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Aristotle on the mean and the pursuit of happiness


To: Pat F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Aristotle on the mean and the pursuit of happiness
Date: 15 February 2007 13:00

Dear Pat,

Thank you for your email of 8 February, with your two University of London essays on Aristotle, 'Is Aristotle's doctrine of the mean an empty abstraction or a recommendation for mediocrity?' and 'In pursuing his own happiness, is Aristotle's man an egoist?'

Both these essays are quite short for prepared work. In the essays you write for me you should be aiming at 2000-2500 words. However, they are roughly the length you would be able to write in an hour in an examination.

In terms of quality, your arguments are for the most part pertinent. You have said the right things. However, there is still plenty of room for improvement. In terms of marks, both essays would fall in the upper 2nd bracket.

Aristotle's doctrine of the mean

I am not the only one puzzled by Aristotle's doctrine of the mean. I guess the first thing I would be looking for in this essay is a clear statement of the doctrine. You give one example, of courage as a mean between cowardice and rashness, but it would be useful to have some more. A range of examples would give you the opportunity to identify the mechanism that is operating in each case, that enables this kind of judgement tobe made. There is definitely more to say here.

It could be argued that whenever judgement is involved, in any activity not only ethics, we are attempting to reach a 'mean'. For example, my wife tells me to go and buy some potatoes for dinner, and I stand in the shop, adding potatoes to the bag or taking them out until I feel I have the 'right' amount. One pound would definitely not be enough but 20 pounds is too many.

Or I am designing a web page, trying to get the banner at the top to be in proportion to the rest of the page. 50 pixels is definitely too thin, but 500 pixels is too broad.

These were mathematical examples. One could have chosen being appropriately polite to one's bank manager, or wearing enough clothes to keep warm in the cold breeze without sweating, where in both cases it is difficult to quantify mathematically.

The ability to judge the right amount of potatoes, or pixels, or compliments, or clothes, exhibits a 'virtue', albeit not an ethical virtue. There is nothing special about ethical virtue in respect of making a judgement call which strikes a balance.

The claim made by Aristotle is that every ethical decision is a 'balancing judgement call' in this sense. Is that in fact a substantial claim, or is there always a way, logically, to represent an ethical judgement in these terms? If the answer to the latter question is Yes, then why is it not the case that the doctrine of the mean is an empty abstraction? Surely what is important in ethical judgement is what distinguishes it from other, non-ethical judgements and not what it has in common with them.

The question is posed as a dilemma. Suppose that the doctrine of the mean is not just an empty abstraction but makes a substantial claim. Then the worry arises that it can do this only by doing violence to our intuition that some kinds of excellence do not involve a balance but rather going for the maximum. For example, some would disagree that courage always involves a judgement call. Is it overly rash to put oneself in a predicament where one faces certain death? But sometimes this is required, nothing less will win the day.

(I don't think that Aristotle would necessarily disagree with this. He is not committed to saying that extreme acts of 'courage' are mere 'foolhardiness'. If in one's considered judgement nothing less than self-sacrifice is required, then that would not be correctly described as 'foolhardy'.)

The objection is not so much that the doctrine of the mean is a recommendation of mediocrity but rather that Aristotle has described a particular kind of ethical individual as the 'ideal type', ignoring the possibility of other, conflicting paradigms. Aristotle's man is measured in every respect. He never lets himself go. Even the emotions, like anger, are always measured to suit the circumstances. He is always in control. This is admirable, to be sure, but not the only kind of person we admire from an ethical standpoint; not the very definition of what it is to be an 'ethical' man.

This is not a bad essay. You have found a way to incorporate the point about emotions and the fact that there is a mean here too and not just one governing practical judgement, although I missed the argument against the 'Epicurean' view that emotions should always be suppressed when we make moral judgements. This is a very important aspect of Aristotle's ethics, as well as being essential to understanding the doctrine of the mean.

Is Aristotle's man an egoist?

The first thing one is looking for here is a clear statement of what it is to be an 'egoist'.

If 'egoism', as you claim, is 'the hypothesis that morality can be ultimately explained in terms of self-interest...' then the game is up. Aristotle is an egoist, because his arguments do appeal to self-interest. He is describing the 'good life', a life which leads to 'eudaemonia', and anyone convinced by this description will want to be the kind of man that Aristotle describes.

However, one has to distinguish between the 'intention to do X', where X is a particular moral action, and the intention to be the kind of man who would 'intend to do X' in the appropriate circumstances. In other words, the distinction between first-order and second-order intentions. This is a very important distinction in discussions of 'attitude theory' in ethics (and not to be confused with the Catholic doctrine of 'second intention').

An egoist is someone whose first-order intentions always involve an reference to the benefits that will accrue to oneself as a result of doing the action. For example, instead of, 'I will do X because X is the just thing to do', my intention is, e.g., 'I will do X because people will admire me for being a just person'.

The person that Aristotle is appealing to is attracted by the picture of the life that Aristotle represents. Part of this picture is having the appropriate capacities for judgement and emotional dispositions which lead, e.g. to doing acts because they are just. If you are motivated to do the action merely for self-interested reasons then you have failed to acquire the appropriate dispositions.

So while it is true that Aristotle does appeal to self-interest, by marked contrast to a philosopher like Kant who formulates a moral law whose binding character is completely independent of one's desires and interests, it is not correct to say that this is an appeal to egoism.

You do make a very interesting point with regard to the 'Homeric' origin of Aristotle's view of the good life or the good man. This is certainly relevant to the question and I would definitely include it in an essay on this topic.

However, I think that there is a positive way to see this, not just as unfortunate historical baggage that Aristotle was lumbered with but rather from a Nietzschean point of view as a necessary antidote to the Christian 'self-sacrificing' view of ethics. It is very much worth discussing whether pride is a virtue, as Aristotle and Nietzsche claim, or a sin as preached by Christianity. To call this 'egoist' is to beg the question in favour of the Christian view.

What we are looking for, in other words, is an alternative to the dichotomy, 'egoless or egoist'. Aristotle's moral philosophy emphasises self-respect, a justified sense of one's own worth and importance, but not in a crude 'egoist' way.

In terms of Aristotle's doctrine of the mean, a justified sense of one's own worth lies between the bad extremes of diffidence and vanity.

All the best,