In philosophy class my professor attributed the idea of the “Golden Mean” to Aristotle. I understand the concept, and I agree with the principle to some extent, but it still does not sit right with me somehow (it might be the idea of moderation for moderation's sake). Is this idea valid as is, or is the essence right with a sloppy framework?
asked Jan 02 '11 at 13:28
I think the idea makes sense if you look at it as a generalization about the things organisms require to survive, and also about life-serving behaviors. The fact is, that for every concrete thing life requires, too much is destructive. Food, drink, exercise, sleep, ambition, learning, social involvement, etc. It was a revelation at the time that good things could generally be had in excess.
The idea is not moderation for moderation's sake, but moderation for health's sake, and for one's whole life's sake. Moderation means anything other than too much or too little, it just means the right amount. And Aristotle observed that that is going to be something other than none, or nothing but, regarding each necessity.
There is a sense in which this observation is a mephysical necessity. Since things are complex, they are not homogeneous. Any identification of an ingredient, or need has to be balanced with whatever else the thing contains or requires. If a plant cannot have too much chlorophyll, plants become puddles of chlorophyll. From an organismic point of view, what is good is only good if it is taken in the correct amount.
To practice moderation, one has to find out what quantity or schedule of life's necessities is optimal. Neglect none of life's requirements, and yet don't acquire or indulge endlessly; find out what amount is best. That is certainly reasonable, and wholly consistent with Objectivism.
According to my reading of Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition), in the entries on "Mean, the (Aristotle)" and "virtues, moral (Aristotle)," the question is correct. It was Aristotle, and it does mean moderation as a general principle.
Objectivism, however, doesn't necessarily endorse everything Aristotle propounded. For an excellent overview of the overwhelmingly positive Objectivist evaluation of Aristotle, see especially "Aristotle" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon.
Regarding Aristotle's ethics, however, Ayn Rand explains in VOS Chap. 1, "The Objectivist Ethics":
No philosopher has given a rational, objectively demonstrable, scientific answer to the question of why man needs a code of values. So long as that question remained unanswered, no rational, scientific, objective code of ethics could be discovered or defined. The greatest of all philosophers, Aristotle, did not regard ethics as an exact science; he based his ethical system on observations of what the noble and wise men of his time chose to do, leaving unanswered the questions of: why they chose to do it and why he evaluated them as noble and wise.
Objectivism rejects moderation for its own sake, such as moderation in deciding beween food and poison by trying a little of each.
answered Jan 02 '11 at 15:55
Ideas for Life ♦
I answered this question in a recent episode of my Rationally Selfish Webcast. An audio recording of my response is available as a podcast here: NoodleCast #73: Live Rationally Selfish Webcast. The discussion of this question runs from 47:43 to 59:09.
My Answer, In Brief: Aristotle's doctrine of virtue as a mean is an attempt to make ethics objective. The theory is wrong, but not as wrong as the common doctrine of "moderation for moderation's sake." For my full answer, listen to the podcast!
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