Basic emotions & Aristotle’s doctrine of the golden mean

Aristotle famously argued that every virtue is a mean — in respect of emotion and action — between vices.  Two vices?  Well, the paradigmatic examples involve exactly two: courage is a mean between rashness and cowardice; good-temper is a mean between irascibility and un-irascibility; etc.  Robert Roberts has argued for a multi-dimensional understanding of the golden mean thesis, drawing in particular on virtues like humility.  Humility is opposed not just to arrogance and diffidence, but also to vanity.  Thus, it’s centrally located among several vices, not a mean between a pair.  One might think that courage could be complicated in the same way.  After all, Aristotle says that it’s a mean with respect not only to fear but also to confidence.  Is it possible for someone to be deficient with respect to fear but not excessive with respect to confidence?  Is it possible for someone to be excessive with respect to fear but not deficient with respect to confidence?  If the answer to either of these questions is affirmative, then courage will be opposed by more than two vices.

This approach to the virtues — enumerating them and then elucidating them by explaining which emotions and behaviors relate to them — can be useful.  Presumably, if we have a word for a trait, that trait has had some importance in human history, even if, like ‘sinister / dexter’ that importance has largely abated outside of baseball.  Another approach to the virtues, however, is to start from the emotions or behaviors with respect to which they would be means, and then figure out or baptize them.  Which emotions?  There are so many.  A good place to start is the so-called “basic emotions,” which, according to the psychologist Paul Ekman, are discrete, measurable, physiologically distinct, an culturally universal.  What are these basic emotions?  Researchers disagree about their cardinality (4? 6? 7?), but for my purposes it’s good enough to start with the original six: disgust, contempt, anger, fear, surprise, and sadness.

Surprise

Surprise

Disgust

Disgust

Sadness

Sadness

Joy

Joy

Anger

Anger

Fear

Fear

Contempt

Contempt

 

 

 

I assumed that someone must have done this already, but…. The theory of basic emotions has only been around for decades, not centuries.  We’ll catch up eventually, if I have anything to do with it.

One of these basic emotions is already familiar: Aristotle claimed that the virtue with respect to fear is courage.  In other words, courage involves, among other things, the disposition to fear the right thing at the right time for the right reason in the right way with the right intensity and so on.  The vice of excess is cowardice (fearing too intensely, too many things, for too many reasons, etc.).  The vice of deficiency is rashness (fearing not intensely enough, too few things, for too few reasons, etc.).  Fear tracks, when it functions well, threats.

What about the other five?

Aristotle claims that the virtue with respect to anger is good-temper, and that the vices are irascibility (excess) and unirascibility (deficiency).  I disagree.  I contend that the virtue with respect to anger is justice, and that anger tracks harms.  Someone who gets angry at the right things for the right reasons at the right time to the right degree and so on is someone whose sense of injustice is well-tuned.  By contrast, someone who witnesses injustice and feels not a tinge of anger seems to me to be morally suspect.  On the flipside, someone who’s prepared to be outraged at the most minor (perceived) infraction is vicious in the other direction.  (I realize that Martha Nussbaum disagrees.)

Consider next disgust.  What would it mean to be well-attuned to feeling disgust — to be disgusted by the right things, at the right time, for the right reason, to the right degree, and so on?  Presumably, disgust tracks impurity.  To be well-attuned to disgust, then, would involve an appropriate sense of purity and impurity.  Dan Kelly and Nicolae Morar argue that disgust towards other people is never morally appropriate because disgust dehumanizes its object.  The Rwandan genocide was fueled to some extent by the labeling of Tutsis as ‘cockroaches’ (Lynn Tirrell walks through this in her forthcoming “Genocidal Language Games”); anti-semitism and other forms of ethnic, racial, and gender animus often invoke disgust against the target outgroup.  That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s inappropriate to be disgusted by rotting meat, which presumably isn’t human to begin with.  I suggest that the virtue with respect to disgust is a sense of purity or cleanliness, and that the attending vices are squeamishness/prudishness (excess) and corruption (deficiency).

Contempt?  Could there possibly be a virtue with respect to contempt?  Nietzsche certainly thought so; he celebrated “the great contempt.”  Macalester Bell also thinks so, though she only celebrates the mild contempt.  Contempt is a downward-looking emotion.  Anger seems to be more horizontal, whereas resentment is upward-looking.  Is it ever OK to look down one’s nose at someone, at some action, or at some disposition of character?  I think so.  Some things (and people, let’s admit) are better than others, at least on certain very important dimensions.  When that order gets leveled or inverted, contempt may be called for.  If this is on the right track, the virtue of being well-attuned with respect to contempt is something like good taste.  The vices would be bad taste (deficiency) and snobbishness (excess). (Incidentally, we’ve now covered the CAD triad.)

The two remaining emotions are surprise and sadness.  At first blush, it might sound odd to think that there could be a virtue (or vice) with respect to surprise, but it seems to me fairly clear that someone who isn’t surprised by anything is either a god or in some way (intellectually) vicious.  I suggest that the virtue with respect to surprise is curiosity (or maybe wonder), and that the vices are jadedness/cynicism (deficiency) and naivete (excess).  Finally, sadness tracks losses.  If you’re not attached to anyone or anything, there’s not much that can sadden you.  So I suggest that the virtue with respect to sadness is an appropriate level of attachment, hence care.  The attendant vices would then involve caring too little (and hence not being saddened by enough things or to the right extent) — apathy — and caring too much (and hence experiencing as losses things that a well-attuned agent would shrug off) — something like fragility or neuroticism or depression.

One thing to notice about this taxonomy is that many of the virtues and vices it turns up don’t fit easily into traditional taxonomies.  Curiosity/wonder is an intellectual virtue.  Good taste is social and even aesthetic.  Care has only recently come into its own through the philosophical work that followed in the wake of Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice.  This could be taken to mean that my approach is on the wrong track.  I think otherwise.  Perhaps, instead, the problem is that virtues have been catalogued willy-nilly, and that something like the theory of the basic emotions could bring some order to them.

3 thoughts on “Basic emotions & Aristotle’s doctrine of the golden mean

  1. I definitely agree that an appropriate amount of anger is virtuous and I think the idea of justice as expressed through (appropriate) anger is extremely undervalued in the states.

  2. The absurdity of the doctrine of the golden mean can be further illustrated via a consideration of the quality of envy (the sort of envy which resents the good fortune of others , if one has not oneself partaken of such good fortune ).

    Envy (which resents the good fortune of others) is a pointless and superfluous notion . It offers no epistemic edification of any intrinsic sort …does not intrinsically lead to profound knowledge / insight .

    The doctrine of the golden mean would have us conclude that somehow there is some sort of goodness in the middle between a person maintaining a lot of envy and them having no envy at all .

    Yet there is no virtue to be found in a middle state between a large degree of envy and no envy .

    Any degree of envy which resents the good fortune of others if one does not partake of it , is worthless.

    It is well taken to lament bad fortune happening to oneself , yet resenting that others have partaken of good fortune / good circumstances , is pointless ; quite superfluous .

    Plato apparently did NOT agree with any doctrine of the golden mean when it came to envy , thankfully .

    In the Timaeus , Plato apparently wrote as to why the framer of change created the universe , that :

    ‘He was good , and that which is good has not a particle of envy in it ‘ .

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