Prompted: The Middle Ground
The morality of the middle ground. What Aristotle can teach us about balance and virtue.
I never thought I’d be analyzing Aristotle’s original texts voluntarily, but his ideas on Virtue lend themselves perfectly to living a balanced life. If you find yourself searching for the answer to any question this week, keep in mind that the best answer is always in the middle.
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The Middle Ground
Ethics is the study of morality. We all study ethics each day trying to navigate our lives and do the right thing more often than not. Each of us has unique ideas about what is right or wrong and many philosophers have dedicated their lives to the search for indisputable principles of morality.
Aristotle came to a different conclusion: there are no universally applicable rules that will make someone good. Instead, his theory of Virtue Ethics states there are a handful of important virtues and each virtue has a desirable middle ground between two extremes. For example, courage is the mean between rashness and cowardice. Each extreme is undesirable, but the balance between them is virtuous.
Aristotle believed this state of balance was the path to happiness and a good life, and his focus was on striving to be virtuous instead of adhering to rigid principles.
Trying to be a morally ethical person can be overwhelming if you’re following strict sets of rules and worrying about doing the right thing in every situation. Aristotle’s view provides a more forgiving framework to think about being a good person rather than doing the right thing in a particular scenario.
Outside of morality, Aristotle’s focus on the middle ground serves as a valuable framework for most of our everyday challenges. Regardless of the type of decision, thinking about the virtuous middle ground instead of the absolute right thing provides two benefits. First, it allows for the flexibility of circumstance. Second, it’s not as fatiguing or stressful as constantly choosing between right and wrong.
Finally, it’s important we don’t keep Virtue on a pedestal because being virtuous can be as simple as adjusting our actions ever so slightly towards the middle ground. There is no completed or final state of Virtue. Instead, we are engaged in a constant pursuit of balance in all areas of life.
Where do I frequently act too far in one extreme?
What decisions or actions stress me out when I think about doing the right thing?
Where can I apply the concept of the middle ground in my life?
Virtue Ethics - Wikipedia (apologies to any librarians for my source)
This page provides some great background on Aristotle’s thinking and an awesome chart of 11 virtues with their corresponding excesses, deficiencies, and mean states.
Michael Schur - The Tim Ferris Show
A fun interview with Michael Schur, whose new book, “How to Be Perfect” aims to translate ethics into a digestible form for anyone.
Thanks for reading! I’ll see you next Sunday.
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