The Problem With Aristotle’s Golden Mean

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Aristotle’s idea of virtue lies in what he calls the “Golden Mean”. This basically means the avoidance of extremes. If we have a set consisting of: {1,2,3}, then {2} would be the mean. Aristotle believes that man, as a rational animal, can use reason to achieve this mean. To Aristotle, moral virtue is the adherence to the Golden Mean. Man should aim for the middle in all of his emotions and actions.

This looks pretty good on paper, but it is easier said than done. Although Aristotle criticized the abstract thinking of Plato, the doctrine of the Golden Mean seems, to me, to be as abstract as anything Plato ever wrote. How can we apply a “middle ground” to every situation? For an affluent doctor to steal an apple from the grocery store produce section would seem to fall into the extreme category of vice. But if a homeless person was to steal the same apple for his hungry child, the extremes become much less clear.

Aristotle was a philosopher and a scientist, and liked to put everything into its own neat little system of “cubbyholes”. But ethical dilemmas cannot be placed into neat categories; especially when the Golden Mean is such an abstract one. Although he points out that it is a “mean relative to ourselves”, it still doesn’t explain what virtue really is.

Aristotle’s criteria for virtue seems great for the privileged class-of which he was a member, but while he was tutoring Alexander the Great to help him prepare to usher in the Hellenistic era, he [Aristotle] may have been somewhat remiss in considering the lower classes, who may not have been able to aspire to a “middle ground”.

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