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The virtuous mean and the error rate

January 19, 2015

Virtue, then, is a habit involving deliberate choice, consisting in a mean relative to us and determined by reason as the practically wise person would determine it. It is a mean between two vices, one of excess, the other of deficiency. (1106b-7a)

The humanities class which I’m TAing for is currently reading the Nicomachean Ethics, and we’re about to get to Aristotle’s “doctrine of the mean.” The doctrine of the mean baffled me when I read the Ethics as an undergraduate, and I’ve only recently, I think, begun to understand it; my interpretation, however, is highly speculative, so I’m a bit hesitant to share it with my students; but it’s interesting enough, I think, to be worth posting here.


To begin with a question: how many ways are there to lack a virtue?

We might think that there are two: being excessive, and being deficient. And we might think that this is because, in any given situation, there is an excessive response, a deficient response, and a correct response. On this supposition, it is impossible to act both cowardly and foolhardily because it’s impossible to run away from a battle and charge out in front of the phalanx at the same time. Well, that certainly is impossible, but not every situation has an excessive and a deficient response available.When courage requires one to lay down one’s life, what would it mean to respond excessively? And if not every situation offers a spectrum of possible responses, on which the proper one is in some sense in the middle, what sense does it make to talk of a mean? This was the confusion over which I stumbled in undergraduate.

The solution to this difficulty is to recognize that it is not the response to any given situation which ought to be a mean, but the actor’s virtue, that is, his habit. The virtuous habit does not seek the mean; rather, it should itself be a mean between two possible extreme habits. The virtue of courage governs, among other things, when to take risky actions, and it should be a mean between taking them too often and taking them not often enough.


This means that we can view a “habit involving deliberate choice” as something like an subconscious test of whether or not to Φ. This test returning false positives, i.e. inclining me to Φ when I ought not to Φ, is what Aristotle means when he refers to a habit being excessive. The rest returning false negatives, i.e. inclining me not to Φ when I ought to Φ, is what he means by a habit being deficient. The worst risk-related habit would be one that told me to take the risk either every time, or never; these would be like, respectively, a test for cancer that always said you had it, and a test for cancer that always said you were healthy. If you trusted either, it would have pretty bad consequences.

But almost all tests return both false positives and false negatives! And, when we consult our own experiences, isn’t the same true of habits? The world isn’t divided into people whose habits are always excessive and people whose habits are always deficient. Often I’ll find myself worrying that, in one situation, I had spoken too quickly, while at the same time wondering if, in another, I hadn’t been too slow. We are all cowardly and foolhardy, stingy and spendthrift.

Aristotle can easily acknowledge this; any particular vice can be characterized by both excess and deficiency, and we simply call it by that which characterizes it more strongly. After all, while most tests return both false negatives and false positives, most also lean one way or the other. For example, an easily administered test for cancer will have a lot of false positives and few false negatives, and we’ll use it to decide who should get more extensive screening. So a vicious excess is a habit that errs on the side of Φing (even if sometimes it errs by not Φing), while a vicious deficiency is one that errs on the side of not Φing (even if sometimes it errs by Φing). Someone who often fails to take a risk when he should, and who rarely takes a risk when he shouldn’t, we call cowardly, even though sometimes his behavior is foolhardy; and vice versa.


When we look at habits in terms of tests, we realize that they can do more than err on one side or another: they can fail to tend towards proper action at all.

Consider, along the lines discussed earlier, Alice who always Φs, and Bob who never Φs; and a new figure, Carol, who Φs as if by chance: one ought to Φ half the time, and she Φs half the time, but half of those times she should not do so, and half the time when she doesn’t Φ, she should. Half her positives are false, as well as half her negatives. Alice, Bob, and Carol are all vicious in different ways, but they all have something in common: their habits are totally worthless; they’re not just extraordinarily excessive, or extraordinarily deficient, or both, but it’s as if they don’t understand Φing at all.

This is not, however, to say that none of them have any thoughts about Φing. Alice seems to like it rather a lot, and Bob to rather dislike it; and Carol seems to think it has something to do with flipping a coin. It is to say, simply, that their thoughts have no correlation with ethical reality, as we understand it. None of them knows the first thing about when to Φ. Anyone teaching them virtue would have to start from scratch. Their are not simply vicious; their ethical habits are alien to our form of life.

So, to return to the original question, habits can fail to be virtuous, not only through excess and deficiency, but through being more or less aimless. A perfectly aimed habit would have an error rate of zero; a completely aimless habit would be the habit of a madman.

One Comment leave one →
  1. CJ Wolfe permalink
    January 27, 2015 4:30 pm

    I actually maintain the same eccentric interpretation of Aristotle on the mean that you do. Following my teacher in graduate school Charles Young, I think Aristotle actually proposes means with regard to two dispositions for any given virtue.

    For example, courage is a mean between striving after cheers (achieving just the right amount of glory) and overcoming your fears (of death). This interpretation gets a lot of textual support from what Aristotle says in the Eudemian Ethics Book III, chpt 1: “Since courage is the best disposition concerned with fears and cheers, and the courageous person is neither like the rash (who fall short in certain respects and exceed in others) nor like the cowardly (who do the same thing, though in opposite ways – they fall short in fear and exceed in cheer), it is clear that the middle position between rashness and cowardice is courage. For it is the best state.” (128a36-b4)

    In an article Young wrote on this, he offered an example from Livy describing the story of the warrior Horatius: “Two men, Spurius Larcius and Titus Herminius, volunteered to stand with Horatius, and the three of them defended the far side of the bridge until its destruction was imminent. Horatius then sent his colleagues back to safety and faced the enemy alone until the bridge came down. After a prayer to the Tiber, he leapt into the river and swam across to safety, winning, in Livy’s words, ‘more fame than credence from posterity.'” Horatius both risked death and also helped avoid death by acting courageously- courage was part of the prudent act to stick it out at the bridge. He overcame fears AND got the cheers!
    Here’s a link to Young’s article on courage:

    And here’s a link to Young’s broader comments on “The Doctrine of the Mean” in Aristotle (Topoi 15: 89-99, 1996).

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