Aristotle’s Golden Mean

This critique of the Golden Mean is aimed at being a specific example of one of the general problems I listed in my last post – that ancient Greek philosophers routinely present theories that sound grand but don’t actually have any meaning. In this case, Aristotle says that the virtuous “amount” of a characteristic is a “golden” mean, found between two vices: one of deficiency and one of excess. For example, according to Aristotle, the virtuous amount of courage is found between two vices: recklessness (an excess of courage) and cowardice (a deficiency of courage).

However, this theory doesn’t actually help in finding virtue. Think about it: when you’re trying to find out what the virtuous amount of a characteristic is, all the golden mean offers is a tautological claim that the right amount is not too much and not too little (tautological because the good amount of a characteristic is defined as being the good amount of the characteristic).

And the virtue does not even have to truly be between two extremes. In the cases where an extreme amount of a quality is desirable, Aristotle just pretends that this desirable extreme is actually a mean. Take courage: there is really no way to have “too much” courage. So Aristotle takes the desirable extreme – being very courageous – and says it’s the mean, and then finds a term for courage that has negative qualities attached to it ( “recklessness”) and says that this is the excess of courage, as if the undesirable qualities implied by recklessness are actually directly caused by an excess of courage. This is clearly false; look at Gandhi, look at Martin Luther King Jr., look at martyrs, look at any number of amazing people who have had great courage without giving into anger or impatience. These people are not reckless, and yet clearly they have no shortage of courage.

People can try to dance around these issues by saying “sure Gandhi had a moderate amount of courage, given that ‘moderate amount of courage’ is actually defined as having a lot of courage, and sure Gandhi didn’t have lots of courage, given that ‘lots of courage’ is actually defined as being an asshole!” But that’s the point: Aristotle’s golden mean relies on screwing with definitions. If you are allowed to define qualities however you want you can explain away any good quality as really being a “mean”, but that isn’t helpful in the slightest. That’s simply engaging in the kind of behaviour philosophy is infamous for; wasting brainpower on something that is useless.

So, if it’s so useless, why do people like it so much? After all, the idea of a “golden mean” has been picked up and applied not only in ethics but pretty much everywhere else – “all things in moderation” is a well known proverb, and hell, this “golden mean” business has even managed to get itself classified as a fallacy.  The reason people use and like the golden mean is the reason people like and use any other proverb; it’s a shorthand to describe a fairly common situation, one where we realize that there can be both too much and too little of something. When it applies people think of it and go “oh hey it’s right again” and when it doesn’t apply it doesn’t really occur to them (and if it does, they can explain it away by messing with definitions a bit).

Aristotle’s Golden Mean is a classic example of what’s wrong with the philosophy of the Ancient Greeks, and in fact what is wrong with a lot of other philosophy too: when all is said and done, it really tells you nothing at all. It might be useful as a proverb, but it certainly has no normative qualities and never will no matter how much work is put into it. Working on these useless Greek platitudes is just throwing good effort after bad; no matter how much you think about a theory without content it will still have no content.

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6 Responses to Aristotle’s Golden Mean

  1. Shlee says:

    Brilliant! Thank you for the inspiration.

  2. Lily says:

    I think you’ve oversimplified. The courageous person, according to Aristotle, avoids fearing the wrong thing in the wrong way and at the wrong time. In a similar vein, the courageous person avoids being confident about the wrong thing in the wrong way and at the wrong time. Gandhi, MLK, Jr., the martyrs of the faith, and others were courageous about the right things at a time when life required that they be courageous, even at the cost of their lives.

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  4. Sandy says:

    I realize this post is years old but I was googling Aristotle’s Golden Mean and wanted to take in all sides of thought. I believe up to this point in my life that the extremes are based on the fight and flight reactions. FIGHT – FLIGHT – FIGURE IT OUT. Suppose you are speaking to your boss and he says something you disagree with.

    1. What if you are angry? An extreme would be DEFIANT? You could tell him off or not do what they asked.
    2. What if you were afraid of your boss? An extreme would be SUBMISSIVE? What if what they said was actually wrong?
    3. What if you were unaffected by anger or fear at what they said? Would the word be RESPECT? Could you use good communication skills, manners, empathy and good factual and moral reasoning skills to give a more appropriate response?

    Sandy … in The Pleasant Home

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