that generally hold good, but in which the result cannot be predicted, i.e. in which there is an element of uncertainty. In important matters we call in advisers, distrusting our own powers of judgment.

It is not about ends, but about means that we deliberate. A physician does not deliberate whether he shall heal, nor an orator whether he shall persuade, nor a statesman whether he shall make a good system of laws, nor a man in any other profession about his end; but, having the proposed end in view, we consider how and by what means this end can be attained; and if it appear that it can be attained by various means, we further consider which is the easiest and best; but if it can only be attained by one means, we consider how it is to be attained by this means, and how this means itself is to be secured, and so on, until we come to the first link in the chain of causes, which is last in the order of discovery.

For in deliberation we seem to inquire and to analyze in the way described, just as we analyze a geometrical figure in order to learn how to construct it (and though inquiry is not always deliberation—mathematical inquiry, for instance, is not—deliberation is always inquiry); that which is last in the analysis coming first in the order of construction.

If we come upon something impossible, we give up the plan; e.g. if it needs money, and money cannot be got: but if it appear possible, we set to work. By possible I mean something that can be done by us; and what can be done by our friends can in a manner be done by us; for it is we who set our friends to work.

Sometimes we have to find out instruments, sometimes how to use them; and so on with the rest: sometimes we have to find out what agency will produce the desired effect, sometimes how or through whom this agency is to be set at work.

It appears, then, that a man, as we have already said, originates his acts; but that he deliberates about that which he can do himself, and that what he does is done for the sake of something else. For he cannot deliberate about the end, but about the means to the end; nor, again, can he deliberate about particular facts, e.g. whether this be a loaf, or whether it be properly backed: these are matters of immediate perception. And if he goes on deliberating for ever he will never come to a conclusion.

But the object of deliberation and the object of choice or purpose are the same, except that the latter is already fixed and determined; when we say, “this is chosen” or “purposed,” we mean that it has been selected after deliberation. For we always stop in our inquiry how to do a thing when we have traced back the chain of causes to ourselves, and to the commanding part of ourselves; for this is the part that chooses.

This may be illustrated by the ancient constitutions which Homer describes; for there the kings announce to the people what they have chosen.

Since, then, a thing is said to be chosen or purposed when, being in our power, it is desired after deliberation, choice or purpose may be defined as deliberate desire for something in our power; for we first deliberate, and then, having made our decision thereupon, we desire in accordance with deliberation.

Let this stand, then, for an account in outline of choice or purpose, and of what it deals with, viz. means to ends.


Icon for the Public Domain license

This work (The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle) is free of known copyright restrictions.