Oversimplifications of the doctrine of the mean

Brandon has a very good post which serves to warn us against simplistic accounts of the doctrine of the mean. He focuses on the difficulty in thinking that the mean admits of simplistic reductions to a mere middle state between two and only two extremes. The post helps to highlight one of the oversimplifications which, if treated as a complete explanation of virtue, can easily lead to contempt for the doctrine of virtues. There are a few other oversimplifications worth pointing out in addition to this one.  

Aristotle’s account of virtue consisting in the mean is often understood as promoting a tepidity or lukewarmness of the passions. The student is first told that virtue consists in a “mean between two extremes”; he is then given the standard first example of courage being a middle between too much fear and too little fear, and he is then left to try to imagine how to universalize this to every passion or desire. The desire for food probably suggests itself next, and it can be shoved into this mold without too much damage. The result of this process is that “virtue” comes to be seen as a sort of dimmer switch that we must always set at halfway up. Is it bright as noon? Well, keep that switch halfway up, you don’t want to fall into “brightness vice”, do you? Are you trying to read at night? Don’t turn up the light! SInner! Sinner!

The mean does not consist in a sort of perpetual tepidity. The idea of “moderation in all things” is not that we must always try to be lukewarm when we can be cold or hot, but that our passions should always have a moderator. The passions stand to reason like a the candidates in a formal political debate stand to the moderaor, or like the players on a team stand to the coach. Simply speaking, the players and the candidates are the stars of the show, and reason’s job is a moderator. Every debate needs a good moderator, and the debate cannot go well without one, but the goal of the moderator is not preserve a state of tepidity or mediocrity. In fact, it’s part of the moderator’s job to keep this from happening. Again, virtues are perfectly coached passions, and while the idea of moderation in the sense of avoiding extremes does have some place in coaching, a coach doesn’t tell his players to always jog during the play to avoid the extremes of running or walking.

Moderation does not consist in the direction of the passions to a middle state but in the direction of the passions simply speaking. The doctrine of the mean recognizes passions as the same sorts of things as players on a team or candidates in a formal debate or a river that we want to power a mill. All are the sorts of things that can only perform their activities well in conjunction with a moderator. Remembering this helps guard against another common perversion of virtue theory: the idea that reason is the star operator. When people hear that virtue consists in acting “according to reason” they can easily think that the goal is to somehow replace the passions with sheer calculation. In fact, ethics as such is always prone to thinking that ethics should just be the unmediated operation of reason. In Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean, however, reducing ethics to mere reasonable rule and calculation would be as stupid as sending the 60 year old basketball coach out on the floor to block the 31 year old center. Moral virtue consists precisely in the perfection of passions. Reason is seen as acting for them, as opposed to acting for itself, even though reason accrues an irreplaceable benefit from the passions being perfected. Better yet, reason might be best seen as acting for the whole team or production, which includes itself and all the various members.  

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