The Importance Of The “Golden Mean”

I was struck by an observation recently posted to a listserv on which I participate.

Someone had observed that draconian restrictions imposed by the Chinese seemed to have “flattened the curve” and slowed transmission in that country. He wondered whether Americans would comply with similar directives, and someone else responded that the U.S. is a very individualistic society, built on the idea of individual rights, so, this would be a big test: Would people in America sacrifice some individual liberty for the good of the community? Asian societies, he noted “are more based on the group, the collective. Which is why these kinds of measures are more accepted there.”


Every couple of years I teach an undergraduate course titled “Individual Rights and the Common Good,” exploring just this tradeoff. It is essentially a course in political philosophy, focused on the proper balance between the individual’s right to autonomy and the communitarian’s concern for the well-being of the broader society–and the very thorny issue of who gets to decide?

Who gets to decide what the “common good” looks like? What sorts of decisions should individuals get to make, free of government interference or coercion? What sorts of situations should give government the right to overrule individual preferences?

This year, I have been particularly gratified with my students’ enthusiasm for these questions; they have really engaged with the sometimes difficult readings, and in impressively thoughtful ways.

The purpose of the class isn’t to produce consensus; it is to raise appreciation for the complexities involved and the dangers of what I think of as American “bipolarism.” In the U.S., we have a regrettable tendency to see all debates as two–and only two–sided: this or that approach is either all wrong or all right. (Or as George W. Bush would put it, the world is divided between the “good guys” and the “evildoers.”)

If only life–especially political life– were that simple!

The Greeks had a concept of the “golden mean”-a middle ground between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Achieving that middle ground, however, would require abandoning America’s love affair with “all or nothing” politics, where every concession to reality or complexity is labeled selling-out, where ideologues on the Left and Right alike prefer no bread at all to settling for half a loaf, and where the perfect (as they and only they define perfection) is the constant enemy of the good.

We can see this playing out in the battle over “socialism.” Not only is it apparent that the combatants are operating under wildly different definitions of the term, but neither the free-market folks nor the collectivists seem to understand that the the answer is both. Every economy that is currently working (or was working before the pandemic) is a mixed economy, in which some aspects are “socialized” and others are left to the market. The issue isn’t “socialism or capitalism”? The issue is the much harder question “which goods and services must be provided collectively and which should be provided by the private sector?–and why?”

(I’ll also note that while the unedifying capitalism/socialism argument is center stage, less attention is being paid to the fact that what the U.S. increasingly has isn’t free-market capitalism–it’s corporatism. And that’s a big problem.)

Aristotle raised the fundamental question with which political philosophy and political systems must contend: What sort of society best promotes human flourishing?

Answering that question, of course, requires that we agree on what human flourishing looks like, and what governmental or social mechanisms are most likely encourage it…These aren’t easy questions, and as we stare into a potential abyss, I’m getting pretty impatient with the pontificating ideologues who are stubbornly unwilling to understand–or engage with– the real and complicated world we inhabit.


  1. “…the U.S. is a very individualistic society, built on the idea of individual rights…”

    That quote is simply a complementary term for selfish, instant gratification, “I got mine, you get yours” U.S. society which can be more fully studied and explained by reading anything Ayn Rand published. We now have a leader to see that this society succeeds in it’s endeavor to ignore the Emperor is wearing no clothes on his daily press conferences, especially now during the Covid-19 Pandemic. He is surrounded by medical authorities who have become his court jesters putting Americans in the position of the title of a James Bond movie; “Live And Let Die”.

  2. The true test of the idea — or of the ideological position — is in putting words to paper. That’s why your students’ work is so enlightening to them. When you have to turn an abstraction into the language of public policy or legislation (or research papers), the devilish details emerge. The all-or-nothing camps of any ideology don’t seem to reach that stage, which is where practical compromise happens. The battles over the abstract positions are a tragic waste of time because they delay the concrete, written product that is the prerequisite for government action.

  3. I find it interesting that the right seems to despise socialism, Except when they need it!

    I remember having this conversation a while back, that Jesus Christ was a socialist! Now, it’s not that complicated, because, the reason the right fights against the notion of Jesus Christ being a socialist, it allows them to demonize everything possible and claim it to be socialism.

    Now, I’ve been disabled since 2009, 26 surgeries and blah blah blah blah blah, but, thank goodness for socialism. I was able to collect my Social security, I was able to get on socialized medicine, Medicare! I would’ve been able to eat without those programs, but my quality of life was greatly enhanced because of them.

    Jesus Christ never said wealthy people cannot be a Christian or as he put it enter into the kingdom of God, because, wealthy people already worship a God which is money! And Christ was definitely more socialistic than communistic, because it allowed his followers to have free will. Many of his followers were working men and business owners, such as fisherman which many of the apostles were, and tent makers which some of his apostles were, and of course carpenters which Christ was himself. So there was a capitalistic element, But, did not reconcile itself with communism.

    So even though individuals could be wealthy, an example would be the Gentile Cornelius, he became a follower in Christ and completely changed the way he conducted his business. Because he was shown kindness he was willing to show others kindness, in other words he reciprocated.

    During the day of Pentecost, read acts the 2nd chapter, those it became followers of Christ sold their possessions to help feed all of those baptized on that day of Pentecost and the teaching that followed for several months. This allowed them to eat and have shelter during their being taught and learning. Those people did not give up whatever businesses they had, as they went back to their countries of origin to spread what they had learned in Jerusalem which began on the festival of firstfruits.

    The apostle Paul besides being an extremely skilled and knowledgeable politician, a person of position, was also a tent maker. He often worked for Aquioa and his wife Priscilla making tents as it was their business. This is explained in Acts the 18th chapter.

    Jesus Christ and his apostles always talked about the greater good of the congregation! It didn’t matter if there were wealthy, or poor, no one was elevated above the others. But the wealthy were expected to contribute to the good of the congregation. But this did not give them any special status. This was really explained in the book of Ephesians starting in the 1st chapter.

    So, wealth was not antithetical to Christianity, but the “striving” for material wealth was! Those who are wealthy came to the conclusion, help their fellow man and help their brothers and sisters the faith. They use their material wealth to gain spiritual wealth. This ideal was more difficult to grasp for some compared to others!

    This is much different than communism or capitalism, it combined both for the good of the congregation.

    The main take on this, there is nothing wrong with being wealthy as long as you are willing to use it to benefit others, whether one owns a business or is wealthy from family money or is a working man or is extremely poor, all have the obligation to support their fellow brothers and sisters in the faith, to bring in disciples and spread Christ’s laws.

    Today, evangelicals say, by as many guns as you can, hoard as much food as you can, hate with a phobic passion everyone not like you and your particular thought process which is definitely unchristian.

    So they are definitely antithetical to Christian values! The tent of Christ was/is huge, it had and has room for everyone, no one is turned away! You don’t have to live like a pauper, you don’t have to wear rags and walk everywhere. Romans the 13th chapter, give Caesar’s things to Caesar and God’s things to God, means to obey the authorities unless they tell you to be antithetical to Christ’s teachings. Remember, the law of Christ was stated clearly many times, “love your neighbor as yourself, and love God” and that the whole law hung on that.

    This also goes along with the parable of the good Samaritan said by Christ himself in Matthew the 13th chapter and then repeated by the apostle Luke in the 10th 15th chapter of Luke. And of course the parable of the vineyard workers and what it represented concerning their pay, this is in Matthew the 20th chapter!

    So yes, Christ was socialistic, he was also loyal to his father, he had compassion, he had empathy, he had concern for his fellow man, so much so that he was known as the shepherd, or the great Shepherd! The analogy of the shepherd is explained extremely well throughout the old and New Testament, Genesis the 31st chapter, 1st Samuel the 17th chapter, Isaiah the 31st chapter, Amos the 3rd chapter, John the 10th chapter chapter.

    Evangelical wing decided long ago, even before they were known as evangelicals, before the age of Enlightenment, back before and during the dark ages, they wanted to have power and authority over their fellow man, and they decided to use religion as that wedge, that hammer, to bend people to their will. They developed doctrines and dogma that were not taught by Christ or his apostles, to use fear instead of hope and faith! They wanted to be authoritarian, they wanted to be capitalists, they wanted the caste system, and they used philosophy rather than the teachings of Scripture.

    That’s my take on it, the hypocrites disavow the teachings of Scripture although they claim to embrace it! They are deceivers, as Christ and the apostles brought out, wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew the 7th chapter)! And they will argue for ever that Christ was not socialistic in his teachings, but that’s just another way to camouflage the truth! True Jesus Christ was not involved in Caesar’s politics, but Caesar was the superior authority, as stated in Romans the 13th chapter, so those authorities were to be obeyed with appropriate accoutrements as paying taxes, giving tribute, and giving honor! Because above all, Christ taught respect, not only of his fellow man, but those in positions of honor and authority. Christ Explained this to Pontius Pilate during his sham trial, this is stated in John The 18th chapter, It really is an enlightening read.

  4. “Corporatism” is on full display this morning as we see news of Trump’s latest economic reports and possible plan to end the quarantines early and the Lt. Governor of Texas suggesting that older Americans die for the economy by volunteering to go to work to keep businesses alive. “Corporations are people!”
    Ayn Rand and her namesake from the Paul family must be so proud.

  5. “But “wealthy people already worship a god,

    Not “because.”

    Sorry, it’s been a long week, I was still half-asleep, LOL!

  6. I remember the good old days when we defined politics as the art of compromise. Today, everyone seems to think that their way is the only way and any attempt to compromise just shows impurity in the hearts and minds of their side. That is to be avoided at all cost. How much this intransigence will cost us in the long run is hard to quantify, but we can see that is has cost us dearly since 2010.

  7. Teresa, sacrificing the disabled and elderly was definitely a tenant of Nazism in Germany! Hitler said himself, that these people were a drag on the economy, how history loves to repeat itself, LOL!

  8. Time has run out. It’s now or never. We better come up with something quick. Or it’s all going to be over within, what some might better call: ” a New York minute.”

  9. Give Trump a break for once. He’s lost almost everything like many of us. Don’t expect him to worry about anyone other than himself as he watches the “bottom fall out.” Maybe a suicide watch is in order. That would be a positive step.

  10. Peggy,

    Your comment: “I remember the good old days when we defined politics as the art of compromise. Today, everyone seems to think that their way is the only way and any attempt to compromise just shows impurity in the hearts and minds of their side. ” This sums up the degradation of our democratic republic by the infusion of WIN AT ALL COSTS philosophy brought to us by Karl Rove, Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes. Poppi Bush hired these bastards because they win, and isn’t it all about winning? Now, the Republican party is so ingrained with this scorched earth winning thing, that they are willing to sacrifice the people of this country in order to keep “winning.”

    It doesn’t surprise me that Dan Patrick (Lt. Gov. of Texas) floated the “kill the boomers” nonsense. He’s a true mental midget with an evil, separatist agenda. Former radio talk show hosts usually turn out this way being that they don’t have much between their ears to start with.

    Here in Denver, people are responding very favorably to the restrictions and pitching in to help those who are not as mobile and more vulnerable. The local supermarkets now have senior only shopping hours. In our 100 unit condominium, each floor (11) has volunteers to clean door knobs, elevator buttons and to fetch packages and delivered food for the older folks. Our little community is exemplary and still reflects the cooperative ideal. Of course, all of the above are Democrats. And they bought my books. LOL.

  11. Florida’s Republican Governor de Santis has come up with a solution for those of the “individualistic society” determined to use their individual rights against all common sense and orders from officials. Those who drive to Florida for their vacation in the sun, come hell, high water or coronavirus” will be placed in isolation locations for 14 days. Gotta love the creative solution for those who are non-believers of what they are facing along with the rest of us.

  12. Go back and look at many of the previous threads, Marv and some others discussed how the Nazis allowed the elderly and the infirmed to die because they were a drag on the economy!

    Not only did they demonize the “others” but took citizenship away from citizens, Jewish citizens, because they needed that foil! And the Jewish foil was well established by the Anglo church!

    So much for evangelicals loving their neighbors or, Nanas and G Pa’s!

  13. “less attention is being paid to the fact that what the U.S. increasingly has isn’t free-market capitalism–it’s corporatism. ”

    Three recent books (The Curse of Bigness, The Myth of Capitalism and The Great Reversal) document the tremendous consolidation that has occurred within essentially all industries in this country over the last 40 years and the the horrible effects this is having on the fortunes of 90% of our citizens. And, with this consolidation comes great political power (especially in the Citizens United era) which should frighten all of us.

  14. John,

    Yes. The economy. Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are two complete idiots who don’t have a clue about their behaviors emulating the Hitler regime. They, plus Abbott, Cornyn and Gohmert reflect the wit and wisdom of the Texas Republican voter and the length of its political bench. As far as they fools are concerned, if you’re not putting money into their donors’ pockets, you are worthless and thus should be eliminated.

    Texas Republicans, ever since “W” was elected governor, have gone down the rabbit hole of indecent meme making for everyone not Republican. Hell, Abbott and Patrick were all foamy about secession a few years ago. Now, they want Federal money to prop up their injured businesses.

    Meanwhile the oil companies, leveraged to the bone and trying to fend off the pitchfork carrying stockholders, are begging for rescue. Really. How else are they going to donate to their Republican allies in government?

  15. john,

    I strongly suggest listening and watching “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers by Mel Brooks, if you want to feel good. It has a very timely ring. All the different versions are on YouTube.

    Where is Mel Brooks when we need him? He’s only 94.

  16. –I expected John to explain to us how Christianity (as taught by Jesus) relates to the Asian philosophies.

    Taoism and Buddhism don’t even have God-heads. Buddha means the “Awakened One.”

    Awakened from what?

    The Hindu’s see God’s role in everything and everyone.

    China looks more to the collective; whereas, the United States looks more toward the individual.

    Selfishness or objectivism, as taught by Ayn Rand, appeals to our individual and collective Ego. Our Ego believes we are each a separate human being. We are afflicted with our thinking mind and its Ego.

    Far Eastern philosophies see the Ego as the problem with humanity. They meditate to still the mind activity so that they can reveal our true nature — pure consciousness.

    In Albert Einstein’s famous 1949 dictum, “Why Socialism”, he also said that man was beginning to resent his connection to the collective. He then called communism and capitalism both “evil” for what they do to human beings and requested that we aim for the central planning of society.

    Our morphed Christianity teaches us little or nothing today. If they focused on Jesus and his teachings, there would be little or no need for churches because we’d all be Enlightened Beings aware of our true nature.

    I do think the younger generation senses this connection to everything, including people in other countries and our planet.

    We are sentient beings, so we need to develop our society with this reality in mind. The mere idea that we are competing against others is nonsensical. The only thing in competition with others is our Egoic minds, which is the problem, not the solution.

  17. Todd,

    I appreciate what you’re saying, but john is a very knowledgeable Christian and those following Trump are not, for the most part, from Asia.

  18. THE PARABLE OF THE PLATOON teaches more yet than Christ or Buddha or Mohammed or any other religious paragon, most especially Ayn Rand. As a platoon leader in Vietnam, I lived the parable. Here it is in outline form. I count on your intelligence to fill in narrative examples.

    First, we have to dispense with the idea that the purpose of a platoon is to kill. As with a nation, the purpose of a platoon is to survive without surrendering strategic objectives that threaten the lives of all. In war, the entity that survives longest and remains most robust wins. Killing is just one means–some say a false shortcut–to that end.

    Second, a platoon is usually a unit of about 40 people, meant to be self-sustaining and cooperatively aligned with all other platoons. Keep thinking of a platoon as A MICRO-MODEL OF A SOVEREIGN NATION aligned with other nations to survive and flourish against a natural world whose first law is selfishness.

    Now, to the good part. Third, comes the positive tenets (listing just those that are pertinent to national behavior) of platoon survival.

    A. The platoon (nation) whose members care for all its members is stronger than the platoon whose members do not,

    B. The platoon (nation) that is healthiest is the strongest,

    C. The platoon (nation) that is most committed to never leaving a member behind is the happiest and the strongest,

    D. The platoon (nation) whose members are most willing to sacrifice for the good of the platoon is the strongest,

    E. The platoon (nation) that allocates its assets the wisest is strongest,

    F. The platoon (nation) with the wisest most imaginative leader is strongest,

    G. The platoon (nation) with the smartest, best-trained members is the strongest,

    Then comes the negative tenets:

    A. The platoon (nation) that has an avowed individualist is weakened,

    B. The platoon (nation) that has the most individualists and/or the most avowed individualist is the weakest,

    C. The platoon (nation) that leaves a member behind weakens all its former strengths,

    D. The platoon (nation) that has the sickest, frailest, or most injured members is the weakest,

    The following clause should be added to the end of each tenet:

    …and the leader, as well as the members, who most ardently value this tenet will be most valued by destiny.

    Note 1, interesting, in a way: One secular (because military leaders long before Christ did it) device that I, as platoon leader, used to inspire some of the more abstract of the above tenets was to wash my men’s feet periodically and require my squad leaders to do the same.

  19. Wow, this statement from the blog rather surprises me:

    >> Would people in America sacrifice some individual liberty for the good of the community? Asian societies, he noted “are more based on the group, the collective. Which is why these kinds of measures are more accepted there.”<<<

    Talk about your stereotypes. China is a authoritarian dictatorship. When the state mandates something the whole apparatus of police and military are there to enforce it. If you resist, you will find yourself arrested, and sent to a re-education camp or prison camp.

    Americans have been in the not so distant past, accepted that "others" had to sacrifice "their" liberty for the collective good. Here I am speaking to Jim Crow, blacks had to sacrifice "their rights" to the collective thought of their White overlords.

    I really could not let that comment pass about Asians.

  20. Larry,

    “The Parable of the Platoon”

    Terrific example. Stronger, but similar to the success within team sports. Unfortunately, a blog cannot reach that level of trust and coordination.

  21. Well Larry, I would say as a Combat Infantry Veteran of Vietnam. The emphasis all during basic training and Advanced Infantry Training was to kill the enemy. I still remember a Drill Sgt., in basic training asking us what the purpose of the bayonet was. The answer he supplied and expected us to respond with was, whenever he asked the question was, “To Kill”.

    All the weapons we were trained on had one purpose, To Kill the Enemy. The other tenant emphasized was Mission before Men. This tenant came from the Trailer Generals and Bird Colonels sitting safely in the rear in an effort to build up the enemies body count so as to enhance their promotional opportunities.

    Yes, we were expected to look out for each other and we did, the mission was to seek out kill and the enemy. I was in Vietnam in 1970-71, so the “Gung Ho” spirit was lacking. We knew we were expendable pawns.

    By the way, if you would have wanted to wash my feet, I would have said Stuff It.

  22. Larry,

    Have you read: “Wounded Soldier, Healing Warrior: A Personal Story of a Vietnam Veteran Who Lost His Legs but Found His Soul” by Allen Clark (Zenith Press, St. Paul, MN, 2007).

    Allen was my intern and shared an office with me at Schneider, Bernet, and Hickman, a large regional investment firm, when he returned to Dallas after a lengthy stay in an army medical hospital. It was 1968 [the last year of my eight-year reserve obligation].

    As I mentioned before, my reserve unit was not called up for active duty. Helping Allen walk the streets of downtown Dallas, has had a LIFE LONG impact on me.

    I can understand the importance of the “Parable of the Platoon.” Many others are going to have to understand it also, if we are to persevere in the weeks and months to come.

  23. I am lucky to live in a state with at least a competent Governor who has guided New Yorkers through our turn as the epicenter of the shitstorm expertly. He’s everything Trumpence are not. Decisive but communicative, expert by listening to experts, at once caring and helping and empathetic to everyone’s needs in the state and he gets things accomplished by working harder than anyone else and cajoling and demanding and collaborating as needed. He spends at least an hour everyday on media instructing and reassuring and explaining why we need to do what needs to be done. He’s such a contrast to the DC brag and blame crowd merely reacting to the whims of Our Esteemed Leader.

  24. Vernon,
    I agree, Dan Patrick is an idiot! It really boggles my mind looking at how these folks sway like a willow tree in a windstorm. They lean whichever way that wind is blowing, they hope that there is so much chaff flying around, no one will notice or remember their previous blathering’s. The rest of that ilk, they are supposedly educated, but listening to them makes me want to jam a sharp stick through my cranial cavity from one ear to the other, LOL!

    I’ve watched that movie the producers many times, and, Mel Brooks is one of my heroes, LOL! Zero Mostel And Gene Wilder were excellent in that movie, Gene Wilder was another one of my heroes, he just made me laugh, and was a fantastic human! Gene Wilder’s wife Gilda Radnor was someone my aunt used to imitate all the time, her Rose Rosanna Danna Character. She was another wonderful human. Of course Hitler would’ve had them executed in a concentration camp!

    you never cease to amaze brother, I bet you were and are a real hell raiser! That analogy was spot on! Your philosophizing at the end is quite humorous and indicative of being a good leader. My father didn’t have a sense of humor, he was in Korea and then served as the general’s honor guard in Germany. Then came back here to be an MP Fort Ord. I would’ve loved for him to have a sense of humor, except for when he dangled that Nazi out of his 3rd floor window in Chicago, LOL, I’ll never forget that image.

    I thought my comment was long enough LOL, and after I read it later on, it was pretty disjointed. With my wife being sick, I had to run my 10-year-old granddaughter to the MASH unit set up outside of condo hospital in Libertyville. She woke up and couldn’t see and set her head felt like it was going to explode. That started at about 4:30 in the morning yesterday Fortunately it was just the flu coupled by a severe migraine, but that took most of the day. Those MASH units setting outside the hospitals and something I never thought I would personally see in this country, or the threat of something taking your entire family away, something that you cannot physically fight. Anyway, I apologize for my lack of completion, LOL.

    There was a fairly substantial presence in Asia minor by the burgeoning Christian faith, Revelation 1:9 describes some of them.

    MYSIA, Troas, BITHYNIA, PAPHLAGONIA, GALATIAN PONTUS, GALATIA, LYDIA, Ephesus, ASIAN PHRYGIA, GALATIAN PHRYGIA, CAPPADOCIA, LYCAONIA, CARIA, PISIDIA, Antioch, PAMPHYLIA, LYCIA, CILICIA, COMMAGENE, SYRIA, And Antioch, Were all considered Asia and Asia minor, Named by the Romans, and eventually had Christian adherence and those regions.

    In Lystra, the apostle Paul and Barnabas were referred to as Hermes and Zeus, because of their prowess at healing those who were maimed and lame with disease. They absolutely refused those that wanted to sacrifice to them, and made it clear they were not gods.

    Paul, as an example, stood on a particular altar amongst many altars of gods, He did this at the Areopagus and Athens, this particular altar was an altar to the unknown God’s. The Greek gods were all steeped in Philosophies, From Asia to the Mediterranean and Europe, God’s and their philosophies abounded. So when Paul started talking to those at the Areopagus, they took interest but in a ridiculing kind of way. So when they asked Paul, “who” gave them the authority to speak, pointed to the altar he was standing on to the unknown God’s and said he is speaking for the unknown God’s! After that, they listened with interest to what he said.

    But anyway, I appreciate the platform today, I’m off to take care of my father-in-law because this house is still pretty sick. You all be safe! And Larry, lay off the weed man, LOL! You are too creative not to partake on occasion.

  25. Would people in America sacrifice some individual liberty for the good of the community?
    No, but they will sacrifice grandparents!! How special . . . .

    Sheila : Any chance I could cyber-audit your course? Me, too!

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