Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle "Finding the Mean".


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Page 198

Here Aristotle argues, as he often does, from crafts to virtues—from the way in

which a craft achieves its ergon, ... to the craftsman finding the mean. But the

defense of the definition mostly comes later. See 1111b5, 1138b18, 1144b21.


5. The Doctrine of the Mean

5.1 Ethical Virtue as Disposition

Aristotle describes ethical virtue as a “hexis” (“state” “condition” “disposition”)—a tendency or disposition, induced by our habits, to have appropriate feelings (1105b25–6). Defective states of character are hexeis (plural of hexis) as well, but they are tendencies to have inappropriate feelings. The significance of Aristotle's characterization of these states as hexeis is his decisive rejection of the thesis, found throughout Plato's early dialogues, that virtue is nothing but a kind of knowledge and vice nothing but a lack of knowledge. Although Aristotle frequently draws analogies between the crafts and the virtues (and similarly between physical health and eudaimonia), he insists that the virtues differ from the crafts and all branches of knowledge in that the former involve appropriate emotional responses and are not purely intellectual conditions.

Furthermore, every ethical virtue is a condition intermediate between two other states, one involving excess, and the other deficiency (1106a26-b28). In this respect, Aristotle says, the virtues are no different from technical skills: every skilled worker knows how to avoid excess and deficiency, and is in a condition intermediate between two extremes. The courageous person, for example, judges that some dangers are worth facing and others not, and experiences fear to a degree that is appropriate to his circumstances. He lies between the coward, who flees every danger and experiences excessive fear, and the rash person, who judges every danger worth facing and experiences little or no fear. Aristotle holds that this same topography applies to every ethical virtue: all are located on a map that places the virtues between states of excess and deficiency. He is careful to add, however, that the mean is to be determined in a way that takes into account the particular circumstances of the individual (1106a36-b7). The arithmetic mean between 10 and 2 is 6, and this is so invariably, whatever is being counted. But the intermediate point that is chosen by an expert in any of the crafts will vary from one situation to another. There is no universal rule, for example, about how much food an athlete should eat, and it would be absurd to infer from the fact that 10 lbs. is too much and 2 lbs. too little for me that I should eat 6 lbs. Finding the mean in any given situation is not a mechanical or thoughtless procedure, but requires a full and detailed acquaintance with the circumstances.

It should be evident that Aristotle's treatment of virtues as mean states endorses the idea that we should sometimes have strong feelings—when such feelings are called for by our situation. Sometimes only a small degree of anger is appropriate; but at other times, circumstances call for great anger. The right amount is not some quantity between zero and the highest possible level, but rather the amount, whatever it happens to be, that is proportionate to the seriousness of the situation. Of course, Aristotle is committed to saying that anger should never reach the point at which it undermines reason; and this means that our passion should always fall short of the extreme point at which we would lose control. But it is possible to be very angry without going to this extreme, and Aristotle does not intend to deny this.

The theory of the mean is open to several objections, but before considering them, we should recognize that in fact there are two distinct theses each of which might be called a doctrine of the mean. First, there is the thesis that every virtue is a state that lies between two vices, one of excess and the other of deficiency. Second, there is the idea that whenever a virtuous person chooses to perform a virtuous act, he can be described as aiming at an act that is in some way or other intermediate between alternatives that he rejects. It is this second thesis that is most likely to be found objectionable. A critic might concede that in some cases virtuous acts can be described in Aristotle's terms. If, for example, one is trying to decide how much to spend on a wedding present, one is looking for an amount that is neither excessive nor deficient. But surely many other problems that confront a virtuous agent are not susceptible to this quantitative analysis. If one must decide whether to attend a wedding or respect a competing obligation instead, it would not be illuminating to describe this as a search for a mean between extremes—unless “aiming at the mean” simply becomes another phrase for trying to make the right decision. The objection, then, is that Aristotle's doctrine of the mean, taken as a doctrine about what the ethical agent does when he deliberates, is in many cases inapplicable or unilluminating.

A defense of Aristotle would have to say that the virtuous person does after all aim at a mean, if we allow for a broad enough notion of what sort of aiming is involved. For example, consider a juror who must determine whether a defendant is guilty as charged. He does not have before his mind a quantitative question; he is trying to decide whether the accused committed the crime, and is not looking for some quantity of action intermediate between extremes. Nonetheless, an excellent juror can be described as someone who, in trying to arrive at the correct decision, seeks to express the right degree of concern for all relevant considerations. He searches for the verdict that results from a deliberative process that is neither overly credulous or unduly skeptical. Similarly, in facing situations that arouse anger, a virtuous agent must determine what action (if any) to take in response to an insult, and although this is not itself a quantitative question, his attempt to answer it properly requires him to have the right degree of concern for his standing as a member of the community. He aims at a mean in the sense that he looks for a response that avoids too much or too little attention to factors that must be taken into account in making a wise decision.

Perhaps a greater difficulty can be raised if we ask how Aristotle determines which emotions are governed by the doctrine of the mean. Consider someone who loves to wrestle, for example. Is this passion something that must be felt by every human being at appropriate times and to the right degree? Surely someone who never felt this emotion to any degree could still live a perfectly happy life. Why then should we not say the same about at least some of the emotions that Aristotle builds into his analysis of the ethically virtuous agent? Why should we experience anger at all, or fear, or the degree of concern for wealth and honor that Aristotle commends? These are precisely the questions that were asked in antiquity by the Stoics, and they came to the conclusion that such common emotions as anger and fear are always inappropriate. Aristotle assumes, on the contrary, not simply that these common passions are sometimes appropriate, but that it is essential that every human being learn how to master them and experience them in the right way at the right times. A defense of his position would have to show that the emotions that figure in his account of the virtues are valuable components of any well-lived human life, when they are experienced properly. Perhaps such a project could be carried out, but Aristotle himself does not attempt to do so.

He often says, in the course of his discussion, that when the good person chooses to act virtuously, he does so for the sake of the “kalon”—a word that can mean “beautiful,” “noble,” or “fine.” (See for example 1120a23–4.) This term indicates that Aristotle sees in ethical activity an attraction that is comparable to the beauty of well-crafted artifacts, including such artifacts as poetry, music, and drama. He draws this analogy in his discussion of the mean, when he says that every craft tries to produce a work from which nothing should be taken away and to which nothing further should be added (1106b5–14). A craft product, when well designed and produced by a good craftsman, is not merely useful, but also has such elements as balance, proportion and harmony—for these are properties that help make it useful. Similarly, Aristotle holds that a well-executed project that expresses the ethical virtues will not merely be advantageous but kalon as well—for the balance it strikes is part of what makes it advantageous. The young person learning to acquire the virtues must develop a love of doing what is kalon and a strong aversion to its opposite—the aischron, the shameful and ugly. Determining what is kalon is difficult (1106b28–33, 1109a24–30, and the normal human aversion to embracing difficulties helps account for the scarcity of virtue (1104b10–11).

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