22 September 2006

What the Doctrine of the Mean Means to Me

Where I stand (at least) on the Doctrine of the Mean:

1. Aristotle intends it as a 'mark of the moral' (in the literal sense of mos). When a person's going astray in action or emotion is the sort of thing that could fall under a virtue or vice of character, then this going astray amounts to a lack of rational control in excecution or response, which can be meaningfully characterized as too much or too little in some dimension. Other ways of going astray are not like this--and we attribute them to ignorance of some sort (some kinds of which indicate the absence of a virtue of intellect).

2. We need to say 'could fall under a virtue or vice of character', because it is necessary to draw a token/type distinction. Any tokens of going astray can be meaningfully characterized as too much or too little in some dimension, yet it would not follow that persons typically do, or even could, develop a habit of going astray in those types of ways. E.g. to fear a mouse on one occasion is to go astray by excess; not to fear an armed adversary on the battlefield is to go astray by defect; but you won't find anyone (excluding cases of mental illness) who has the habit of fearing-a-mouse-and-not-fearing-an-armed-adversary. And persons whose behavior is erratic, sometimes excessive and sometimes defective, would, on Aristotle's terms, not have a virtue, but also not have any vice. (Persons develop habits of acting toward an excess or defect, only if circumstances or human nature is such that they are inclined to go in that way.)

3. We need to say 'can be meaningfully characterized', because the DOM would not be the view that any quantitative construction of an action or a parameter of action is meaningful. E.g. Hursthouse supposes that to say that an emotion is excessive as regards the parameter, 'towards whom', is to say that you count of the kinds of objects as regards which one feels that emotion, and that one errs by excess if these kinds are greater in number than some supposedly ideal number. This is a ridiculous idea, and meaningless too (because, as Hursthouse points out, we can arbitrarily make those kinds greater or lesser in number, depending upon how we describe them--e.g. does someone who fears mice fear 1 sort of thing only, or 38, because there are 38 species of mice?). But that sort of problem counts for nothing against the DOM. What Hursthouse would need to show is that there is no such meaningful characterization.

4. The 'mean' itself is, I take it, not specified by the extremes, or even by the rule 'find the intermediate', but rather by some antecedent notion of rational propriety (to prepon, to kalon). E.g. it is rationally appropriate for an adult male to fear a heavily armed adversary more than he fears a mouse (because the one poses more of a threat than the other). It is rationally appropriate (because fair) to distribute the proceeds of a business to one's business partners rather than to one's friends. It is rationally appropriate (because fair) for the soldier who has so far not undertaken any dangerous mission (whereas his comrades have) not to avoid serving on one of the next such missions. (And he may try to avoid doing so either out of cowardice, or injustice, or --we may grant--erratic behavior, i.e. because he is neither good nor bad.) Etc.


Macuquinas d' Oro said...

Dear Michael,

You say, when a person’s going astray in emotion and action falls under the rubric of a vice of character, then his “going astray amounts to a lack of rational control in execution and response” that is meaningfully seen as too much or too little in some respect.

I see how this view of vice, as something necessarily involving a lack or loss of a sufficient degree of control, encourages the view that vice is essentially missing a mean. But haven’t we just been considering one example of vice, the for-gain or pleonektic adulterer, whose evil-doing is anything but out of control? Perhaps the akolastic adulterer loses control when he sees some married women he desires, but the for-gain adulterer is plotting to profit from blackmail or in other some such despicable fashion. His behaviour is carefully plotted and controlled to gain his ends. No lack of control.

Many vices seem to come in pairs like this. Take for another example the man who loses control under stress and beats his wife and children. Paired with this pleasant fellow, there is also the even more sinister character who thinks violence a quick and effective strategy for maintaining his absolute power in the household. His violence is utterly controlled and calculated to maintain his power.

Where vice is deliberate and calculated, the problem is not degree of (dys)control. The most natural Aristotelian diagnosis of such cases, or some of them at least, is that the agent is behaving completely inappropriately toward the persons in question. It is a wrong-person error. One does not seduce married women. One does not use violence against the wife and kids. ( Maybe in the last case the man is a soldier or policeman, so violence is a legitimate part of his professional life, but not at home. The wife and kids are perps or the enemy. )