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Aristotle Doctrine of Mean

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In Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, he argues that all actions must ultimately lead to a highest good to avoid infinite regress. The highest good is eudaimonia, translated as happiness or flourishing. To achieve eudaimonia, it is necessary for one to engage in virtuous behaviour that conforms to the doctrine of the mean. Aristotle believes that a virtuous behaviour is an intermediate that lies between the states of excess and deficiency. This framework is known as the Doctrine of the Mean. (Aristotle, trans., 2000). The use of such a framework differs from the rule-based dicta offered by other theories such as utilitarianism and has attracted debate on whether it is useful in making moral decisions.

I will begin by outlining the criticisms as well as potential defences on the doctrine’s usefulness. I will then argue against its usefulness by examining its unreliability as a framework in determining what is virtuous or vice.  

Philosophers such as Rosalind Hursthouse have questioned the usefulness of the Doctrine of the Mean, criticising it for being self-evident and failing to provide prescriptive guidelines for it to be of help to someone experiencing a moral crisis (Kraut, 2006). Ethical theories must provide a system to determine the rightness or wrongness of certain actions (Fieser, 2017). It must provide instructions or specific details to direct us to right or wrong actions. For instance, Utilitarianism provides a strict rule to follow – the morally right action is the one which maximises total happiness among a group of people (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009).  As critics rightly point out, Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean provides no clear instructions. It merely says that we should perform virtuous actions by aiming between extremes. In addition, not only does Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean fail to provide a specific definition on what a virtuous action is, it is also circular, making it impossible to identify what is a virtuous action. The circular problem is as such, acting virtuously requires one to be virtuous but one only becomes virtuous in the first place by acting virtuously (Routledge, n.d). Hence, it is impossible for one to start becoming virtuous.

A potential defence of the doctrine might be that the lack of specific rules is the doctrine’s strength in moral decision making. The key feature of the doctrine is that it is not objective but dependent on each individual and situation. Therefore, it is flexible in the sense that it sensitive to different scenarios (Anthanassoulis, n.d). This makes it more practical and useful than rigid ethical theories like utilitarianism. To address the circular problem, others might also argue that Aristotle has in fact addressed it by using a skill analogy to explain that one can make progress towards becoming a virtuous person by merely acting in accordance with virtue. Importantly, a person doing a virtuous action must also understand what they are doing is virtuous and have the right motivation when performing the action (Aristotle, trans., 2000).

Having outlined what the positions are, I will now give support on why Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean is not useful for making moral decisions.

My first objection is similar to the previous objection by critics about the framework’s vagueness. Even if we were to accept that Aristotle’s doctrine of mean as a process to determine what a virtue is, his definition of what constitutes to be a virtue or vice is too vague for it to be useful. Aristotle uses the doctrine of the mean to explain that vices are actions that are in excess or deficient of the virtue. Demonstrating how it works by referring it to virtues of courage, Aristotle explain that one who has too much courage is rash and one who has too little courage is cowardly. He then adds that there are no fixed benchmarks regarding what is “too little” or “too much” as it differs in different scenarios (Aristotle, trans., 2000). Hence, the objection to the usefulness of this doctrine is the obscurity in determining what is “too much” or “too little”.   Without any benchmarks, it is unlikely for one to determine what constitutes a vicious or virtuous action and it fails to guide a person towards a moral decision. The inability to quantify these states of deficiency and excess makes the doctrine too vague for it to be usable.



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