A Moral Compass

In our society we have many scapegoats, but none more prominent than “the extremist”.  When I read the news, when I watch movies, even when I listen to people speak I hear a condemnation of the “extremes.”  I find it a fascinating notion.  Look around you and see if you agree with me- especially in politics.  Most of the world’s problems seem to be due to “extremists.”  The implication seems to be that if everyone was more moderate in their beliefs and feelings the world would be a better place.  Many, many people that I know believe something akin to what I have just described.  In fact, I imagine that you as the reader do not yet take issue with the idea either.  I find this general societal condemnation of extremes intriguing, and I wish to delve into it further.

Aristotle had an interesting theory called the golden mean.  When we apply it to philosophy, what it basically means is that virtues exist in the middle of two opposing vices.  For example: we would place cowardice on one end of the “moral spectrum” and recklessness on the other.  In between these two, according to Aristotle, would be courage.  In the center we find virtue, and on the extremes we find vice.

This is a tempting philosophy, for on the surface it seems quite rational and self-apparent, but when one digs deeper, problems begin to arise.  Models of the universe are wonderful and useful tools, but sometimes it is helpful to bring the issue back into a less abstract form.  Imagine a cowardly soldier.  This man, fearing for his own life, will not charge when the orders are given.  The lives of others mean less to him than his own as he clutches his knees and trembles, refusing to leave.  Imagine now the “opposite” vice.  Think of a rash and a reckless soldier.  The company has been stalking through the jungle in enemy territory.  They are all bunched together and not yet ready to attack, but our reckless soldier becomes impatient and points his gun in the air and fires of several rounds, lustily yelling for war.  The enemy is now aware of our troop’s location and trouble is sure to follow.  The rash soldier cares more for his own glory and for carrying out his own whims more than he cares for the lives of his compatriots.

Our society seems to preach that we need a balance between the two extremes.  If cowardice is on the far left of the “morality spectrum” and recklessness is on the other, the coward would be told to move more to the right and the rash man would be told to move left.  Still, this seems mostly reasonable, but here is where it breaks down.

A coward does not need to be more reckless.  Neither does a reckless man need to be more cowardly.  Both men require courage.

To take another example, imagine we have a spendthrift on one side and a miser on the other.  The spendthrift spends his money wildly, throwing it at whoever asks it of him and buying all that he desires for himself.  The miser, on the other hand, squeezes every penny as if the world depended on it.  If someone in need were to ask him for aid he would clench his fists tightly and refuse.  He buys himself only what he needs to barely survive, never spending for joy, never being generous to others.  Both these men have serious problems.  However, the solution does not lie in compromise.  The spendthrift does not need to be more miserly, he needs to appropriate his funds more wisely.  Likewise the miser needs not to spend like there’s no tomorrow; he needs to appropriate his funds more wisely.

When we speak of romance we talk of completing one another.  If we apply our theory of the golden mean to a husband and a wife, we begin to see its absurdity.  For, if we wanted to be the best couple possible, we would have to find a partner who had exactly the opposite vices as us.  Can you imagine the fights that would occur between the spendthrift and the miser?  Between the coward and the reckless one?  As a couple they would certainly not balance out.  The miser and the spendthrift would be both in debt and ungenerous to those who are in need.  The coward and the reckless one, well, they would not be in a relationship very long, honestly, each caring for themself more than the other.

Vices do not balance out.  Extremism is not the issue.

We have learned to perceive morality as a spectrum, but the spectrum we have been given is incorrect.  You may have heard of the “moral compass.”  We tend to visualize this as an explorer’s tool, but what if it was the compass of an architect instead?  We have a center point, the focus, if you will, and we have the pencil on the outside.  By holding the focus in place the pencil can draw a perfect circle around it.  Every point on the line is the same distance from the center.  We can rotate the pencil around and around and around, but it will never “balance out” to the mean.  We can only arrive nearer to the center by closing the compass and bringing the pencil nearer to the focus.  We are either closer to morality or we are farther from it.  The spectrum goes in one direction only, and virtue lies on one end of it, vice on the other.

I have long held Epicureanism and Stoicism as equivalent evils.  In both cases life is being lived in a way it was not intended to be lived.  Both philosophies have selfishness at their core, ways of self-fulfillment.

I have a sinking suspicion that selfishness lies at the heart of all vice.  We are told to love ourselves above all else in this society, but is that the best thing?  Let us take the matter to its extreme.  What do we call those who love themselves more than any other thing?  Sociopaths.  Narcissists.  But then, I digress.

The coward is as selfish as the reckless man; both disregard the lives of their friends.  I don’t have time to delve into my thoughts on selfishness in this post, but suffice it to say, this is my point: virtue lies at one extreme, and vice lies at the other.

Opposite vices miss the mark of virtue equally.  Two wrongs can never make a right.

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2 comments on “A Moral Compass

  1. A Clarke says:

    1. I believe you’re example of the extreme married couple is a false analogy. Aristotle’s golden mean is meant to be taken as a sort of internal compass for each individual to follow, not as an external solution where you introduce two opposite extremes (i.e. an extreme married couple, extreme political parties, etc.). This means that it is up to each individual to find their own balance internally, and not find their polar opposite to compensate for their faults.
    2. While I like your parable of the architectural compass, I’ve thought of something that combines both the line spectrum of the two extremes and your compass: Think of the golden mean as a mountain. On one side of the mountain is the extreme deficiency of a virtue, and on the other is the extreme excess of a virtue. The top is the golden mean of that virtue. By climbing this mountain you get closer to the mean (moving away from the vice at the bottom towards the virtue at the top, like your compass) and you reach the midpoint between these two extremes (such as in the spectrum).

    • Thank you for your comment!

      The main reason I made the marriage analogy (perhaps I could have mentioned this in the post) is that someone came to me a while back and proposed the idea that if the golden mean holds for individuals, shouldn’t it be true at every level, specifically in a unit like a marriage. So in part I brought it up to address that question. My main point in using the analogy and taking it to extremes was simply to demonstrate the absurdity of the concept of vices countering vices. Two wrongs don’t make a right, as they say.

      I like your mountain analogy. I think the main problem with the golden mean spectrum is that most people seem to view it as flat. If that is the case then moving towards virtue would also mean moving closer to the opposite vice- an idea that I contest. With your analogy of the mountain that problem is avoided, since moving towards the virtue incorporates movement on a different plane, therefore being further from the one vice and not moving closer to the other. Great model.

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