On Reaching the Mean and the Effect of Self-awareness

Editors note: Here’s a short essay that I wrote for my Introduction to Ethics course. It’s not profound or anything, but I think it’s worth sharing.

After discussing “The Particular Virtues of Character,” in Book II, Chapter 7, Aristotle wonders, “How Can We Reach the Mean?” In Book II, Chapter 9 of Nicoachean Ethics, Aristotle writes, “…virtue of character is a mean…between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency; and that it is a mean because it aims at the intermediate condition in feelings and actions.” (Book II, Chapter 9, §1)

While Aristotle’s proposition seems to be simple at first glance, Aristotle admits that it is, in fact, “hard work to be excellent.” (Book II, Chapter 9, §2) Aristotle argues that finding the mean in virtuousness is not as easy as calculating the numeric intermediary of two numbers. In fact, Aristotle even admits that not everyone can find the intermediate. (Book II, Chapter 9, §2)

Since it is so hard to reach the exact intermediary, Aristotle suggests (among other things) that we try our best to get as close as we can, taking “the lesser of the evils.” (Book II, Chapter 9, §4) As a scientist (and engineer), I feel that this approach presents a unique paradox.

In quantum mechanics, the simple act of measuring a particle invariably affects its properties. For example, when a photon has a polarity, the only way to determine what polarity the photon has is to test it by filtering it through a like polarity filter. This, however, is a destructive (destroying the information, not the photon itself) test if the two polarities are dissimilar. In short, we have affected the property of our particle by simply measuring it.

In a similar way, one wonders how being consciously aware of one’s position relative to the intermediate affects one’s virtuousness. Although such influence does not have to be destructive, it could also be constructive.

Aristotle uses the examples of becoming angry, giving and spending money. In the case of giving money, Aristotle measures virtue by how well we give money “to the right person, in the right amount, at the right time, for the right end, and in the right way.” (Book II, Chapter 9, §2)

Let us suppose we have a cat that does not chase down mice; is the cat inherently unvirtuous? How could the cat be unvirtuous? It is not in this particular cat’s nature to pursue mice and, not being aware of itself, it does not know any better; even though cats are supposed to chase mice. So let us assume that the cat is not unvirtuous for this reason.

Now, let us suppose that I do not normally tithe, even though I am a church going person; that is to say that it is not in my nature to tithe. Does this make be inherently unvirtuous? Unlike the cat, I cannot claim ignorance, since I am self-aware. I know that in the Bible, Numbers 18:26 states that I “must present a tenth of that tithe as the LORD’s offering.” (NIV) I am aware that I have fallen short of my obligations, and thus I must be unvirtuous. Is it this self-realizing and self-correcting behavior that allows me to be unvirtuous? One could argue that it is because of my ability to know the difference between right and wrong that I am able to virtuous or not.