What is the Golden Mean in Philosophy?

The golden mean is a tool to gauge where virtue falls between two vices, excess and deficiency. Aristotle describes ethical virtue as a disposition. That is, a tendency induced by our habits to have feelings apropos to a given situation. Defective dispositions, according to Aristotle, are tendencies to have inappropriate feelings. Aristotle rejects Plato’s view that vice and virtue are a matter of knowledge. For Aristotle, virtue is distinct from knowledge since virtue involves appropriate emotional responses.

What is the golden mean in philosophy?

Aristotle’s tool for Virtue Ethics

Aristotle views a virtues leaning too far to either side, excess or deficiency, as inappropriate and therefore vices. It’s good to be courageous, but an excess of courage might result in unnecessary risks. And, of course, an deficiency in courage means becoming a victim. So in any given situation, a person must “aim at the mean” or the intermediate condition between the two vices in order to achieve virtue.

This is known as Virtue Ethics. It places the emphasis on high character and not on duty or seeking good consequences. So, true courage would be a balance between too much courage, recklessness, and too little courage, cowardice. A person is courageous out of practice rather than duty or to produce some desired effect. The Golden Mean is a means of assisting a person in practicing good character as they strive to make it second nature. It is not, however, a decision making procedure. Aristotle insist that no ethical theory can actually facilitate decision making. Your decision in a given matter is intended to aim at the virtue.

Aristotle believed that the good life lived from exercising capacity to reason. Practicing virtue is a practice of intellectual reason. Aristotle did not promote virtue in itself as being ethical though. He wrote that the study of ethics is not precise. So, modern virtue ethicists believe that a good ethical theory is necessarily imprecise. Rather than giving precise rules as in the case of deontology and utilitarianism. These are two competing ethical theories.

Striking a balance in certain situations may be warranted. This can be a good exercise in heuristics. But using this as a standard of measure for determining the truth between two things can actually lead to a logical fallacy.

When the golden mean becomes a problem

The Middle Ground Fallacy

In politics, we see a problem manifest in how Americans typically think of the political spectrum. In theology, we might see this as a balance between two doctrines. This is known as the Middle Ground fallacy. It presumes that the truth is simply a matter of finding the balance between two extremes.

In politics, it would be wrong to say that the best political stance is halfway between Democrats and Republicans. In theology, it would be fallacious to say that the best understanding of God’s Law is to obey certain laws and ignore others.

The Middle Ground fallacy is erroneous for two reasons:

1. it presumes that a situation can only be understood under two false extremes.
2. the truth is a matter of making the two false extremes work together.

A philosophical argument can only be sound if it’s premises are true and a valid argument is formed. So the Golden Mean functions as a tool of virtue because it’s two extremes are necessarily true. It is true recklessness is an excess of courage, and it is true that cowardice is a deficiency of courage. However, if we say that two ideas are both wrong, and the truth is in the middle, then we aren’t employing the tool of the Golden Mean. Instead, we’re using the false reasoning of the Middle Ground Fallacy.

Read More: Problems with the Political Spectrum


Resources & Further Reading on the Golden Mean and Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

  1. The Philosopher’s Tool: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods
  2. Attacking Faulty Reasoning
  3. Aristotle & Virtue Theory: Crash Course Philosophy #38
  4. Aristotle’s Ethics
  5. Internet Encyclopedia of the Internet

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B.A. Philosophy, Arizona State University. My writing focuses on libertarian philosophy and reformed theology and aimed at the educated layperson. I am a confessionally Reformed Christian orthodox Presbyterian in the tradition of J. Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937)

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