Explain and evaluate Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean, including in your answer an interpretation of the claim that the mean is relative to us

Explain and evaluate Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean, including in your answer an interpretation of the claim that the mean is relative to us.
Word Count (including footnotes, excluding title and bibliography): 3500
Essay should make close reference to the relevant texts in answer to the essay questions
Harvard style referencing including page numbers
Must use files attached as well as other resources
Week 4: The Doctrine of the Mean

Some key passages in the Nicomachean Ethics (NE) on the mean; Rosalind Hursthouse’s classic paper, ‘Aristotle’s False Doctrine of the Mean’; Presentation on Lesley Brown’s paper, ‘What is the mean ‘relative to us’ in Aristotle’s ethics?’, and discussion

Book II
• In II.4, Aristotle has given 3 conditions for being virtuous: perform the right action knowing it is the virtuous thing to do, do it for its own sake (or the sake of what is fine), do it from a stable and unchanging disposition. II. 6 Virtue is a state of the soul, explained by what is intermediary (or a mean), relative to us: The mean/ intermediary relative to the object, in contrast with mean relative to us. E.g. let 10kg be a lot of food, and 2kg be little food. 6kg is the mean relative to the object (mathematical mean). The mean relative to us: imagine Milo, the famous wrestler. What is not too much or too little in his case is not 6kg, but more, and in the case of a novice, less than 6kg. (We return to this below.)
• II. 6 Virtue is virtue of character, about feelings and actions, and these admit of excess, deficiency, and what is intermediate (1106b16-28). Qu: is the mean internal to the agent, or external? The status of actions… Emphasises that there are many ways of going astray, but just one way of getting it right.
• II. 6 Virtue is a state resulting in decisions, depends on the mean relative to us, determined by reason. It is a mean between two (bad) states of excess and deficiency – relative to what is required in feelings and actions. However, not every feeling or action can be characterised as a mean, since some are just bad, e.g. malice (feelings), murder (actions).

II.7 Move from general description to particular cases of virtue. A mapping of intermediaries and extremes (a chart?): some for the virtues (both cardinal and lesser virtues), but others for emotions or affections.
• Re: feelings of fear and confidence, courage is the mean. Extremes: excess of fear (nameless); excess of confidence (rash person); excessively fearful and deficiently bold (coward).
• Re: feelings of pleasures and pains (but not all, and especially not all pains), temperance is the mean. Extremes: excess is self indulgence; deficiency of pleasures is very rare, kind of nameless – ‘insensate’.
• Re: giving a receiving of money (modest scale), the mean is open-handedness. Extremes: excess is wastefulness and deficiency is avariciousness. Notes that these work in opposite ways (NB: focus is on the action and desire of the agent, not on the goal of possession the right amount of money.)
• Goes on to discuss giving and taking of money (grand scale), honour and dishonour (grand and modest scale); and anger and other emotions or feelings, honesty, and being socially amusing or witty. In relation to anger, the mean is being mild-tempered. Extremes: excess is irascibility, and deficiency is spiritlessness.
II. 8 Reiterates: three states, two bad ones at the extremes, excess and deficiency, and the intermediate or mean, which is virtue. Sometimes what is more opposed to the mean is the deficient state, and sometimes the excessive state. E.g. Courage: cowardice is more opposed to it than rashness; Temperance: over-indulgence is more opposed to it than being insensate.

Book III
• In chapters 1-5 of book III, Aristotle reasons that since a human being is an archê (or principle, i.e. starting point and cause) of action, then our actions are up to us. Long discussion of the voluntary, deliberation. Virtue is to do with deliberation, involves decision.
• Courage: (III.6) There is a mean that concerns fear and confidence. We all fear bad things (many examples including poverty and disease), but these not to do with courage. Courageous person is fearless in relation to death, but courage not concerned with death generally, e.g. death at sea, illness. Courage concerned with the finest death: death in war. (III.7) Although there are some things that represent the limit of human fear – these are the things that are too frightening for any person to resist (1115b). The coward: excessively fearful, of the wrong things, in the wrong way, and so on, which fear he or she experiences as a pain. The coward also lacks confidence, but is distinguished more clearly by his or her excessive fear. (III.8) There are various states that resemble courage, but aren’t true courage, e.g. professional soldier. (III.9) So the brave person will find death and wounds painful, and does not willingly endure them, and only does so for the sake of what is noble, when to do so is to do so for the right reasons.
• Temperance (III.10-12): Temperance concerns pleasure and pain, as does courage, but while courage was more concerned with pains (in the form of fears), temperance is more concerned with pleasures. The temperate person has an intermediate state with regard to these pleasures. (III.12) Stands in a radically different relation to objects of pleasure – simply does not find the same things pleasurable as the intemperate person. If a person constantly satisfies the appetites in excessive ways, they grow larger. Eventually this person’s soul is such that the appetites expel reason.
2. Papers:
J.O. Urmson, ‘Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean’;
R. Hursthouse, ‘A False Doctrine of the Mean’

Urmson’s view:
• Aristotle has a conception of the mean as a (mathematical) mid-point, between two extremes, one of excess the other of deficiency. Not three extremes, and not one kind of extreme only (excess or deficiency only). So, central concepts are those of too much and too little
• The mean is understood in terms of measurement by Urmson. For each virtue there is a relevant field of feelings or emotions, and the right feeling is on the mid-point between extremes, feelings to the wrong extent: too much or too little. There is also a measurement of the objects of feeling: too much, too little, just right. Vice is such that these extremes are two in number and opposed. ‘Too much’ can mean too often, too violently, too many units of the object of feeling or desire; ‘too little’ can mean too infrequently, too weakly, in insufficient amounts, and so on.
• Quantitative view of virtue as between exactly two measurements of the object of feeling / desire (and action)
• Critical of this view of Aristotle’s (as he has interpreted it, as a quantitative view)
Hursthouse’s criticisms:
• Unclear that there are exactly 2 vices in each case, in Aristotle’s view. E.g. courage lies in a mean and is a virtue, but there are more than two ways to go wrong, more than 2 vices in the case of courage. Similarly with the feeling of anger. E.g. temperance, really has one opposite in general. And think of the pleasures of e.g. alcohol or sugar. And of food generally.
• Also unclear that the mean is a mathematical mid-point. This results from Urmson’s emphasis on excessive or deficient amounts, or frequency, she suggests. But as Aristotle points out, some things are just bad and admit of no mean or intermediate state (e.g. murder).

Hursthouse’s positive view – the mean and the limits set by virtue: Hursthouse in fact identifies two quite distinct ways in which people may be vicious, and so virtuous. Virtue is limited by the extremes of excess and deficiency in some cases. But the temperate person e.g. also avoids pleasures that are not honourable, not admirable (contrary to what is kalos). So some things are vicious because they are beyond the limits of virtue in this way, i.e. that they are inconsistent in any amount, to any degree, with the fine or noble – simply not admirable to desire / feel disposed towards certain activities or objects (e.g. murder, theft, adultery, etc.)
• Assumptions made by Aristotle: Human beings are simply (naturally? Because embodied?) such that we are tempted by certain pleasures or weak or deficient in certain situations. These assumptions explain his talk of excess & deficiency.
• The mean – Hursthouse’s conclusion: For Aristotle virtue is a mean, because it is a disposition to feel (and act upon) certain desires, within limits, which limits we can think of as the limits of virtue, but two sorts of limits. Human nature: certain kinds of basic desires and feelings, but we also have the capacity for rationality.

Lesley Brown, ‘What is the mean ‘relative to us’ in Aristotle’s ethics?’

The relevant text: NE II.6 (1106a14 – b28)

The view Brown opposes: Virtue is relative in some way to individuals:
a) Relative to moral progress: the Milo example.
b) Relative to natural dispositions or proclivities: A timid v fearless person.
c) Relative to station in life: If a man acts as a brave woman does he is not brave (so too for children and slaves)
d) Relative to beliefs

So how is virtue a ‘mean relative to us’, according to Brown?
Her key thought is that Aristotle means ‘relative to us as human beings’, not relative to individuals (See also her later paper ‘Why is Aristotle’s Virtue of Character a Mean?’ (CCNE, 2014), on Moodle).
• One mid-point is relative to the thing itself, while one is relative to us. E.g. the mid-point relative to kg of weight of food between 2 and 10kg is 6kg.
• The second mid-point, that which is relative to us, is what can go wrong by us being excessive or deficient, and so has a normative or evaluative component.
E.g. anger. For any situation, the possible feelings and expressions of anger exist on an objective range: extremely angry to not at all angry. The mid-point relative to the thing itself will be moderate anger. But the mid-point relative to us, will be just the right amount of anger for a person in that situation.

Can you think of examples?

Brown’s suggestion: just one way to get it ‘just right’ in action and feeling. See 1106b25ff: ‘Virtue then is a mean (mesotês), at least in the sense that it is able to hit a ‘just right point’ (meson)’, where (Brown says) what is just right is so relative to the particular situation.
• Virtue is a mean (mesotês), but not primarily a ‘just right’ point (meson), between more and less on a continuum – vices are not themselves on a continuum with virtue, a deficiency or excess of virtue. A ‘just right’ response from the agent.
• In the later paper she further suggests that the virtuousness of feelings and actions (feeling and acting in the ‘just right’ way) is what makes the state or disposition of the agent virtuous or excellent. A very controversial claim.

Return to book III, NE – courage & temperance
Courage III.6-9:
• III. 6 Mean concerns fear and confidence. Each on some spectrum, of more and less. Each directed towards situations, events, or objects. But if fears & confidence directed towards some situations, not to do with courage. Ought to fear a bad reputation, and ought to not feel fear at the prospect of death at sea or from illness – but not to do with bravery. Qu: Why not?
• III.7 Limits of fear, even brave person fears death. The excessively fearful person has no name. The excessively confident is brash: boasters, but shirk when dangers arrive.
Temperance III.10-12.: pleasure of the fine, contrast with bodily pleasures

Qu: What has being human beings got to do with it?

Take the examples of temperance and courage, being offered one more donut, or one more glass of wine at a drinks reception when driving, and the situation of whether or not to help a child in peril, which would be moderately dangerous for the agent.

1. What are the feelings and actions relevant to each case?

2. How to work out the mid-point that is the ‘just right’ point (the meson)?

3. What is the difference between how the student of virtue finds this point, and how the virtuous person finds this point?

4. In what way is virtue – a permanent state or disposition – responsible for the feelings and actions at the ‘just right’ point? Non-virtuous or vicious states?