Tag Archives: Aristotle

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.


Defining Merit

I read David Brooks’ columns in the New York Times pretty regularly. As I have noted previously, sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I don’t.

By far my most typical response to Brooks, however, is “yes, but…” That was my reaction to observations he shared a couple of weeks ago, at the height of the college graduation season. Here’s how he began:

Once upon a time, white male Protestants ruled the roost. You got into a fancy school if your father had gone to the fancy school. You got a job at a white-shoe law firm or climbed the corporate ladder if you golfed at the right club.

Then we smashed all that. We replaced a system based on birth with a fairer system based on talent. We opened up the universities and the workplace to Jews, women and minorities. University attendance surged, creating the most educated generation in history. We created a new boomer ethos, which was egalitarian (bluejeans everywhere!), socially conscious (recycling!) and deeply committed to ending bigotry.

You’d think all this would have made the U.S. the best governed nation in history. Instead, inequality rose. Faith in institutions plummeted. Social trust declined. The federal government became dysfunctional and society bitterly divided.

No argument with the first paragraph. It describes the world I grew up in.  (I attended a women’s college where the “joke” was that the school had accidentally admitted an extra Jew over its “quota” of 50, and three trustees had committed suicide as a result.)

The second paragraph, however, describes an aspiration rather than a reality. Yes, many of the barriers were removed; elite schools no longer imposed quotas for Jews, Asians and others, and more people went to college. But bluejeans do not an “egalitarian ethic” make–and among graduates of less-elite institutions, both recycling and a “deep commitment to ending bigotry” can still be pretty hard to find.

The third paragraph displays an inverted version of one the oldest logical fallacies: after this, therefore because of this. Here, Brooks says we had an unfair system, we made it (somewhat) fairer, and the measures we employed didn’t solve our social ills. Ergo, meritocracy doesn’t work.

Brooks says that the problem is with the “ideology” of meritocracy, which he believes encourages “ruinous beliefs,” including an exaggerated regard for intelligence (“Many of the great failures of the last 50 years, from Vietnam to Watergate to the financial crisis, were caused by extremely intelligent people who didn’t care about the civic consequences of their actions”); a misplaced faith in autonomy (leading to a society “high in narcissism and low in social connection”); a misplaced notion of the self (“a conception of self that is about achievement, not character”); and a misplaced “idolization” of diversity (“Diversity for its own sake, without a common telos, is infinitely centrifugal, and leads to social fragmentation”).

The essential point is this: Those dimwitted, stuck up blue bloods in the old establishment had something we meritocrats lack — a civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, that we owe a debt to community and nation and that the essence of the admirable life is community before self.

Actually, I don’t remember those “stuck up blue bloods” having much civic consciousness, but perhaps I encountered the wrong ones…

Brooks’ “essential point,” like Aristotle’s golden mean, locates virtue in the midpoint between  extremes. To the extent that “midpoint” is another word for reasoned moderation, that insight has proved valid through most of human history.

But our problem isn’t meritocracy; it is how we define our terms.

Merit is not defined by intellect alone, although I would argue that a respect for intellectual achievement is meritorious. Diligence, honor, compassion and other markers of character are  essential to any definition of merit. Nor is intellect merely a matter of IQ–genuine intellectual achievement requires an open mind and intellectual curiosity, not just capacity.

Autonomy does not require disconnection from community or preoccupation with self. Properly understood, it simply requires each of us to engage in self-government, to create and be true to our own telos. The most autonomous people I know are deeply involved with their communities.

Similar critiques can be made of the other terminology Brooks employs.

The problem isn’t that we reward people on the basis of merit; the problem is we don’t agree on what constitutes either merit or an appropriate reward.