Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics provides a sensible account for what true moral virtue is and how one may go about attaining it. Aristotle covers many topics that help reach this conclusion. One of them being the idea of mean between the extremes. Although Aristotle provided a reliable account for many philosophers to follow, Rosalind Hursthouse along with many others finds lose ends and topics which can be easily misinterpreted in Aristotle’s writing.
Aristotle explains his concept of “mean between the extremes” by the following quote: “In everything that is continuous and divisible it is possible to take more, less, or an equal amount, and that either in terms of the thing itself or relatively to us; and the equal is an intermediate between excess and defect” (Book II. 6, p. 1747 l. 25-28). Here he defines human virtue as an arrangement or disposition to behave in the right manner or as a mean between the extremes (excess and deficiency).
However, later he continues to add how this mean or intermediacy is not the same for every person. A mean, according to Aristotle is determined by one’s needs and capacity. Not everyone has the same mean hence; everyone does not have the same needs or capacities. The mean, Aristotle goes on to explain, is relative to the person, not the object. It has to be relative to not only you as a person, but also relative to your situation, not just your opinion.
“If ten pounds are too much for a particular person to eat and two too little, it does not follow that the trainer will order six pounds; for this also is perhaps too much for the person who is to take it, or too little- too little for Milo, too much for the beginner in athletic exercises. ” (II. 6, 1747 l. 36-39) According to Aristotle, there is a right answer or an objectively correct mean for everyone when you take inot account their situation. Aristotle tries to paint a picture of how one should go about determining this mean in a situation.
He provides several examples and instances and even presents the excess, defect and intermediate in each for the reader to analyze. Briefly, Aristotle classifies the mean as being the main characteristic in achieving excellence. He explains how moral excellence can only be attained through figuring out these excesses, deficiencies and intermediates. He also adds in how simply knowing these three is not everything, but feeling them at the right time, the right place, in the right situation, etc is just as important.
“For instance, both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right aim, and in the right way is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of excellence” (II. 6, 1747, 1106 l. 19-23). In book two, chapter seven, Aristotle begins to form an outline of general means that every person should be aware of.
He talks about anger, pride, honor, the giving and taking of money, etc. By discussing these subjects he constructs an outline of summary of these states to help one better understand the principles behind attaining moral virtue. In chapter eight of book two, Aristotle discusses how one extreme may be closer to the mean than the other. He gives two reasons for this: one being drawn from the thing itself and the other from ourselves. In other words, when he states “for because one extreme is nearer and liker to the intermediate, we oppose not this but rather its contrary to the intermediate.
E. g., since rashness is thought liker and nearer to courage, and cowardice more unlike, we oppose rather the latter to courage; for things that are further from the intermediate are thought more contrary to it? another is drawn from ourselves; for the things to which we ourselves more naturally tend seem more contrary to the intermediate” (II. 8, 1750, 1109 l. 4-14), he implies that when assessing the mean in relevance to the object itself, it can be seen that sometimes it falls closer to one end than the other. For example, as Aristotle explains, a coward lies further away from the mean (having courage) then rashness does.
In a way, being rash implies being courageous because one who is rash does not think too hard before acting therefore shows courage, even though he/she does so in an illogical way. On the opposite end, someone who is referred to as a coward shows no courage and does not act bravely but rather chooses to hide and do nothing. The second method Aristotle discusses is related to ourselves and what we assume to be closer to the mean. He says that the things we mostly tend to do are the things we consider further from the mean.
In other words we consider ourselves to be deficient in a sense because what we do seems to be the flip side of the intermediate. He says that since the extreme which is furthest from the mean is that which is the most contrary to the mean we describe the things we are most likely to lapse inot as contrary to the intermediate. In addition, referring back the courage example, people know that we are more likely to be cowardly than rash, so we are more aware of being deficient in courage. Aristotle goes on to discuss how one may figure out what extreme the mean is closer to.
He says that to do so, one must follow three rules: 1) avoid the extreme which is furthest from the mean, 2) notice what errors we are most likely to commit and avoid them diligently, and 3) be wary of pleasure because it often slows or blurs our judgment. If these three rules are obeyed, Aristotle says that we shall be able to hit the mean between the extremes. When Aristotle uses the bent stick example, he is just showing a comparison between someone dragging themselves away from the bad extreme and trying to straighten a bent stick.
They are both hard to do but they must be done for the overall good. When you straighten the bent stick, you are drawing it away from one side and bringing it back to the middle, just as one must do with themselves. Rosalind Hursthouse does a very good job in discussing Aristotle’s concept of phronimos. Hursthouse believes that the phronimos is different from a person who is not truly virtuous but nonetheless hits the mean between the extremes on a particular occasion in the sense that the phronimos is a master in all the v-rules presented by Aristotle in his account.
It is these v-rules that help the phronimos be as good at making decisions and making the right choices as Aristotle suggests he is. Hursthouse says that even though these v-rules exist, they do not capture what gives the phronimos his special knowledge. Therefore, she goes on to say “What is special about the phronimos’s knowledge is the especial understanding he brings to these rules, his unique mastery of the concepts involved. All the difficult work, one might say, is done by this superior understanding, not by the rules themselves.
To lack phronesis is to lack such mastery; so these rules, the v-rules, cannot be fully understood by those lacking phronesis” (13). So pretty much, even though a person can comprehend these rules and then hit the mean between the extremes after following them, he is still not doing that as well as the phronimos can because he/she is not capable of truly understanding those rules for what they are. Hursthouse thinks that there is no set code for the phronimos to follow. This code, often referred to as the v-rules discussed earlier, are not guidelines because they are not very hard to comprehend.
They are only statements of simple moral virtue that anyone who has had a decent upbringing knows to some extent. Therefore she argues, how can these rules be a code for the phronimos when it is so far ahead of the normal person and sees what normal, non virtuous individuals cannot. This debate was primarily between the generalists and the particularists. The generalist said that the phronimos must know a code but the particularist denied it. Since the phronimos does not attain virtue through a code, Aristotle explains that his virtue is due to a proper upbringing mixed with the right lectures in adult hood.
In other words, unless someone does not have the right childhood and does not learn the appropriate and virtuous ways of life during this childhood, he cannot grow up and attain phronimos by listening to a philosopher’s lectures because he is not equipped with the right “tools” to truly understand the essence of moral virtue. As Hursthouse states, “Phronesis-excellence in practical reasoning, moral knowledge- can be acquired only by habitually engaging in virtuous action, not, for example, just by learning a written code of conduct” (16).
This statement holds true because once again, the phronimos differs from the normal non virtuous man not because he knows this “code of conduct” but because he knows how to properly interpret and apply it to life and his surroundings. He knows what to look for in every situation whereas someone that only has a general understanding does not know what to look for. That is how the phronimos is able to make certain decisions that an ordinary person may not be able to make.
Therefore, the phronimos not only has knowledge of these code-like rules, but he has “special knowledge”. Given the nature of virtue, it can be said that Aristotle does not give the best account one can in regards to moral living because he focuses too much on phronimos. His concept of phronesis seems to be unattainable almost because he repeatedly states that it cannot be attained through normal means. In a way he even insults philosophers by saying that a person cannot attain this perfect moral virtue through their lectures.
Another reason is because Aristotle relies too much on emotions to get a person through. Kant argues this by saying that emotions are not everything. Reason is just as important if not more because it provides a way to incorporate those emotions inot a logical explanation or even to better understand them. Aristotle incorporates reason inot his work but stresses emotions even more so. Aristotle has provided a very strong base frame for moral virtue. He covers all the main concepts and points that should be noted.
However, there are many lose ends in his work as well. He does not go inot much detail about the different situations that can arise when trying to do what is morally virtuous. However, overall Aristotle provides an accurate account. Aristotle’s Ethics are the ground work for many philosophers in trying to understand what moral virtue truly is. He provides a definition of what every man should try and achieve (phronimos). Many philosophers not only argue his points but also agree with them. At the end of the day, it is he who set the main rules for virtue.