Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aristotle's Contrary Psychology: The Mean in Ethics and Beyond

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aristotle's Contrary Psychology: The Mean in Ethics and Beyond

Article excerpt



In THIS PAPER, I want to investigate Aristotle's ethical doctrine of the mean in terms of his larger philosophy. We tend to associate Aristotle's doctrine of the mean ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) most prominently with the Nicomachean Ethics. This is perfectly understandable, but similar principles regulating two extremes, sometimes by an intermediary ideal, are evident in other works as well. I will suggest that viewing Aristotle's moral philosophy as but one part of a larger puzzle serves as an appropriate antidote to a pervasive reductionism that aims to reduce everything, including Aristotelian ethics, to a minimalist system that is to be explained using several bold swipes of Occam's razor.

Contemporary readers unwittingly assume there is one psychological trait that, to the right amount or degree, produces the virtuous mean. Such psychological monism is seriously misleading. Aristotle is, so to speak, a psychological dualist. He proposes a model of the virtuous mean based, in each case, on two off setting psychological propensities that balance against one another to the right degree. Each individual member of these competing psychological pairs exists in its own right; neither can be considered as a mere privation. Once we situate Aristotle's ethical writing within the perspective of his philosophical system considered as a whole, we can readily establish that this binary pluralism plays a key role in his understanding of human nature.


Contemporary Commentators. Contributors to the present-day journal literature assume too much. (2) In viewing Aristotle through modern eyes, they fail to grasp the theory of causality at work behind his carefully considered notion of moral behavior. In her dispute with J. O. Urmson, Rosalind Hursthouse does touch upon some of the points I wish to discuss here, but her own analysis puts on display an underlying misunderstanding common in current literature. (3)

Hursthouse, who ridicules the idea that every virtue is a mean between a deficiency ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) and an excess ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), is particularly incensed at Aristotle's apparent belief that "[o]ne's character may err in two opposed ways." (4) She takes vivid exception to the idea that each virtue should have exactly two (opposite) vices associated with it. As she informs the reader:

   Now this is, I think, definitely false, but the point I want to
   make here is that if it were true, its truth would be a deeply
   mysterious fact. That to each virtue there corresponds at least one
   vice is an odd fact, but one for which we can imagine an
   explanation. But that to each virtue there should correspond
   precisely two vices, neither more nor less--what kind of
   explanation could there be of this extraordinary mathematical
   symmetry? What could there be about our lives and the way we
   conduct them, about our feelings and dispositions to have those
   feelings, that necessitated such a symmetry? The problem is made
   even worse by the idea that each pair of vices is a pair of opposed
   vices. (5)

Although Hursthouse's account depends on a questionable reading of the details of Aristotle's texts, one can at least understand her frustration. She is adamant that any claim that "[o]ne's character may err in two opposed ways" is a laughable falsehood. (6) If, however, as she insists, it is obvious that one can have countless vices opposed to a single virtue, how could as thorough a moral philosopher as Aristotle go so far wrong? The problem, Hursthouse thinks, is that Aristotle "is making certain background assumptions about how we are." (7) In the case of the virtue of courage, for example, he assumes that "all (sane) human beings fall somewhere on a range that goes from fearing almost everything, to fearing almost nothing." (8) When it comes to patience, he assumes that human beings mostly "fall on a range that goes from being angered by nearly everything . …

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