Aristotle’s mean

Aristotle is noted for his description of the ethical mean (in the Nichomachean Ethics) as balance or

mean between two vices, the one involving excess, the other deficiency. … It [the mean] is such because its character is to aim at what is intermediate in the passions and in actions (Bk. 2, 8-9).

Thus Aristotle extends reason, the abstract tool of philosophy and science, to the reasonable in ethics, based on the premise that all actions and behaviors tend toward happiness, and ultimately toward virtue. He warns against the pleasant and the pleasurable as criteria for ethics or virtue because reason cannot check passion: “We do not judge impartially.” What, then, of reason? To hit the mean is “hard in the extreme,” Aristotle owns, for in doing so we are being carried from one extreme to another, when our object should be to hit at the right moment, in the right circumstances, in the right context, and so forth. Ethics, in Aristotle, is reduced to a scale, based on situational criteria:


This formulation works in the abstract and with a “reasonable” person. But actions and behaviors can be largely based on psychological complexities and cultural boundaries, so that what is reasonable to one is not to another, and what is excess or deficiency to one is not so to another. Means can easily become reductions to a least common denominator, as the culture or individual may want. We are so much a product of our immediate culture and society that other measures of value will never occur to us or seem strangely excessive or deficient.

Scholasticism liked Aristotle’s ethical scale because medieval thinkers had already defined the overarching criteria for moral actions and behaviors, and the scale operated within it. The Enlightenment, too, embraced the primacy of reason because the dominant classes defined the overarching standards in politics, law, and society. From both, for example, comes the just war theory, wherein war is itself deemed reasonable and a matter of whether the means are excessive or insufficient.

In modern Western ethics, Aristotle’s scale absorbs everything: consumption, violence, art, health, economics, judicial interpretations, personal relations — is it too little, too much, or Goldilocks’s mean? The goal of the mean is a society that is functional, not whether it is ethical or whether the ethical premises are themselves to be questioned. This was the mischievous work of Nietzsche in pointing out that the whole structure of ethics in contemporary Western society is based on a premise of control and authority, not reason or reasonableness, on a criteria defined after all by the given culture and society, not by philosophers. But, as J. Krishnamurti put it: “Who wants to be well adjusted to a sick society?”

Alas the hermit, relegated by society to the extremes of behavior. Society may accommodate itself to the hermit being innocuous and eccentric, but also excessive in the search for solitude, and deficient in being disengaged from social activities and participation. The mean, it will be argued, is what society values, and as Aristotle argued, humans are “social animals.” Subordination to the instincts of the society will be a necessity for function, harmony, and order.

What a different conception of ethics from what Westerners are accustomed to as a priori are ideas such as Lao-tzu’s who says that mining injures the earth, or the Hindu-Buddhist and later view that eating animals is violence against sentient beings, or the idea that war is wrong and not a reluctant necessity or an offense of excess. In these examples, ethics is not based on “reasonableness” from the subjective and passionate human view but on a deep ethics universalizing the best understanding of human evolution and ethical reflection.

Of course, an entire culture that would embrace such ideas would have redefined ethics to go beyond deficiency and excess, which would be relegated to the wavering and compromising instincts and the cerebral flashes that have gotten society to its present level of moribund complexity, unable to create and pursue an ethics not dependent on a given society or mood. Ethics remains dominated by the oscillations between phlegmatic indifference and virulent aggression. The mean has become the “quiet desperation” to which Thoreau alluded.