The Doctrine of the Mean

In this post I will explain Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean.  Subsequently, I will consider an objection that not all virtuous actions conform to the doctrine.  Then I will reinterpret Aristotle such that he can reply to the objection.

Moral virtue is a state of character regarding the passions, actions, and choices of the agent.  Passions are feelings like anger or lust, typically accompanied by pleasure or pain (handout).  When an agent chooses an action, he is intellectually endorsing it or setting it as his intended action.  An action is what is actually done.  To be in a virtuous state will be to have the right balance within and between the passions, actions, and choices — it is to feel $\phi$ toward the right object, at the right time, to the right people, with the right motive, in the right way (30).

Aristotle observes that it is ‘the nature of things to be destroyed by excess and defect’ (25).  Consider the virtue of courage.  The man deficient in courage never stands his ground against anything, and in so doing becomes a coward.  The man who ‘overshoots’ courage (that is, acts with excess courage) and never fears anything is rash.  But the man who knows when to stand his ground and when to withdraw and acts accordingly has the right about of courage and can rightly be called courageous.  To emphasize this, Aristotle points out that we call a work of art ‘good’ when there is no element of the work that we could either add or take away without diminishing the work.  That is, a good work of art is destroyed by excess or defect.  Virtue, as a similar good, will strive for the intermediate in the same way — that is, virtuous action is destroyed by excess or defect.  An action is virtuous or ‘good’ if that action would not be made better by the addition of something like (a passion, or a more extreme action) or the subtraction of something.  So a virtuous action is destroyed by excess or defect.  It looks like virtuous action admits of degrees, that it is a point on a continuous and divisible scale continuous and divisible.  For Aristotle, in all things that are continuous and divisible, it is possible to have more, less, or equal.  An agent acts courageously, but just before the act it was possible for him to have acted cowardly or rashly.  Aristotle takes the ‘equal’ amount to be that which is intermediate between excess and defect — the mean lies between the two extremes.

It is important to note, however, that what is the ‘equal’ or ‘intermediate’ amount is not the same for all.  Indeed, ‘equal’ or ‘intermediate’ amount is relative to the agent.  With respect to courage, compare me to Superman.  The courageous action for Superman may involve fighting evil and saving the day.  But I don’t have superpowers; if I were to confront evil like Superman, I may be defeated and (even worse) evil might prevail — I would be a victim of my vicious, rash action.  For me, the intermediate is more likely to be braving some minor danger so that I may call 911 or Superman for help, so that the day may be saved without endangering myself or others.  In this way, the intermediate action is relative to the agent (and that agent’s characteristics or abilities).  So the doctrine of the mean amounts to something like ‘do the right thing relative to yourself, in the right way, to the right people, in the right context’ — that is, do what is appropriate to the occasion, and not every occasion responds to the same treatment.

Having explained the doctrine of the mean, we’ll now consider the following objection.  Not all passions, actions, and choices (and the balancing between them) conform to the doctrine. To press the point, some actions just don’t seem to admit of degrees.  For example, consider the virtue of justice.  How can we make sense of an excess or deficiency of justice?  You might think that a deficiency of justice is a kind of iniquity where a few get all the goods and most are impoverished, while an excess of justice is a kind of iniquity where all get an equal amount of the goods but not all are equally deserving, and that in this way justice will lie between two extremes.  The problem with this view, however, is that we cannot make sense of individual action in this way.  Actions promoting the iniquity of resources are generally actions taken by the polis, not by an individual agent.  And the kind of virtue we are interested in is the kind that is ascribed to individuals.  How could an individual act with an excess of justice?  What kind of action could possibly embody the mean amount of justice?  It seems that one simply acts justly or unjustly.  If this is so, then not all purported virtues conform to Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean.  And if not all passions, actions, or choices fit into Aristotle’s doctrine, then there must be more to virtue than merely striving for intermediate action (even if a virtuous action can sometimes be thought of as a mean).  That is, virtue does not always strive for the intermediate.  Therefore, the doctrine of the mean, the thesis that virtue strives for the intermediate, must be false.

We might defend Aristotle with the following reinterpretation.  A person acts virtuously iff he strikes the right balance between passions and choices, is not externally inhibited in his action, and does in fact act.  In this way, the virtuous action is the product of the virtuous/right balancing of passions and choices, with the addition of nothing inhibiting the agent’s execution of the action.  What is important here is that the virtuous action flows from the right balance between passions and choices, not that the action itself is part of the calculus-of-virtue.  So we need not always be able to place an action in between two extreme actions.  Indeed, Aristotle recognizes this when he notes that it would be absurd to expect that in self-indulgent action there should be a mean (e.g. you end up with excess of excess) (31).  Similarly, we might think it absurd that one could act with an excess of justice.  So how does just action work?

A just action will not be between deficiently and excessively just actions, but rather will be the result of someone’s passions and choices being balanced in the right way.  An example.  Sam has eight cookies and he is deliberating over how to divide them between Tom, Dick, Harry, and himself.  His antipathy for Tom is palpable, but he’s clearly friendly with Harry; and he’s never met Dick before.  To divide the cookies justly, Sam must balance his various passions toward Tom, Dick, Harry, and himself.  And he must identify the right choice amid the manifold of chooseable actions.  Having done this, if he is not externally inhibited, he will perform the just, virtuous action.  For suppose he does not balance his passions the right way.  He let’s his antipathy get the better of him and gives Tom 0 cookies, while his friendship for Harry and his like for himself earns each of them 3 cookies.  His apathy to Dick earns Dick 2 cookies.  This inequitable distribution cannot be said to be the result of a just action, and the iniquity is attributable to the misbalance of the passions.  Or suppose Sam can manage his passions, he achieves a mean between his desire to stiff Tom, and his desire to give extra to himself and his friend, Harry.  But he cannot identify the right choice, and so he cannot equitably distribute the cookies.  This, too, cannot be called just.  However, suppose Sam balances his divergent passions, chooses to award everyone 2 cookies, and no external thing inhibits his ability to execute this choice.  Then there is an equitable distribution of cookies and Sam acted justly.  So we aim for the mean of our passions, identify and endorse the choice that brings our intentions about, and, if not externally inhibited, the virtuous action emerges as a consequence.  In this way, we can preserve Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean.


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