Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Doctrine of the Mean: Not Likely

In this paper I will argue that the doctrine of the mean is too demanding, and not plausible. Using Wolf’s view on moral saints to demonstrate precision, I will demonstrate Curzer’s view of hitting the mean after which I will show that this way is too demanding and not plausible. This paper will then show an objection using phronesis as a plausible way to hit the mean without being too demanding. I will then respond by saying that phronesis requires impossible actions, and if this ideal is impossible then it is too demanding. This paper will then conclude with the results of the paper by accounting for all of the objections.

There is a dispute between Hursthouse and Curzer about the interpretation of Aristotle’s account of what a virtue is. Is it a quantifiable heuristic definition of a virtue or is it a metaphorical definition with many ways of getting at a virtue? Aristotle states, “Now virtue is concerned with passions and actions, in which excess is a form of failure, and so is defect, while the intermediate is praised and is a form of success; and being praised and being successful are both characteristics of virtue. Therefore virtue is a kind of mean, since, as we have seen, it aims at what is intermediate (1106b-25, Ross 1980)

Curzer argues that Aristotle’s account should be taken literally. “If a quantitative doctrine of the mean offers a plausible picture of the virtues rather than a silly picture, then a literal doctrine of the mean is preferable to a metaphorical, heuristic one.” (Curzer, 129) Curzer accepts that there are many parameters to hitting the mean. Courage is found exactly between fear and over confidence, but there are ways to find the mean by hitting it at the right time, with the right aim, with the right way, and the right thing. Just because there are multiple ways of being confident, it does not take away from the doctrine of mean. One must still hit the center of all the fore mentioned parameters. Curzer also references Aristotle’s view that temperance is a way to hit the mean. “Excess with regard to pleasures is self-indulgence and is culpable; with regards to pains one is not, as in the case of courage, called temperate for facing them or self-indulgent for not doing so, but the self-indulgent man is so called because he is pained more than he ought at not getting pleasant things… and the temperate man is so called because he is not pained at the absence of what is pleasant and his abstinence from it.” (118b-25, Ross) “These passages also indicate that temperance is medial, self-indulgence is excess, and insensibility is deficiency… With respect to courage and temperance, the two virtues Hursthouse discusses… Aristotle sometimes takes the doctrine of the mean heuristically or metaphorically, but he gives no indication of doing so in his accounts of courage and temperance. Here he takes the mean to be straightforwardly quantitative. (Curzer, 132) According to Curzer Aristotle accounts for a quantitative doctrine of the mean that is a plausible picture of the virtues. Therefore, a quantitative interpretation should be accepted over a metaphorical, heuristic one.

     I hold that if a doctrine of the mean is too demanding then it is not plausible. Wolf backs my argument with her picture of the moral saints.”By moral saint I mean a person whose every action is as morally good as possible, a person, that is, who is as morally worthy as can be.” (Wolf, 419) She believes that this moral saint is not an ideal person because this person must strive to be morally perfect by helping everyone around them to be happy. Whether that person does it out of a desire to be happy by making all others happy (loving saint) or the person attaches a higher importance on everyone’s welfare above their own (rational saint), this person loses out because they do not have time for non-moral goods. Non-moral goods include personal likes of cooking, watching basketball, or having a sarcastic sense of humor. “A moral theory that does not contain the seeds of an all-consuming ideal of moral sainthood thus seems to place false and unnatural limits on our opportunity to do some moral good and our potential to deserve moral praise.” (Wolf, 433) Not only must this person give up their own attachments to non-moral goods, but they also have to have a high level of rationality to make everyone’s welfare better. Moral saints must live like phronimos. They must hit the mean every time. Their reasoning has to be precise. This precision attaches a level that seems to be too demanding. Not everyone has the high intellectual level it would take to be a phronimos. “Brannmark: “… the only way in which the phronimoi are extreme is in their precision. Thus, while it might be difficult to live like a phronimos, it is not the kind of difficulty involved in running marathons every day but rather the kind of difficulty involved in hitting the bull’s eye all the time.” (Wolf handout, 2) This level of rationality is not plausible. According to Driver virtue must be accessible not to those that are wise, but to those that are kind. Greatness of soul is another virtue that makes the doctrine of the mean not plausible. The individual that is considered a great soul is compared to the moral saint. It is viewed that greatness of soul is the mean between vanity and smallness of soul. This virtue is a crown to all the other virtues and all the virtues cannot exist without it. Unless one has certain amount of external goods they cannot have greatness of soul. Not everyone has the resources to attain such a virtue. One cannot quantifiably attain the mean even though they meet the requirements of the other virtues. Lacking in one of virtues robs the individual of the capability to become greatness of soul. Individuals will therefore be restricted from attaining greatness of soul. The doctrine of the mean is not plausible due to the fore mentioned demandingness.  This argument directly attacks Curzer’s second premise that a quantitative doctrine of the mean offers a plausible picture of the virtues.

     Nussbaum brings up this idea of virtue as a sphere that represents the context of a people. Demandingness disappears due to people’s definition of what the virtues are, and some of the virtue spheres can be dropped according to the societal context. It is not necessary to hit the mean according to Aristotle’s definition based upon a ancient Greek society because the virtues have now become attainable through our society’s context. I am not convinced that this line of argument does away with the doctrine of the mean because one must meet the mean despite the context of a culture. Demandingness disappears in one aspect of attainable virtues, but resides because the virtues that are culturally acceptable still need a mean. Her argument only allows for the greatness of soul virtue to change in context but not in quantity. I have shown that the doctrine of the mean has such high level of demandingness that it cannot be plausible.

There are major problems with prior argument. First the account does not allow for a moral sainthood that could be attainable, secondly there are artificial limits on morality. The moral sainthood argument does not provide an answer; it provides only a criticism of Curzer’s argument. The argument also allows for the opportunity for one to choose non-moral goods over morality. How do we decide what is best? Since there is no other answer presented it does not discount the argument’s plausibility despite its demandingness. Aristotle seems to answer the question. “And, if, further, virtue is more exact and better than any art, as nature also is, then virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate.” (1106b13-1106b15) The doctrine of the mean is demanding but still plausible because there is no solution to attaining virtue besides the mean of two related vices. This argument deals precisely with prior argument’s premise that if a doctrine is too demanding then it is not plausible.

     The prior argument seems to suggest that just because there is no other answer presented that the doctrine of the mean must be correct. This cannot be true because the answer to attaining virtues is an attainable. If something requires impossible actions then that action is too demanding. The doctrine of the mean requires impossible actions. The doctrine of the mean is too demanding. Through previous parts of this paper I have shown that attaining phronesis, greatness of soul, or moral sainthood requires impossible actions. Not everyone can have the right rationality all of the time, they cannot attain greatness of soul if they do not have certain amounts of external goods, nor can they attain moral sainthood without phronesis. Because of these impossible demands the doctrine of the mean is too demanding. This deals specifically with the premise that demandingness is not a strong enough reason to do away with a doctrine. The only answer known to a problem does not conclude that it is the correct or only answer knowable.

     The doctrine of the mean is too demanding despite Curzer’s attempt to show that the heuristic view of the Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean is silly and that the precise use of the doctrine of the mean is a plausible way to interpret Aristotle. I showed that demandingness puts virtue too far out of reach of the majority of humans. Then I demonstrated that the doctrine of the mean can still exist despite its demandingness. Then I responded by showing that impossible actions are enough to determine whether something is too demanding. The doctrine of the mean is too demanding.




1. Ross, David. The Nicomachean Ethics. Oxford University Press, 1980

2. Curzer, Howard. A Defense of Aristotle’s Doctrine that Virtue Is a Mean. Mathesis Publications, 1996

3. Wolf, Susan. Moral Saints. The Journal of Philosophy, 1982

4. Hursthouse, Rosalind. A False Doctrine of the Mean. Blackwell Publishing, 1980
5. Nussbaum, Martha. Non-relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach. Oxford University Press, 1993