Aristotle on Charlottesville
'Mixed Actions' and Exercising Judgement on Violence
In the opening movement of book 3 of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that, at bottom, each and every human being is responsible for essentially every action they undertake; put another way: there is nothing a human being does for which they ought not to be praised or blamed. This assertion, at the heart of his analysis of “voluntary and involuntary actions,” is requisite for his “virtue ethics” to have any salience: if we are not responsible for actions, then we are not properly considered worthy of praise or blame for what we do, and if we are not so properly considered, then virtue and vice as attributes of the soul (“so-holdings” [hexeis, via Latin, “habits,” a misleading translation), don’t capture anything real.
There’s one very interesting exception to this generalized pronouncement. While Aristotle refuses to accept that there is any action undertaken by a human being that is not subject to praise or blame on account of either the actor (a) not knowing what they are doing or (b) acting under compulsion, he does acknowledge that there are some actions that are genuinely “mixed” actions. Such “mixed” actions are those that no sane person would choose for their own sake, but nevertheless are, under certain circumstances, chosen as the least bad course of action. As such, we cannot say that such actions are involuntary — they are chosen “under certain circumstances” — but we also cannot say they are voluntary simply — since they would never be chosen for their own sake; hence, they are mixed, a mixture of voluntary and involuntary.
Why does this matter? It matters because the voluntariness of an action is a condition of our judgment of the actor who engages in that action. For a person who engages in such “mixed” action, committing an act we would normally find blameworthy, Aristotle says, we offer neither praise nor blame, but rather pity or pardon. For instance, if someone under the threat of physical harm or death from a tyrant, offers false testimony or harms an innocent, we surely do not praise the person, but neither do we blame them; rather, if we have judgment, we pardon them the transgression, in the belief that — now that the extreme circumstance has passed — this person will act in accordance with virtue, or at least not viciously. Or, perhaps, if the act was sufficiently heinous but clearly “mixed” (that is, not entirely voluntary), then maybe we do not pardon the person outright, but rather offer our pity for their circumstances. In such a case, they are not “cleared” of the offense, but they are not the object of blame either.
I think this analysis of “mixed” actions has a lot of salience as the collective response to the travesty in Charlottesville on Friday the 11th and Saturday the 12th of August continues to simmer. In particular, I think it is the most helpful lens through which to view and debate the moral and the political judgment in which we engage as citizens when we view the refusal to engage in only acts of non-violence of some of the counter protestors, and especially those who are residents and citizens of Charlottesville itself.
Before offering that contribution, let me say that as someone who resided in Charlottesville last year, as a Jew, and most of all, as someone who expressed agreement with Charlottesville’s Mayor Mike Signer’s opposition to the removal of the Lee statue, I find, as many people do, much to say about what transpired there the weekend before last. There’s so much, indeed, that to my mind remains under-discussed: beginning with the July KKK rally in the recently renamed Justice Park, which was an absolute disaster from a crowd control perspective and really ought to have prompted persons in and out of local and state government to do more to avert the disaster that followed a month later; but also the highly successful “take back the lawn” event and other actions of healing and solidarity in Charlottesville over the past week and more; and less brightly, the tumultuous and difficult to watch first city council meeting after the riot and violence.
In short, there isn’t enough time in the world to say what needs to be said about what happened, and the small city of Charlottesville and the surrounding community, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the nation of my birth will have all their plate full with this for months to come, at least. For today, I hope to offer some food for thought for those who have been engaging in the most heated debate since the events of August 12th and especially since the controversy erupted about the “violence on many sides” response from President Trump, and then the revision of that response on Monday the 14th, and then the revision of that revision of Tuesday the 15th. Namely: how are we to judge the counterprotestors who resorted in acts of violence? Or as I believe it is fairer to put it given my access to the thought process of some of those persons, how are we to judge the counterprotestors, especially those who reside in Charlottesville, who believed that under the circumstances, to refuse to meet violence with violence would be irresponsible.
One important caveat is required before I draw the perhaps now obvious conclusion I draw with reference to Aristotle’s “mixed” actions analysis. Namely: in making the argument I will now make, I am not defending the thoughts or deeds of left-wing practitioners of direct action, often with anarcho-syndicalist or communist commitments, and often with an open acceptance of violence as a means to counter what they believe to be the inherent violence of the international capitalist order. In recent days, it has become habitual to refer to such actors as antifascist action, or Antifa, or AntiFa. Antifa of course exists, and there is a strong overlap between Antifa and the left-wing practitioners of direct action. They are not the same, the same way that the AfD and the NDP in Germany or the UKIP and the BNP in England (England, especially) are not the same, and it is important to understand all these nuances, as Peter Beinart tries to do in a long-form piece for The Atlantic.
Thinking, now, not about those who so identify as part of a movement, but rather about individual actors who joined with neighbors to respond to the presence of people who often traveled great distances to communicate a message of hate and intimidation, I pose the question of the application of Aristotle’s analysis to the instant case. In face of the events, we ask not the blanket universal question: is it blameworthy to voluntary engage in violence in the streets — against state or non-state actors in a democratic society — in order to advance or defend a political point of view? Here the obvious answer is yes. But it is the wrong question, because we are not thinking about “voluntary actions” at all. Rather, those who came out in response to Spencer and Kessler (and by all means read up on their words and deeds over the past year for a few minutes in order to assess their perspective) and those they gathered, and found themselves in circumstances where for whatever reason law enforcement personnel had abdicated the monopoly on violence, engaged in a recognizably mixed action: they chose, under certain circumstances, to engage in actions that (we judge) no sane person would choose, simply and without qualification. As such, even though engaging in physical intimidation in insisting that people leave the streets as a private citizen is something that we could not possibly praise, it also is reasonable to judge that it doesn’t merit blame either. With “mixed” actions, there is a non-excluded middle between virtuous (praiseworthy) and vicious (blameworthy). And that is precisely where, in my judgment, these actions fall. One might consider the counter-protestors to have done something it would be wrong to choose to do but as good as necessary in such circumstances; in this case you would pardon them. Or you might their actions as sufficiently unworthy of choice that you can only find your way to pity them in their circumstances. What, Aristotle’s analysis suggests, you cannot reasonably judge is that they merit your blame. Especially if you are judging from afar, and under very different circumstances.