For over 2300 years, Aristotle’s famous Doctrine of the Mean has guided the intelligentsia of the human race. Yet every century or so there arise critics who try to challenge the validity of Aristotle’s doctrine, and their objections circulate in various intellectual circles. All such objections are false, but they serve to mislead many bright individuals about the validity of defining virtue as a mean between two opposite extremes of “defect” and “excess.” What follows will clear up this confusion.
1. IS THE MEAN RELATIVE?
Critics of the mean claim it is relative to each individual due to his personal disposition and therefore of no use in objectively determining values. One man’s confidence is another man’s timidity. What is loyalty to a politician is not always loyalty to a mother. The flaw here is that loyalty, for instance, does not differ according to individuals, only to circumstances. Aristotle maintains that rational principles (i.e., practical wisdom) can be used in determining loyalty on a case-by-case basis for each circumstance, making it objectively definable for individuals. Moreover, loyalty is always the mean between treason and fanaticism for all humans despite its different interpretation in different circumstances.
For example, in the circumstance of war, even though a political leader and a mother might differ on what kind of loyalty is required from the mother’s son, it does not mean loyalty is relative. One of the two is right and one is wrong depending upon what standard is used to judge loyalty (defense of the country or love of family). In wartime, if one’s country is under attack, “defense of the country” is the rational standard to use and loyalty can be objectively defined under that standard for everyone. This, as philosopher J. Budziszewski points out, is true for all the moral virtues defined in an Aristotelian approach – courage, ambition, liberality, etc. They are virtuous means for humanity, and they can be objectively defined for everyone according to rational principles depending upon the circumstances involved. 
There are times, however, when the mean is relative to the individual. For instance, in physiological matters such as diet, the right amount of food needed (between excess and defect) will be different for different individuals. Some body types require more food, and others less, to flourish. The same goes for physical exercise. But in regards to the moral virtues, the mean is universal for individuals while relative to the circumstance. We must always remember Einstein’s insistence that the world is comprised of objective and subjective spheres, and one must be prepared to make precise statements about the objective portion (see p. 136 in The Golden Mean).
Opponents of the mean are confused on this point and argue against the mean’s universality on the grounds of the quantity needed of any given virtue. The problem, they say, is how to determine how much of a virtue is too much and how little is too little. As we have noted, Aristotle maintained that this differs depending upon the circumstance. But many contemporary philosophers maintain that it also differs from person to person depending upon their temperament. What is considered to be a defect for one person may be an excess for another. More confidence is required for a timid person than would be required for an assertive person in any given circumstance.
This is taken by many thinkers to indicate that the mean is relative to the individual, and thus of no use in objectively establishing values. But it’s really only relative to the circumstance because it is the circumstance, not the individual involved, that determines which virtuous mean is necessary and how much or how little of that virtue is required.
For example, Aristotle would say that the extremes of timidity and arrogance are to be eschewed by all individuals in all circumstances, while the mean of confidence is to be cultivated by all individuals. In this respect, the mean of confidence is certainly “universal.” All humans should value it over the two extremes of timidity and arrogance at all times.
But what about the amount of confidence that the mean’s opponents stress? Do different humans with different levels of naturally-endowed confidence determine the needed confidence for a specific circumstance that is confronting them, or does the circumstance itself determine the amount of confidence needed and then require all to live up to it? Reason tells us that the circumstance determines the amount of confidence needed, and it will be the same for all humans.
For example, let’s say that circumstance A, driving the freeway to work every day, requires 2 units of human confidence on a scale of 1-10, while circumstance B, attacking an enemy beach in wartime, requires 8 units of human confidence. If timid individual X has 3 units of human confidence naturally, and assertive individual Y has 5 units naturally, then they will differ in the ease with which they achieve the level 8 required to storm the beach. But the amount of confidence they need for charging up the beach is still going to be the same for both of them (8 units) because the amount of necessary confidence is determined by the nature of the circumstance, not the respective individuals involved. One of the individuals will find it easier to produce the necessary 8 units than the other because he starts with a different temperament, but they both will have to produce 8 units of human confidence in order to get out of that landing boat. The “amount of virtue” for this circumstance is thus the same (i.e., universal) for all individuals no matter what their respective temperaments are to begin with. The amount of confidence needed only changes when the circumstance changes, for instance when individuals go from charging the beach in wartime to driving the freeway in peacetime.
Thus because some individuals will have more difficulty achieving the necessary virtuous mean for any given circumstance, it does not negate the “universality” of that mean for individuals.
Once again, Aristotle maintains that rational principles (i.e., practical wisdom) can be developed and used on a case-by-case basis to determine the virtue for any given circumstance; and the amount of this virtue will be the same for everyone. This goes for all the moral virtues discernable through the methodology of the mean – confidence, courage, loyalty, temperance, etc. Our conclusion then is that the virtuous mean is relative to circumstances but universal to humans.
2. CIRCULAR REASONING
The second erroneous claim concerning the doctrine of the mean is that it is “circular reasoning.” This fallacy runs as follows: If moral virtue is the mean and the mean is what practical wisdom tells us, then practical wisdom being a moral virtue brings us back to step one, which makes one’s reasoning illegitimate, for one is arguing in circles. But this is false, as Budziszewski shows, for practical wisdom is not a moral virtue; it is an intellectual capacity. Thus we do not come back to step one and therefore are not circular.  Aristotle maintains that moral virtue is the mean and that this mean requires the “intellectual capacity” of practical wisdom to be objectively defined for the various circumstances that confront men and women in their lives – all quite legitimate reasoning. Practical wisdom is the great sustainer of civilization.
The doctrine of the mean is, thus, a natural law applicable to the moral virtues of all humans. In addition, as I have made clear throughout this book, it also applies on the macro-level to the political systems, religious codes, foreign policies, and monetary policies of all societies.
3. TOO MUCH VIRTUE
The third mistaken criticism of Aristotle’s doctrine maintains that “excessive virtue” is not a bad thing. According to these critics, it is incorrect to claim that extreme courage is somehow wrong. The same goes for all other virtues. How, they ask, can we have too much of a virtue?
They go on to ask whether “rashness” is really too much courage. Is “greed” actually too much ambition, and so on? Are these vices extensions of the corresponding virtue, or are they separate qualities, things in themselves that are not related? Rashness and greed are clearly vices, but is it really kosher to say that they are “excesses” of courage and ambition?
Aristotle would say that they are indeed extensions in the fact that they are related to the virtue. In other words, rashness is a form of courage, but it is a corrupted form. Greed is a form of ambition, but it is clearly not a desirable form. And this is what the doctrine of the mean is saying. The virtues of man have the capacity to be corrupted into excessive forms. This is what has led to the famous adage we are all taught in our youth: “If a little bit of something is good, then a whole lot more is not always better.”
So Aristotle is basically saying that the corrupted excess of courage becomes the vice of rashness and likewise with the other virtues. The corrupted excesses of ambition, loyalty, growth, order, and freedom also become extremist vices. Remember, however, that the term “extreme” in Aristotle’s doctrine signifies not just an excess of something, but also a defect of something. It means “out from the center,” which is evil.
Human language also uses the adverbial form of “extreme” to qualify descriptions. For example, an extremely good doctor is a superior doctor. An extremely bad work of art is an inferior work of art. We must not get confused by these multiple uses. Extreme can mean detrimental or beneficial depending on the context.
4. THE STRAW MAN ARGUMENT
There are also critics who trot out the following attack on the doctrine: Trying to formulate right and wrong by use of a virtuous middle ground between extremes is senseless, they say. One cannot just take any spectrum and declare that Aristotelian ethics shows that the midpoint is the right place to be. For example, the mean between going on a murderous rampage and committing no murders is to murder only a moderate amount of people. The mean between telling the truth all the time and lying constantly is to lie just half the time. This is ridiculous and certainly no virtuous mean.
The answer to this is that Aristotle never claimed that the doctrine of the mean is applicable to all of life’s situations and values. He only states that it applies to many of the aspects of our lives. Where it does apply, it should be utilized. Where it does not, it obviously should be ignored. This is quite clearly gleaned from a reading of Aristotle, yet in every generation there are new opponents to the mean that ritualistically raise this pseudo issue as if it is some kind of profound refutation of the doctrine.
This form of rebuttal is a classic example of “strawmanism.” The opponent of the Aristotelian mean is setting up a straw man, knocking him down, and then claiming to have demonstrated the foolishness of Aristotle’s doctrine. By using a clearly nonsensical example of the doctrine that one has no trouble refuting, the opponent avoids the real essence of the mean to concentrate on a very weak example of it. In this case, he uses “murderous rampages” and “lying constantly,” which are obvious examples where the doctrine of the mean would not be applicable. Knocking down a straw man is not a legitimate argument.
Individuals who use this form of argument to attack the doctrine of the mean invariably have no deep knowledge of what Aristotle was saying. They merely don’t like the sound of it and are reacting emotionally to it. Since their grasp of the subject is sketchy at best, their rebuttal takes this indefensible form.
In many cases, these opponents themselves can be found to be subscribers to an extremist doctrine that, when put under the microscope of Aristotelian logic, is shown to be flawed. Therefore they must try and attack the logic of Aristotle as somehow bogus in order to continue subscribing to their mistaken doctrine.
This brings to light a most important point: The doctrine of the mean is applicable to a great part of existence. It governs much of human action, social systems, and ideological constructs. But it does not apply to all of life. Where it is of use, however, it is a powerful magnetic truth. Thus we need to discern where it is applicable and where it is not, and then accept its verdict rather than try to evade it through churlish sophistry. This can be done if we will employ reason and think clearly.
5. THE MEAN IS NOT THE AVERAGE
Still another criticism of the Golden Mean claims that it is an attempt to idealize the average, the commonplace, the dull. In these critics’ eyes, it is a seeking of compromise where the truly noble man would fight intransigently for the “extreme good.” He would seek heaven and soar to the stars rather than find the “wisdom of balance” at the center. Proponents of the concept, however, see no such compromise at all. To them, the mean is not an “extreme good,” but the “true good,” the true guiding star to soar to. All else is unlawful, impractical, imperfect, or corrupt. These two views are best represented by the romanticist who disparages the idea and the classicist who adheres to it.
“Where the romanticist sees in the Golden Mean an ignoble contentedness with the easy, the ordinary, the average,” writes historian Crane Brinton, “the classicist sees in it a difficult striving, quite as heroic as any ascent to heaven or descent to hell, to attain on earth something by no means there for all to snatch; above all, no average, no compromise…but a standard, an ideal…of the very human drive to transcendence the romanticist likes to claim as his sole property. There is nothing ordinary or average, the classicist will insist, about the Venus de Milo, nor Pericles, nor the Parthenon.” 
Nor is there anything ordinary or average about faith, honor, love, peace, and freedom – all of which are “means.” Such ideals are hardly to be found through ease and contentedness, and they are far from commonplace or dull. On the contrary, they are, and have been, the goals of all the most heroic struggles of mankind since the beginning of history.
6. THE MEAN IS NOT THE STATUS QUO
The sixth criticism of the doctrine of the mean is that it is an attempt to merely preserve the status quo by enshrining established convention as the “right thing to do.” It is claimed that Aristotelian conservatives merely draw out a number of examples to show that morality, as defined by the golden mean, corresponds to what people conventionally consider morality to be. Consequently Aristotle’s ethical mean fails in the very first requirement of a code of ethics because it does not tell its followers how to act.
On the contrary, Aristotle does not claim that “morality, as defined by the golden mean, needs to be what people conventionally consider morality.” Human conventions do not determine correct morality. Conventions are the result of correct morality, not its cause. Correct morality is discovered by the combination of reason, experience, and intuition. Convention comes into play only as a final manifestation of this process into living habits. But in order for the resultant values and habits to be legitimate moral virtues, they must be confirmed thusly. Not just any convention will do.
Aristotle claims that moral virtue will in most, but not all, instances lie somewhere between the two extremes of human action (excess and defect). This is not what convention considers as morality; it is what natural law tells us is morality. And it is to be arrived at through the process of “right reason,” i.e., the synthesis of reason, experience, and intuition by what is termed the “illative sense.” Those intellects who possess the strongest illative senses become our moral teachers, and they give us the great body of what Aristotle defined as practical wisdom.
The truths derived from this synthesis of reason, experience, and intuition are what go into forming the religious codes and social mores of society. These codes and mores in turn are handed down from each generation of parents to their children. They are the basis for teaching the young how to act in the situations of life that will confront them such as business, war, sex, friendship, sports, family, charity, social interaction, community responsibility, etc.
Keep in mind here that practical wisdom is not moral virtue; it is our means to virtue. One of its articulatory methods is the doctrine of the mean. The formulation of the doctrine of the mean via practical wisdom is thus an extremely valuable tool to decipher what is right and wrong in our lives.
Therefore Aristotelian morality and its golden mean do tell one how to act. They have done so for thousands of years through the practical wisdom (the product of the illative senses) of our greatest intellects, who then teach their prescriptions to the rest of society. When such teaching coincides correctly with the facts of reality and man’s basic nature, it becomes “right reason” and the result is high civilization.
Such teaching has, of course, been filled with confusions and irrationalities throughout history, which has created a far from perfect system of codes and mores to govern men in their societies. But this does not mean the Aristotelian process of “practical wisdom” (with its resultant golden mean) is wrong; it means that men are not adhering to the requisites of such wisdom properly. It means that stupid, greedy, power-lusting men have come to rule the states, the schools, the churches, and the cultures of humanity, and in the process have strayed away from the virtuous mean. When “practical wisdom” has been well-adhered to, the result has been that men approximate the good society within the context of their time.
When such teaching becomes bastardized and corrupted with false concepts of human nature and inadequate methodologies of discernment, it becomes sophistry and irrationality. The resulting society collapses into tyranny and decadence. Such has been the fate of humanity for countless periods throughout its history. This corruption of the process of “right reason” returned to us in the 20th century with a vengeance and now threatens us in the 21st century with a horrendous future if not rectified.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1962), Book II, Chapter 6.
For further clarification on the issue of objectivity and the Doctrine of the Mean, see J. Budziszewski, Written On the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p. 30.
- Budziszewski, op. cit., pp. 30-31.
- Crane Brinton, A History of Western Morals (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959), p. 80.