The following is another essay I wrote back in 2008.
Is Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean A Plausible Guide To Moral Goodness?
Aristotle’s (384 BC – 322 BC) doctrine of the mean has a privileged place in one of the grand moral traditions, that of virtue ethics. Virtue ethics retains a widespread influence today, particularly via its thirteenth century formulation by St. Thomas Aquinas, which remains at the core of the moral teaching of the Catholic Church, and via its twentieth century reunion with the secular mainstream of moral philosophy through the work of several Catholic scholars, particularly Alasdair MacIntyre. This essay endorses virtue ethics and argues that the doctrine of the mean is a plausible guide to moral goodness, but is not by itself adequate as a guide to all-things-considered moral rightness.
Aristotle’s ethic is rooted in ancient Greek eudaimonic theory, a tradition shared with his predecessors Socrates and Plato. Aristotle’s moral theory radically departed from theirs in being rooted in material well-being and principles of ‘common sense’ rather than the abstract. He also radically disagreed with the Platonic Socrates’ view that no one does bad knowingly. Aristotle asserted that human nature was essentially rational and we have free will. He saw it as a matter-of-fact, common sense intuition we are conscious of our reasoning and thus, both aware and responsible for the acts we choose. He was keen to admit, however, that people do make mistakes in their moral reasoning and that they become more inclined towards good (or evil) with the appropriate practice.
The doctrine of the mean proceeds from two teleological arguments that establish the theoretical framework of Aristotle’s moral theory: the regress argument for eudaimonia and the function argument for virtue. The Nicomachean Ethics begins with the argument that all actions must ultimately be directed towards a single end, lest we invite infinite regress. This single end is eudaimonia (often translated as ‘happiness’ but more literally ‘prospering’). By contrast to all lower ends such as pleasure, honour, and intelligence, eudaimonia is sought only for itself and is self-sufficient and complete. Whilst eudaimonia is something to be pursued and that can be attained, it is not a mere ‘end-goal’, but is a dynamic status which accompanies good acts. It must be developed over time and maintained, such that the status can be ascribed to a life as a whole, as summed up by Aristotle’s famous aphorism: “one swallow does not make a summer”.
It is worth noting that in Book X of the Ethics Aristotle affirms the superiority of contemplation over virtue as a means for attaining eudaimonia. This is firstly because it is a self-sufficient activity, rather than a process with a natural termination point, such as the doing of a favour for a friend. And secondly, because we should live according our faculty of rationality (responsible of course for contemplation), especially because it is our highest and therefore most perfect state- it distinguishes us from other animals and likens us to God.
The function argument in Book I establishes that eudaimonia is achieved, in so far as man is a social being, via arête (literally ‘excellence,’ but translated as ‘virtue’). It can be summarised as follows: all good things function well, the proper function of man is that which is distinctive to him, i.e. reasoning  and the best function of man qua man is therefore rational activity of the soul in accordance with virtue (excellence of character).
According to Aristotle, virtue is a not a feeling, nor a mere capacity, but a settled disposition to react to the passions in a way conducive to the agent functioning well qua human being. Virtuous actions shouldbe pleasurable in themselves, because if we really believe in acting in a certain way we should enjoy doing so. It is therefore most important for us to develop a like and a dislike for the right things and such attitudes will be engrained via practice. Thus the good is not found in rejecting inclination, as in Kant, but in following a correctly nurtured inclination. For Aristotle it is not of key importance that we follow our duty, as it is for Kant, but rather how we live. Virtue ethics also has the advantage over consequentialist theories that it offers an account of what it would it is like to be an agent following the theory.
An ethic of virtue is therefore focused on improving the morality of the agent’s character rather than that of their particular acts. It sees acts as “rich symbols of the person we are choosing to become… we as beings of depth… create ourselves.” Virtuous activities have more permanence that all other activities, “because it is in them that the truly happy most fully and continuously spend their lives”. Being virtuous is a way of engaging in something, an ethically learned demeanour which interfaces with our actions to provide the existential quality of eudaimonia.
Aristotle distinguishes two kinds of virtue: intellectual virtues which belong to the rational part of the soul, and moral virtues which belong to the irrational part, but can nonetheless be subordinated to reason. While Aristotle acknowledged many virtues, he did subscribe to thesis of there being four cardinal virtues, a thesis which was popular in his contemporary society, had been acknowledged by Plato and was subsequently upheld by Aquinas and the Catholic Church. These are as follows: justice, which consists in the will to give to others what they are entitled to, courage, which ensures firmness in the difficulties faced in the pursuit of good, temperance, which moderates desires by subordinating them to reason, and most important, prudence, (phronesis), the intellectual virtue of practical reason by which we discern the good and the means of achieving it. For Aquinas, prudence is far removed from rational self-interest and he agrees with Aristotle that ethical virtue is fully developed only when combined with it.
Phronesis and the Doctrine of the Mean
For Aristotle we come to know the virtues via the practice of ‘the doctrine of the mean’ and our doing so is itself reliant upon the virtue of phronesis. The doctrine explains the nature of virtue as the act which is located at a mean between the vices of excess and deficiency that are encountered with every particular kind of feeling or action. He gave the example of the virtue courage lying between the vices of rashness and cowardice. This triadic structure of vice – virtue – vice applies to all moral (as opposed to intellectual) virtues. The mean is not necessarily to be found near midway between its extremes; moreover, it is relative to specific contexts, i.e. to individuals and circumstances. A purely quantitative reading of the doctrine would therefore be incorrect; Aristotle warns “ten pounds of food may be too much and two too little; it does not follow that six is the right amount for everybody.”As such the mean should not be equated with moderation so much with the act that is most appropriate to the particular situation.
Aristotle emphasises that virtues, like trades, are practical skills in which experience leads us to become more proficient at avoiding excess and deficiency. Indeed, we are often only able to establish the mean by experimental trial and error. Once we are adept at hitting the mean we will do likewise in relevantly similar situations, and therefore the doctrine is not particularist, that is, there are general rules to be obeyed. Aquinas accepted Aristotle’s conception of the mean, stressing the primacy of prudence in seeking all moral virtues. Whilst acquaintance with the vices as extremes will assist us in our aim for the mean, the wider implication of the doctrine is that only through the application of reason to experience may we come to know the right acts.
Aristotle also advises that we avoid most that vice which is more opposed to the virtue in question, such that it is easier for us to hit the mean. But we must still beware the vice nearer the virtue for it is then all the easier for us to get trapped in, especially if it is that which we take greater pleasure in. The notion of there being two vices is employed to prevent us from replacing one form of vice with another, for example, moving to asceticism as a rejection of hedonism; this is how Aristotle supports his moderate position on the pursuit of pleasure.
Elizabeth Anscombe claimed that contemporary moral philosophy had become unintelligible due to its dependence on abstract terms and that we should refrain from such an approach until it has a more adequate grounding, such as psychological evidence. Alasdair MacIntyre responded with the claim that ethics had lost its grounding because it is focused on actions rather than people; it has lost one of its key dimensions, concern for the development of moral character. He admits that a great obstacle to virtue ethics exists in that modern society has inherited an incoherent collection of virtues from multiple sources. His position is that meaning can be restored to morality when an individual identifies with and belongs to a moral tradition or community that promotes a narrative order for their life. These communities depend on the functioning of particular practices, purposive activities embodied in institutions, for example the practice of ‘professional medicine’. These can only exist if injuries are blamed and successes praised, and thus standards come to be set in the form of virtues. MacIntyre believes that this model can be generalised over all morally relevant areas of life, and such that virtue ethics is the way forward in moral philosophy. He also highlights that the interrelatedness of the virtues aids us in finding the mean because a particular act will be associated with several different virtues, and we are therefore provided with a number of individual criteria by which to assess the quality of that act.
Objections and Replies
Perhaps the most popular objection to the doctrine of the mean is that the triadic structure is wrong. Virtues and vices seem to naturally come in pairs, with the virtue lies on one side of a dividing-line against vice, rather than at a mean. There would then be degrees of virtue and vice on each side. Indeed we are capable of thinking of many examples that fit this model more plausibly than the triadic, by negligently overlooking them the doctrine appears irrelevant in such cases. Take the example of fidelity, this is the opposite of the vice of infidelity and is hard to break down into excess, deficiency and mean. The same can be said of compassion/cruelty. Aristotle’s answer to these cases would be to fit them in a triad even if it is not the most natural way of characterising them. Despite it not being necessary for his ethic that everything fits neatly into a triad it does help that they can, albeit awkward in some cases. In our example, the vice of excess could be the stubborn refusal to accept that infidelity is ever right. The triadic structure can also be defended by appeal to an exclusive definition of the right, only the best acts (or equivalents) are right, rather than there being degrees of right. Thus it could be claimed that the triadic structure is needed as a result of accepting this exclusiveness within an ethical system which relies on habituation, for it is clearly possible to develop habits that are too strong as well as those that are too weak, and in so doing surpass the sole right that is required.
Such an open procedure, however, seems too vague to be useful, and it is from this viewpoint that Rosalind Hursthouse questions whether anything illuminating is added by calling it a doctrine. She claims it is not only a platitude to say that we must aim between extremes, but it is self-evident and as such communicates no meaning above the obvious. Therefore the doctrine of the mean in so far as consists of this (rather than a theory of reason and habituation of moral behaviour) is irrelevant. This is plausible, but then how much does the doctrine rely on the triadic definition which gives it its name? As previously stated, while Aristotle values avoidance of extremes as the cardinal guideline, the core of his theory is that experience in accordance with reason is the ultimate decision making procedure. We might then shift to assessing whether his theory is as pragmatic as he would have claimed.
The apparent subjectivity of the doctrine has often been seen as a consideration against virtue ethics, and especially against its claim to be pragmatic. This regards theory’s supposed susceptibility to manipulation, that it produces no firm guide to action (i.e. rules), instead allowing agents to justify actions on the basis of their desires and habits. Against this objection, the clarification is first required that the mean varies between individuals in a way that is objective and external to their desires. The mean can vary between people, but this is because of significant moral differences in their situations, not that they have different desires. Second, the leeway that exists in our pursuit virtues is a positive thing because it promotes both an optimistic view of the human person as a responsible agent, and because the freedom of individuals to pursue the good life for them, coheres with the pluralist ideal of liberalism.
The non-absolutism (i.e. lack of absolute rules) of the theory is also often criticised on the grounds that the doctrine has no adequate response to actions we intuitively want to label right or wrong. Here it must be emphasised that Aristotle intends the idea of virtue to supplement rather than replace moral rules. Although he held that ethics cannot be reduced to simply a system of rules, he insists that there are acts which are wrong in any circumstance, including adultery, theft and murder. This is because these terms are vicious by definition. Further, the mean itself admits of neither excess nor deficiency, there is neither an excess nor a deficiency of a mean. Aquinas held similar views, in his interpretation neither rules nor virtues were preferred, indeed they were held to be interdefined, with virtues seen as expressions of internalised rules.
Yet Aristotle’s theory still does not produce a prescriptive code of conduct, and consequently it can therefore be argued that it is of no help to someone experiencing a moral crisis. True, seeking the mean is not an effective guide to the correct act, especially with the variety of circumstances, objects and people. But this conclusion lacks relevance for “[i]t should be clear that neither the thesis that virtues lie between extremes nor the thesis that the good person aims at what is intermediate is intended as a procedure for making decisions.” Indeed, Aristotle recognises this problem expressly. But, a virtuous person will know how to act in a crisis for they will have fostered a disposition to react to such crises in an appropriate way, owing to both their learning of practical wisdom and experimental trial and error.
Further objections to the theory can be drawn from evolutionary psychology. This suggests that dispositions towards particular moral acts will be influenced by the agent’s inherited genetic make-up, which thereby weakens the role of personal responsibility. There is also evidence to suggest that moral behaviour is based not in reason, but in emotional responses, just as in David Hume’s sentiment-based theory of ethics, which is otherwise strongly related to the virtue tradition. But due to its focus on character development an ethic of virtue allows more room for a developed psychology of morals. Aristotle argues himself that the cultivation of virtues will prevent psychological pressures to do wrong. Psychological experiments such as that of Milgram’s electric shocks and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, have demonstrated that under the influence of authority people are more prone to act against what they think is right. Of course those possessing virtue are vulnerable to the affects of psychological pressures; it is for this reason that Aristotle makes it clear that the enforcement of punitive legal system is required even in the best of societies. But this highlights the importance of habituation with the doctrine of the mean, under this theory agents willdo the right action because they are disposed to it, not simply that they are told what to do as in deontological and consequentialist theories. It is therefore, to adapt Aristotelian terms, far more an ethic of actuality and not of potentiality than is any other moral theory.
Overall then, the doctrine of the mean is general framework for goodness. This framework can then be filled in with the virtues of the individual or a community and as MacIntyre highlights this is as relevant to today’s society as it was to the radically different world of ancient Greece in which it was developed. The doctrine –defined as the part of the theory that selects moral virtues– can be taken either as the simple (and problematic) generalisation of the triadic structure to all categories of action within the moral sphere, or at a more general level where it is a common sense principle of acting upon experience and reason to achieve eudaimonia. We may not like the doctrine of the mean in itself or as a term, but this latter interpretation, of basing the good on our development of reason via experience, is particularly appealing. Yet it remains misleading to seen the doctrine as a typical normative ethical system. In conclusion therefore, the doctrine of the mean is a plausible guide to moral goodness, and indeed such an account of the development of moral character is a necessary dimension to, but not alone sufficient for, any realistic ethical system. The theory is apt to cohere with the rest of a broader approach we take because virtue requires that we respect rights, follow duties and take account of consequences, and an approach that embraces and further elaborates each of these dimensions is required for both for a truly plausible moral philosophy and for an informative guide to moral action.
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Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Thomson, J. A. K. (trans.), , (2004), 4th Edition, London, Penguin Books Ltd.
Bowie, Robert A., (2001), Ethical Studies, Cheltenham, Nelson Thornes Ltd.
Hursthouse, Rosalind, (2006), ‘The Central Doctrine of the Mean’, In The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Kraut, Richard (ed.), Oxford, Blackwell Publishers Ltd., pp. 96-115
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Porter, Jean, (2001), ‘Virtue Ethics’, In The Cambridge Companion To Christian Ethics, Gill, Robin (ed.), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 96-109
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The United States Catholic Conference, (1994), The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Washington D.C., Liberia Editrice Vaticana
 Pence, , pp. 250-1
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 Popkin & Stroll, (1993) p.10
 Aristotle, 1094a, 5-20
 Aristotle,1097b, 15-20
 Popkin & Stroll, (1993), p.9
 Aristotle, 1098a, 20
 Aristotle, 1178a, 20 – 9a, 30
 Aristotle, 1097b, 22 – 1098a, 20
 Aristotle,1098a, 17
 Aristotle,1105b, 26-7
 Aristotle,1099a, 20
 Aristotle,1172a, 20
 Bowie, (2001), pp.112-5
 MacIntyre, (1981), p. 149
 Pence, , p. 250
 Bowie, (2001), pp.112-5
 O’ Connell, (1978), p. 65
 Aristotle, 1100b, 15
 Popkin & Stroll, (1993), p.9
 Kraut, (2001), p. 7
 Ross, (1995), p. 215
 Finnis, (2005),p. 21
 The Catechism of the Catholic Church, pp. 443-5
 Kraut, (2001), p. 8
 Ross, (1995), p. 223
 Finnis, (2005),p. 21. Cf. Aristotle, 1144b, 10-25
 Aristotle, 1104a, 10-25
 Aristotle,1106a, 28- b, 7
 Popkin & Stroll, (1993), p. 10- For they have different requirements and Aristotle acknowledges a pluralism of correct ways of living.
 Aristotle, 1106b 21-23
 Ross, (1995), p. 202
 Porter, (2001), p.98
 Kraut, (2001), p. 9
 Popkin & Stroll, (1993), p. 10
 Finnis, (2005),p. 20
 Ross, (1995), p. 202
 Aristotle, 1108b, 30 – 1109b, 27 cited in Ross, (1995), p. 205
 Pence, , p. 251. Cf. Anscombe, (1958)
 Bowie, (2001), pp.116-9
 MacIntyre, (1981), pp. 10-1
 MacIntyre, (1981),p. 144
 MacIntyre, (1981), pp. 188-91
 MacIntyre, (1981),p. 155
 Hursthouse, (2006), pp. 105-14
 Bowie, (2001), pp. 116-9
 Bowie, (2001), pp. 116-9
 MacIntyre, (1981), p. 151-2
 Kraut, (2001), p. 12
 Aristotle, 1107a,10-20
 Aristotle, 1107a, 10-25; Ross, (1995), p. 204
 Finnis, (2005),p. 23
 Bowie, , pp. 116-9
 Kraut, (2001), p. 11
 Aristotle, 1138b, 18-32
 Popkin & Stroll, (1993), p. 10
 Porter, (2001), p. 104
 Kraut, (2001), p. 8
 Doris & Stephen, (2006), p. 13
 Kraut, (2001), p. 8
 Pence, , p. 256