I've been considering the Doctrine of the Mean in Aristotle's ethics, chiefly in connection with a recent essay by Rosalind Hursthouse.
Today I wish to ask: Can the doctrine be coherently applied to the parameter of 'reasons'? Can we go wrong in action by too much or too little with respect to the 'reason' for the action?
Hursthouse is dismissive of this also, but I think mistakenly so. She writes, "the very idea that the concept of 'for the right aim or reason' could be captured by specifying it as a mean between too many or too few aims or reasons ha[s] only to be stated to be seen as absurd".
This perhaps puts the doctrine in a misleading way. We don't need to say that we 'capture' (figure out?, define?) the mean in terms of extremes. Also, Aristotle does not refer to this parameter as the 'reason' (logos) for the action but rather as 'that for the sake of which' (hou heneka) the action is done, viz. its proximate goal (see 3.1.1111a13-15 for a definite example of how the parameter works). Thus what is at issue, rather, is this:
Does it happen sometimes that, when an action goes wrong, and its going wrong is ascribable to some defect in character, then its doing so consists in the goal of the action's being (somehow) too much or too little?And I think that the answer to this question is pretty clearly 'yes', and that it is interesting to observe this.
What sorts of wrong actions would display this sort of error? Return to the person who fears too much in fearing mice. Let us presume that this is a defect in character (it is an expression of some kind of cowardice) and not a psychological disorder (a phobia). Suppose we find this person putting out in each room of his home a couple of traps on each wall, one mechanical and the other glue. He also puts down trails of rodent poison along the baseboards. He borrows several cats from a friend. He additionally installs several electronic devices that are designed to repel mice by emitting an ultrasonic noise. Finally, he digs a trench around his house and installs, at great expense, an electric border, to keep mice from infiltrating from without.
How do we characterize what is wrong with this? "He's acting disproportionately." Not so--his actions are completely proportionate to his goal, if his goal is that there be no possibility whatsoever that a mouse is living in his home. He has done exactly what is reasonable, exactly what an expert would advise, if he wishes to attain that extreme degree of confidence in a mouse-free home. It is not the means he chooses that is extreme but rather his goal. His excessive fear of mice now manifests itself in his setting too high ('too much') a standard for getting rid of mice.
We needn't contrive unusual cases. This kind of fault occurs all the time in action. A white police officer is making an arrest on a suspected drug dealer in a poor, hispanic neighborhood. The suspect makes a motion which could be interpreted as his reaching for the inside pocket of his coat. The police officer pulls his gun and shoots him dead. Later on upon inquiry, the action seems precipitous and ill-considered. What was the officer's mistake? The officer's action--shooting to kill--would be reasonable if his life really were in danger. But we might think that the officer has either overestimated the risk to himself, or ranked the worth of his own life as higher than that of the suspect. If he does so out of culpable fear or presumption, then --it's not strange to say--what's wrong with his action is something excessive in his goal, in how he assessed what he had to preserve and save.
It can work the other way as well, for instance, someone does something reckless, and we regard this as 'incongruous'--that is, we think that that is not the way that someone would act, who properly valued his life or assessed the risks. That this person did so (when we can ascribe this to some failing in character, say, reckless overconfidence) suggest an underestimation on his part as regards some goal.
Such an analysis (it is Aristotle's, I think) implies an interesting position in action theory, according to which an action, properly described, consists of the-thing-done-together-with-the-proximate-goal for which it is done. And it seems plausible to say (as I think Aristotle does) that a defect of character can show itself in some systematic bias or distortion as regards such goals.
You may by now be wondering: What is the point of all this? Why is Pakaluk so intent on showing that Aristotle's view is plausible? Is he some kind of Averroist, who must show Aristotle right at all costs?
Well, no. I think there is something deep and profound about the Doctrine of the Mean. That's why I want to argue that it should be taken seriously, that it should not be dismissed as 'whacky'. Although it is difficult to do so, I'll try to explain why in a later post.