Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics
Moral Virtues and the Mean

by Gordon Ziniewicz

Each moral virtue is a mean or lies between extremes of pleasure or of action -- doing or feeling too much or too little.  The absolute mean is different from the mean as it is relative to the individual.  For example, the intermediate between two pounds and ten pounds of food is (absolutely) six pounds, but the mean relative to the individual will be different for the athlete than it is for the non-athlete (e.g., Cal Ripken vs. Dustin Hoffman). Morality, like art-work, requires that one neither under-do nor over-do.  One must hit upon the right course (steering between too much and too little).  This requires practice.  Virtues are good habits or dispositions to do the right thing developed by means of particular virtuous acts.  Means themselves do not admit of excess and deficiency (one cannot have too much courage, etc.).

Good judgment requires that one find the mean between extremes.  In order to do that, one must have both general knowledge and particular experience.  Practical wisdom is the intellectual virtue (intellectual virtues are higher than moral virtues) which governs deliberation and action.  Here are some examples of the golden mean taken from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (Book II):
VICE (Defect) VIRTUE (Mean) VICE (Excess)
Cowardice (too little confidence) Courage Rashness (too much confidence)
Foolhardiness (too little fear) Courage Cowardice (too much fear)
Insensibility (too little pleasure) Temperance Self-indulgence (too much pleasure)
Meanness or Stinginess (too little giving) Liberality Prodigality or Wastefulness (too much giving)
Stinginess (in giving out large sums of money) Magnificence Tastlessness and Vulgarity (giving out large sums)
Undue Humility (too little honor) Proper Pride Empty Vanity (too much honor)
Inirascibility (too little anger) Good Temper Irascible (too much anger)
Shamelessness (too little shame) Modesty Bashfulness (too much shame)
Surliness Friendliness Flattery

For both Plato and Aristotle, moral virtue has to do with reasonable exercise/control of feeling and action.

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Copyright © 1999 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.