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Virtue as the Mean
by Diana Mertz Hsieh

Date: 21 Feb 97
Forum: Washington University in St-Louis, Classical Ethical Theories class
Copyright: Diana Mertz Hsieh

In the second half of Book II of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle offers a puzzling account of virtue as the mean between a vice of excess and a vice of defect. Although he does discuss the particulars of what it means for virtue to found in moderation, he never clearly argues why virtue ought to be conceptualized in such a fashion. The problem may well originate in the differences between common Greek thinking about virtue at the time and our modern perspective on virtue. While Aristotle is concerned with creating the proper habits and having good states of character, in modern times we are more focused on doing the right thing in particular cases. In other words, Aristotle's primary focus lies in the psychology of an individual which leads him to act in certain ways is somewhat foreign to the current, common emphasis on the morality of the actions themselves.

Nevertheless, Aristotle's discussion of virtue as the mean does have a certain intuitive appeal. In many instances in our lives, morality does consist in our finding a balance between, for example, being completely dependent upon loved ones or completely independent from them. In this paper, I will examine Aristotle's conceptualization of virtue as the mean between two vice, paying particular attention to how this mean is to be achieved. I will argue that because Aristotle does not give any method by which to determine the mean, or even which actions have a mean, the useful and intuitive understanding of virtue as existing along a continuum is undermined.

In Chapter 6 of Book II, immediately after determining the genus of virtue to be "state of character,"Aristotle begins his discussion of virtue as the mean by stating that "in everything that is continuous and divisible it is possible to make more, less, or an equal amount, and that either in terms of the thing itself or relatively to us; and the equal is an intermediate between excess and defect." (NE II:6, 1106a25-29) In this cryptic passage, Aristotle seems to be arguing that the dispositions or states of character which constitute virtue and vice can be organized along different continua with respect to the object or effect of such states of character. Later, in fact, he writes that "there are three kinds of dispositions, then, two of them vices, involving excess and deficiency, and one a virtue, viz. the mean." (NE II:8, 1108b11-13) Instead of categorizing behavior as simply either moral or immoral, Aristotle is concerned with the range of dispositions which give rise to different types of action, with not only that we act immorally, but how we do so.

Aristotle's conception of a continuum on which virtue appears gives his arguments that virtue lies in the mean a strong instinctive attractiveness. By focusing on the distinct ways in which we are virtuous or vicious, rather than simply declaring our actions to be moral or immoral, we give ourselves a better understanding of how to become more virtuous. Aristotle argues against the extremes and for the mean in Chapter 2 of Book II, in which he states "that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess." In the case of health, we see that "drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate produced and increases and preserves it." (NE II:2, 1104a10-20) In the case of food, it is also clear that the mean which we are pursuing is relative to us, rather than some external standard. It is the needs of our own bodies to which we ought to be attentive, not the average amount of food that it is possible to eat or the average amount of food required by the average person.

In morality, as in eating, we find "excess, defect, and the intermediate" because virtue "is concerned with passions and actions." (NE II:6, 1106b14-17) Additionally, as with eating, the mean is "not in the object but relatively to us. " (NE II:6, 1106b7) Aristotle writes

"in general pleasure and pain may be felt too much and too little, and in both cases not well, but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue. Similarly with regard to actions also there is excess, defect, and the intermediate." (NE II:6, 1106b18-23)

At this point, because Aristotle does not offer a method by which to determine the mean between the vices of excess and defect, the initial plausibility of his account is undermined. Although we are supposed to feel and do everything in the "right" ways, it is unclear, without an external standard by which to judge those passions and actions, how to determine precisely what those right ways are. The terms "excess" and "defect" tell us little, because they only become well-defined in relation to a prior evaluation of what "the right amount" is. Aristotle's correct observation that people at the extremes think the mean itself to be the opposite extreme, so that, for example, "the brave man appears rash relatively to the coward and the cowardly relatively to the rash man," only compounds this problem. (NE II:8, 1108b20-21) Even though we may think ourselves to be in the mean, because from our perspective all other actions seem to be on one extreme or another, we may, in fact, ourselves be acting in one of the vices of excess or deficiency. All of these problems are compounded by the fact that "not every action nor every passion admits of a mean, for some have names which already imply badness." (NE II:6, 1107a8-9) In that case, we cannot even be sure in which actions and passions we ought to look for a mean.

Aristotle, to his credit, does admit the difficulty of being good "for in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to find the middle of a circle is not for everyone but for him who knows." (NE II:9, 1109a18-20) He proposes a useful rule of thumb, namely that we discover the extreme to which we are "easily carried away" due to "the pleasures and pains we feel," and, in response, "we must drag ourselves away to the contrary extreme; for we shall get into the intermediate state by drawing well away from error." (NE II:9, 1109b1-6) Nevertheless, these suggestions do not get him out of the problem of how to determine where the mean and the excesses lie.

Thus, as appealing as Aristotle's account of habit may be, it faces serious difficulties in application which undermine that appeal. One possible solution to the problem would be to begin with determination of the continua on which passions and actions can vary (such as the emotional response when others have treated us badly), rather than starting with a discussion of the particular virtues on those continua.

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