Happiness And Virtue as a Mean


A picture of hapiness: Edip Yuksel and older son, Yahya in 1993

 Edip Yuksel


What do you think is the most important difference between the ancient conception of happiness and our modern conception of happiness? Compare it with another difference which you take to be less important.

It is Sunday 9:41 pm. and I just started writing this take home exam. Therefore, I’m not happy at this moment. There are myriad bugs of worries and uncertainty biting the circuits of my brain’s conscious and subconscious hardware. How can I satisfy my instructor’s capricious and paramount intellectual demands in a couple of hours after an exhausting day trying to satisfy my three years old son’s endless childish demands? Thus, I don’t feel happy.

Ironically, just by expressing my unhappiness I have almost answered a quarter of the question. And I got some hope and encouragement. Now I feel little bit happy. In order to make myself happy, I know well that I have to make my instructor happy.

The spontaneous words above partially express the conception of happiness in our modern world. Happiness is a feeling. It is probably the balance (remainder) of pains and pleasures, fortunes and misfortunes, success and failures, love and hatred, hope and worries. In other words, it is the average perception of all “good” perception minus all “bad” perception. It seems that we have two different concept of happiness regarding its life-span. Temporal happiness and permanent happiness (or real happiness). The former is our current response (feelings) to a particular pleasing phenomenon. The later is a state of contentment regarding our overall aspects of life.

My Webster’s College Dictionary briefly states the modern concept of happiness. You are happy, if you are:

  1. delighted, pleased, or glad, as over a particular thing.
  2. characterized by pleasure, contentment, or joy.
  3. favored by fortune; fortunate or lucky.
The first and the second are subjective definitions of happiness. The third one is an objective definition. In modern terminology, happiness is mostly considered as an entirely subjective state of mind. We can classify this state of mind in two categories: Momentary happiness, and Permanent happiness.

Momentary happiness is a feeling which appears in our conscious for a limited time. However, it co-exist with the permanent happiness in the background. For a perpetually unhappy person a momentary happiness is a lightning in a dark night. On the other hand, for a perpetually happy person it is a new moon in a bright day. Therefore, the ones that really counts is the permanent one.

The permanent happiness is the product of permanent hormones that paints our subconscious. Those hormones are released according to our mental interpretation of three intervals: our past memories, current perception, and expectations. A person is perpetually happy if his brain produces joyful hormones for this three intervals. The importance of those three intervals differs from time to time, person to person. Nevertheless, the crucial one is the future. Our expectations or worries about the future has an overriding impact in our state of happiness. A strong faith in a very happy (!) future can create enough hormones of joy which can erase all the misfortunes of the past and present. It can supply a prisoner with enormous power that transforms the pains of torture into jalapeno pepper. (It is delicious!)

The ancient conception of happiness, on the other hand, is based on objective definition. As we mentioned above, the Webster’s Dictionary gives a component of that concept: “favored by fortune; fortunate or lucky.” Aristotle’s dictionary adds another component: virtue. In fact, Aristotle considers virtue as the most important component of happiness.

It seems that our modern conception of happiness tries to answer two questions “Am I happy?” or “How can I become happy?” The answer for the first one is “you know better”, for the second one is “gain external goods and enjoy them!” But, the ancients tried to answer those two questions from a different perspective. To the question “Am I happy?” they came up with an interrogative answer “Bring your resume, and we will decide.” To the second question “How can I become happy?” they listed the conditions for how to become a good citizen: “Be a healthy and wealthy virtuous person.”

Thus, the ancient conception of happiness is “a socially justified state of contentment” while the modern conception of happiness is “personally justified state of contentment.”  According to Webster, a burglar celebrating his success in a bar with his friends is happy; but according to Aristotle that burglar cannot be happy, since happiness is relevant for rational beings, and a rational being cannot be happy with burglary. A celebrating burglar is a grazing animal.

It seems that Aristotle considered happiness as a quality of intellectual beings. Aristotle is much more consistent than us by suggesting an intellectual definition to that quality. An intellectual being likes “virtue” and dislikes “evil,” or prefers virtue to the lack of it. Thus, an intellectual being can be happy only if he acts virtuous. The problem with this theory lays in a universal definition of virtue and evil.

Another Difference:

Another difference between the modern and ancient conception of happiness is its permanency. Ancients used only three integers to measure happiness. Unhappy (-1), Neither happy nor unhappy (0), Happy (+1).  However, we use infinite number of fractions to measure the degree of happiness or unhappiness.

I consider this difference less important than the ones regarding the components of happiness, since the disagreement on the chemical structure of happiness is more important than the disagreement on whether its atom can be divided or not.

What exactly is Aristotle’s theory that virtue is a mean? Is it a good account of virtue?

Aristotle gives examples of feelings and actions which represent extreme ends. He claims that the virtue is the mean between the two kinds of extreme, that is excessiveness and deficiency.




Rash Brave Coward
Wastefulness  Generous  Stinginess 
Vanity   Magnanimity Pusillanimity
Ingratiating  (No word)  Flatterer
Aristotle tries to define the virtuous level of “love of honor” by comparisons:

“. . . since people desire honor both more and less than is right, it is also possible to desire it in the right way. . . . When compared with love of honor, it appears as indifference to honor; when compared with indifference, it appears as love of honor; and when compared with both, it appears in a way as both. This would seem to be true with the other virtues too; . . . ” (1125b 19-25).

In mathematics you can find the mean of two numbers by dividing their sum by two. In other words, you find the mean by the means of both ends. But, you can’t find the both ends from the mean. On the contrary, according to Aristotle’s formula of virtue, you can’t find the mean (virtue) by taking the means of two extreme ends. There are two reasons for this non-mathematical character:

  1. Ethical extremes and deficiencies cannot be expressed quantitatively.
  2. Extremes and deficiencies are usually open ends extending to infinity. It is difficult to set a limit for cowardliness or for rashness.
  3.  The extremes and deficiencies are based on the previously existing concept of mean; not the other way around. If you don’t have the concept of mean you can’t imagine excessiveness.

According to Aristotle there is a criterion that we can recognize the extremes and deficiencies: Both are self-destructive actions.

Aristotle’s theory of virtue as a mean is not a good account of virtue for at least two reasons.

First, the opposite excessive ends varies according to situations, cultures, individuals and context. There are endless possible situation for each action. An excessive behavior, sometimes, can become virtuous or even deficient. Thus, this theory of virtue is virtually useless.

Second, there are some virtuous actions that can be placed on one of the extreme ends, instead of intermediary place. Let’s assume that we issued seventeen rules to be obeyed by consensus. Obviously, obeying all these rules should be considered as virtue. However, “obeying all the rules” is not the mean of excessive ends. In fact, “Obeying some of the rules” is the mean of “obeying all the rules” and “disobeying all the rules.” Let us give a better example:

Extreme                                         Mean                                                              Deficiency

Happy (complete)                         Neither happy nor unhappy                     Unhappy

If virtuous actions and feelings are the means of both extreme ends, then to be happy –which according to Aristotle’s definition it is ‘complete’– is an extreme end, and thus, according to Aristotle’s own theory, it is not virtuous to be happy! This is Aristotle’s ethical paradox. (Can Aristotle avoid this paradox by playing with words? Can he claim that happiness is neither virtuous action nor feeling, it is a state?)

PS: This article was written in 9-27-1993 for Phil 470, thought by Prof. J. Annas, University of Arizona.