Clarification of Answer by
13 Jan 2003 18:33 PST
Hello, here is the additional research for you as promised:
Voluntary vs. Involuntary Action Continued
In Philosophy, when a person does something deliberately, it is a
voluntary action. Basically if a person plans to rob a bank because
he/she needs money and goes through with it, it is a voluntary action.
The person, of their own free will did rob the bank. The problem
philosophers face however, is differentiating between certain actions,
or classifying certain actions as being voluntary or involuntary.
One way that an involuntary action can be defined is when you
wouldnt want to do the action, you do not contribute anything to the
action at all because you are forced or the actions comes from
ignorance, from you not knowing what the action is (giving poison
thinking it is water). The web page (cited below) goes on to give
some excellent examples:
-Say you are standing behind somebody who is standing over a cliff,
and someone pushes you. Then your body pushes the victims body over
the cliff. Even though you pushed the person over the cliff, it was
not a voluntary action. It could have been a partial voluntary action
if you had known the person (who was going to push you) was the type
of person who pushes people off cliffs if there is somebody else
standing behind them. Yes that is complicated, but in this case you
would have known that there is a chance that the person behind you
would push you, resulting in the person in front of you falling off
the cliff (making this a voluntary action).
The above page is well worth reading through if you are more
interested in this discussion.
Aristotle (the grand philosopher of the past) defines both voluntary
and involuntary actions in this sentence:
"Since, then, what is involuntary is what is forced or is caused by
ignorance, what is voluntary seems to be what has its origin in the
agent himself when he knows the particulars that the action consists
Source: Aristotle on Voluntary Action
From the same page as above, Aristotle takes a look at whether an
action is voluntary or involuntary in a specific manner to check if
they are subject to praise or blame (rather than pardon or pity). Or
an action to be involuntary, there has to be either Force or Ignorance
From Rockhurst University in Kansas City, there is an excellent review
of force and ignorance and how they can make an action involuntary.
-Force: If a person is forced to kill somebody else or die themselves,
the aspect of being forced makes it an involuntary action to some.
Force makes an action involuntary but not duress. Under duress,
we will sometimes choose things that we would not normally choose,
especially if the circumstances were different. Aristotle goes on to
say (as reviewed by the website cited below), that However, there are
some actions that we should never do regardless of force and duress
acts such as rape or murder [moral absolutes]. This is one opinion,
but it could also be argued that if someone is holding a gun to your
head and ordering you to kill someone else (who may or may not deserve
it more than you) or you yourself will be shot (along with some of
your friends). It could be argued that this makes the action
involuntary, because if you do not kill one person, many other people
(including yourself) will die as a result.
-Ignorance is another variable to be taken into consideration. An
action caused by ignorance, but which one does not regret or care
about, is called non-voluntary. The next point goes on to say that
One who is drunk may not be completely responsible for her or his
actions, but they are at least responsible for getting drunk and
putting themselves in such a condition.
Source: Aristotles Nicomachean Ethics Study Guide (Book 3)
You can read the rest of the review of book three if you are
interested, and you might even want to pick up Aristotles Nicomachean
Ethics. Aristotle can be a bit difficult to read, but it is worth it
if one is interested in this topic.
Most things studied in the field of philosophy do not have definite
answers. Consider the following which I remember from a philosophy
course that I took:
You are looking down a pit and there are two babies. One is your own
child and the other child belongs to your best friend. You see a
dragon approaching and know that you can only save one baby. If you
decide to save your own baby, (causing the other baby to die), have
you voluntarily or involuntarily killed the other baby? There are many
situations like this over which philosophers argue and write lengthy
Here are some other good sources to read if you are interested in this
Aristotle: Ethics and the Virtues
Apethics (discussion relating to this starts about halfway through the
Introduction to Ethics: Topic VII. Euthanasia (not directly related to
this topic, but worth reading if you want a discussion of how these
terms are applied in other philosophical discussions)
Another review of Aristotle: Book three
In psychology the terms attach themselves to behavior and learning.
According to the behaviorists, learning can be defined as the
relatively permanent change in behavior brought about as a result of
experience or practice. (From Valdosta State University)
Educational Psychology Interactive: The Behavioral System
Of the four types of behaviorist learning theories, the two we are
interested in are Classical (Respondent) Conditioning which is an
association of stimuli (an antecedent stimulus will reflexivetly
elicit an innate emotional or physiological response; another stimulus
will elicit an orienting response). This definition (and some of the
terms defined) can be found on the page above. The key word for our
purpose is reflexive or involuntary
a response that cannot be
consciously stopped once it starts.
To understand this easily, I recommend that you take a look at the
pictures on this page:
In the first case, we see that before conditioning a hot dog causes
the dog to salivate, and the neutral stimulus (the bell) does not.
After associating the bell with the hot dog a few times (during the
conditioning stage), the dog unconsciously learns to associate the two
events (picture 2), and we can see in picture 3 that the simple
ringing of the bell (without the hot dog) now causes the dog to
salivate reflexively (or involuntarily).
Psychology, or more accurately behavior theory, uses this idea as an
example of Classical (Respondent) Conditioning, of which involuntary
an emotion or physiological response will be issued as a result. In
the area of classroom learning, classical conditioning primarily
influences emotional behavior. Things that make us happy, sad, angry,
etc. become associated with neutral stimuli that gain our attention.
For example, if a particular academic subject or remembering a
particular teacher produces emotional feelings in you, those emotions
are probably a result of classical conditioning.
Source: Classical (Respondent) Conditioning
Voluntary or emmited behavior is a part of Operant (Instrumental)
Conditioning which is defined as a connection of emitted behavior and
its consequences (reinforcement and punishment).
Educational Psychology Interactive: The Behavior System
The idea of this theory is that the types of stimuli used
(positive/pleasant or negative/aversive and the addition or taking
away of the stimulus will over time cause a certain behavior (although
it is still voluntary).
Suppose we use the dog example again. If the dog does not chase the
fed-ex person after he/she delivers a package, you give the dog a hot
dog to eat. The dog learns to associate not chasing the messenger with
a reward. Occasionally the dog still chases the fed-ex person, but is
less likely to do so because the dog might want the hot dog instead.
As a result of giving the dog a hot dog for doing something good, the
behavior of the dog improves (voluntarily or consciously).
Here is a web page from Athabasca University that talks about Positive
Reinforcement (and provides examples):
Positive Reinforcement: A Self-Instructional Exercise
There is also Negative Reinforcement (punishment) and here is an
excellent website to learn more about this (from Maricopa Community
I found that involuntary vs. voluntary action also plays a part in
Law. I wasnt sure if you were interested in this, but will briefly go
over it anyway in case you are interested, and point you to some
But let's say that you parked in a non-prohibited area in the winter.
A snow plough comes along and unbeknownst to you pushes your parked
car into a prohibited area. You have a valid defence to the parking
ticket in this scenario because the Crown cannot prove that you
voluntarily parked your car in the prohibited area. The actus reus for
the offence has not been made out.
University of Alberta Faculty of Law
This same article goes on to say that in law to have acted
voluntarily, an accused needs only to have been in a conscious, willed
control of her muscular movements. Despite this, there are different
ways in which a defense of lack of voluntariness can be advanced. One
example is where some other person has used the accused as an innocent
agent by, for instance, grabbing her arm and forcing it to strike
There are similarities and differences between philosophy and law
regarding voluntary and involuntary actions. Whereas in law, there are
more clear cut definitions or rules of what is acceptable or not, in
philosophy we take into account intuition, ethics, personal feeling
(those are just some variables).
I found an interesting article entitled What is voluntary and what is
involuntary by St. John Damascene at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
of Australia. The author of this article takes a look at voluntary vs.
involuntary actions from a religious perspective.
Here is an excerpt that I found to be most interesting.
An involuntary act is one in which the beginning is from without, and
where one does not contribute at all on one's own impulse to that
which one is force" And by beginning we mean the creative cause. All
involuntary act depends, on the other hand, on ignorance, when one is
not the cause of the ignorance one's self, but events just so happen.
For, if one commits murder while drunk, it is an act of ignorance, but
yet not involuntary: for one was one's self responsible for the cause
of the ignorance, that is to say, the drunkenness. But if while
shooting at the customary range one slew one's father who happened to
be passing by, this would be termed an ignorant and involuntary act.
This does of course tie in with the Philosophical (Aristotle)
definition of the word. It does show that from a religious point of
view (at least this authors) there is a more definite separation of
the two terms (and I guess more practical approach as well).
You might be interested in reading the following entries from Hyper
I hope that this was what you were expecting from this additional
research. If you need any clarifications feel free to let me know and
I will get back to you as soon as possible.
voluntary action involuntary
voluntary action involuntary philosophy
voluntary action involuntary psychology
voluntary involuntary action OR actions
voluntary involuntary law
"voluntary action" OR "voluntary actions" "involuntary action" OR