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
(too little confidence)
(too much confidence)
(too little fear)
(too much fear)
(too little pleasure)
(too much pleasure)
or Stinginess (too little giving)
or Wastefulness (too much giving)
(in giving out large sums of money)
and Vulgarity (giving out large sums)
Humility (too little honor)
Vanity (too much honor)
(too little anger)
(too much anger)
(too little shame)
(too much shame)
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
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