The Doctrine of the Mean in Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics: Still Useful?

by Owen Kelly

University of Edinburgh

This essay offers a description of Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean and the context within which in operates in his moral theory; and considers how it could be applied to some characteristically modern virtues.

  1. Introduction and theoretical context

The Doctrine of the Mean is central to Aristotle’s account of the virtues. It is not only a tool for describing, analysing and codifying them but is also intrinsic to a correct understanding of their nature. Whether a particular virtue is an excellence of character or of intellect, a distinction Aristotle draws at the beginning of Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, it necessarily lies on a mean. This emerges where he introduces the doctrine as part of the very definition of excellence of character. He first identifies the genus of such excellence as a ‘state’. Within that genus, he then looks for what distinguishes excellence of character from other states:

“Excellence, then, is a disposition issuing in decisions, depending on intermediacy of the kind relative to us, this being determined by rational prescription and in the way in which the wise person would determine it.” (NE 1106b 36 – 1107a 2 – trans. Rowe, 2002 – all references in this essay to the Nicomachean Ethics (NE) are to this translation).

So a virtue – an excellence – is aimed at making choices from a range of possibilities, that lie on a continuum, seeking the mean point on that continuum, which is determined by reference to the moral agent him or herself and all the relevant circumstances. Moreover, the choice is made by the use of reason; and the measure of whether all these criteria are met is, in turn, whether the choice is made in the way a person of ‘practical wisdom’ (a central Aristotelian virtue) would make it.

More broadly, Aristotle’s approach to ethics is based on the working assumptions that the good and fulfilled life is the objective for all people, and that exercising virtue as an excellence of character contributes to the realisation of that; that the overall goal of investigating morality in the first place is practical, rather than theoretical (” So when one looks at everything that has been said up to this point, one should be bringing it to bear on one’s life as actually lived, and if it is in harmony with what one actually does, it should be accepted, while if there is discord, it should be supposed mere words.” NE 1179a 20 – 23).

  1. The nature of the mean

Aristotle is careful to explain that the mean is not arrived at by finding equidistance between the excess and the deficiency – an arithmetic process – but by finding the point most appropriate, all circumstances and factors considered. We must “look to what suits the occasion” (1104a10). In particular, an act must be ‘for the sake of the noble’ (1117b31). It follows from this that there will be occasions when the extreme of emotion – extreme anger, for example – is justified and, indeed, virtuous.

Aristotle gives practical guidance on how to find the mean. He recommends we first avoid the extreme or deficiency that is most vicious, since going to that extreme would be the worst error we could make (1109a 30). If we are aiming, for example, to be courageous but not foolhardy, we should first aim to avoid cowardice, which is the vice of deficiency, in this case. He further recommends (1109b 3) that we consider our own inclinations and tendencies, and compensate for them. So if I know myself to be naturally fearful, I should take that into account in seeking the mean that represents the excellence of being courageous. He also notes (1109b 8) that it is difficult to be impartial about pleasures, since we are naturally drawn towards them and suggests we apply the same discount to them as the elders of Troy did to Helen, who saw the threat she presented to their city while still admiring her beauty.

In Book VII of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explains that the good person will identify the mean without effort or self-doubt, because he or she enjoys acting virtuously and is disposed towards doing so; that the self-controlled person will find the mean despite desires or proclivities that would, without self-control, lead him or her astray; that the person lacking in self-control will not find the mean but will feel guilty about missing it, recognizing that the mean exists; and the person of bad character will miss the mean but feel good about doing so.

Aristotle’s doctrine is not simply an appeal for moderation in all things. It is more sophisticated, holding that deficiency and excess are equally in error. Failing to show appropriate anger at gross injustice is as bad as losing one’s temper over a triviality. And the mean is found in frequency of action as well; one can respond in accordance with the mean on one occasion but consistency is also required and one needs to find the mean on each occasion it is required. Acting in accordance with the mean is to “feel and manifest each emotion at such times, on such matters, toward such people, for such reasons, and in such ways as are proper.” (Urmson, p.161). Moderation as a virtue is compatible with the doctrine but it is not part of it.

Aristotle asserts that a virtue is not purely an intellectual condition but a state, or disposition, entailing emotion as well as knowledge and reason. Excellence of character, in exercising its choices, involves emotions as well as actions. The virtuous person aims for the mean between extremes of emotion and between extremes of action.

  1. Putting the mean to modern use

On obvious criticism of Aristotle’s approach to ethics, and perhaps of virtue ethics in general, is that it is practically of little value – it doesn’t tell us how to act in any given situation. His emphasis on the need for judgement based on circumstances is, however, a recognition of an inescapable feature of existence for any moral agent, in the world as it is known to us, namely that situations requiring moral choice are infinitely variable. While Aristotle’s theory, of which the doctrine is a central part, is not easy to grasp and put to practical use, it is nevertheless immune to the positing of endless variations in circumstances that undermines utilitarian or deontological attempts to create rules or codes of morality.

Losin’s analysis of the Doctrine of the Mean invokes a good deal of self-analysis and self-management. It connotes some of the structured approaches to personality control and projection used in management education (Myers-Briggs is a prominent and widely-used example) and has an obvious relevance in such settings.

Thinking of emotions with modern currency but perhaps unacknowledged in Aristotle’s time, how might we apply the doctrine to some distinctively modern virtues?  Independence of mind would be one such virtue, at least in the Western world. Since the Enlightenment, the ability to reason independently and to question authority has been seen as a virtue. If we take this as the mean state, the excess would be dogmatism; and the deficiency would be an unquestioning or supine acceptance of authority. This virtue, if it is such, is intellectual in nature rather than a disposition of character.

Another modern virtue might be open-mindedness, or lack of prejudice. If we take that to be the mean state, the excess would be naivety, or a lack of a critical faculty; and the deficiency would be racism and other forms of prejudice. This, again, is an intellectual virtue.

Humanity, on the other hand, is a disposition of character with particular modern currency, living as we do in an age when human rights are generally accepted as existing and as morally important. How could humanity fit into the Doctrine of the Mean?

An excess of humanity might be described as adopting an exclusively anthropocentric view of things and failing to take into account the interests of, say, wild animals. But this would be an unreasonably literal interpretation of the word ‘humanity’ and would not reflect the moral content of the word ‘humane’ as it used every day, which centres on the treatment of human beings in an appropriate fashion, avoiding cruelty and degradation.

So perhaps an excess of humanity would be a failure to punish or otherwise act in a retributive manner, in a way that is accepted as necessary to support justice within society; being ‘too soft’ and excessively merciful, in other words. And that would also be a form of acting unjustly, in not giving the appropriate punishment to secure rectificatory justice. So it would be a form of moral weakness: ‘not having the stomach’ for harsh but necessary action. But punishment need not be inhumane to be effective in achieving rectificatory goals. It is difficult to imagine how inhumanity could be morally justified in Aristotelian terms.

So perhaps ‘humanity’ is not a virtue on a mean and is, in Aristotle’s terms, in the same category as malice, in that it has an absolute quality. He says of some aspects of bad character that “… some cases they have been named in such a way that they are combined with badness from the start, as eg with malice, shamelessness, grudging ill will and, in the case of actions, fornication, theft, murder: for all these, and others like them, owe their names to the fact that they themselves – not excessive versions of them, or deficient ones – are bad.” (NE1107a 9 – 13). Humanity and, perhaps, unconditional love, may be examples of the unreservedly virtuous counterpoints to these unreservedly bad emotions and actions.

  1. Conclusion

The Doctrine of the Mean is complex and deceptively simple to the casual eye, which easily mistakes it for an argument for moderation in all things. Its strengths lie in its recognition and accommodation of the limitless permutations of moral decision-making; its analytical and descriptive power; and its grounding in human decision-making, in finding a mean ‘relative to us’, rather than by appeals to transcendental forms or entities. Its weaknesses lie in its formulaic, almost tabular imposition of structure on emotions, which are subject to almost infinite calibration; and the need to reinterpret it to accommodate concepts such as justice and humanity which cannot be fitted into a trichotomous framework of an excess, a mean, and a deficiency.



Owen Kelly

March 2016





Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Christopher Rowe (with commentary by Sarah Broadie) Oxford University Press, 2002

Losin, Peter, ‘Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean’, History of Philosophy Quarterly 4/3, July 1987

Urmson, J O, ‘Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean’, in Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg (ed.), ‘Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics’, University of California Press, 1980

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