Aristotle's Ethical Framework: Finding the Golden Mean in a Complex World

In ethical philosophy, few figures have held as much sway as the venerable Aristotle. His moral framework, built upon the concept of the Golden Mean, has often been hailed as a beacon of rationality and balance in a complex and ever-changing world. However, we must subject Aristotle's ethical theory to rigorous scrutiny, challenging its conventional wisdom and shedding light on its inherent fallacies. We can aspire to a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of ethics in our modern age by dissecting the Golden Mean and its limitations.

The Illusion of Balance

Aristotle posited that moral virtue is finding the mean between extremes—an equilibrium between two vices. But is this pursuit of balance truly a reflection of moral excellence? Consider the example of courage, which Aristotle believed lies between recklessness and cowardice. While it may appear reasonable to seek a middle ground, we must recognize that courage in the face of extreme danger may not always manifest as a balanced position. Heroic acts often necessitate transcending the mean and embracing a courageous act that may seem unnecessary in ordinary circumstances.

Moreover, the Golden Mean presupposes a static, unchanging world—a fallacy that fails to acknowledge the complexities of the human condition. Circumstances, context, and cultural nuances shape the moral landscape, rendering the notion of a fixed mean inadequate. History has shown us that what may be considered virtuous in one era may be reprehensible in another. By adhering strictly to the Golden Mean, we risk undermining our ability to adapt and grow ethically as a society.

A History of Cultural Relativism

To fully appreciate the limitations of Aristotle's ethical framework, we must delve into the annals of history and confront the spectre of cultural relativism. The Greek philosopher's conception of the Golden Mean is steeped in the cultural milieu of ancient Athens, where notions of virtue were deeply entwined with aristocratic values. Aristotle's ethics, therefore, reflect the biases and hierarchies of his time, limiting their applicability to diverse cultures and contexts.

Take, for instance, Aristotle's stance on gender roles. He believed that women were inherently inferior to men and that their virtues lay in fulfilling their duties as wives and mothers. In this regard, Aristotle's ethical framework is woefully inadequate for a modern society that champions gender equality and recognizes individuals' multifaceted capabilities and aspirations irrespective of gender. To cling unthinkingly to the Golden Mean is to perpetuate archaic notions of virtue that impede progress and equality.

Beyond the Individual: Ethical Complexity in Society

One of the central criticisms of Aristotle's ethical framework is its narrow focus on the individual. Aristotle overlooks the intricate web of social relationships that shape our moral choices by fixating on personal virtues. Ethics, in its most accurate form, must extend beyond the individual to encompass the well-being and justice of society.

Consider the ethical dilemma of slavery, which Aristotle endorsed. In his view, enslaved people lacked the capacity for rational thought and were, therefore, inherently subservient to their masters. This grossly unjust notion exposes a critical flaw in Aristotle's ethical framework—it fails to consider all human beings' inherent dignity and equality. To address complex societal issues such as slavery, the Golden Mean offers little guidance, as it inherently favours the status quo and the preservation of existing power structures.


In pursuing a more comprehensive ethical framework, it is essential to challenge conventional wisdom and strive for a more nuanced understanding of morality. This requires questioning deeply ingrained beliefs and engaging in uncomfortable introspection. Unfortunately, while valuable in its historical context, Aristotle's ethical theory fails to withstand the scrutiny of an ever-evolving world.

To construct an ethical framework fit for the complexities of the present, we must draw upon the wisdom of diverse philosophies, recognizing the contributions of thinkers who emerged in different historical periods and cultural contexts. Engaging critically with Aristotle's ethical framework allows us to transcend the limitations of the Golden Mean and embrace a more inclusive and dynamic conception of ethics.

Based on the notion of the Golden Mean, Aristotle's ethical framework has profoundly influenced moral philosophy. However, a closer examination reveals its inherent fallacies and limitations. Pursuing balance and fixation on personal virtues fail to account for the complexities of our ever-changing world and diverse cultural contexts. By challenging conventional wisdom and embracing a more inclusive and dynamic ethical approach, we can aspire to a philosophy that resonates with the complexities of our time. Let us move beyond the Golden Mean and forge a more robust ethical framework that reflects our era's intellectual rigour and moral progress.

Plato Re-Imagined

This course includes 32 lectures covering most of Plato's dialogues and allowing the student to return to something divine. Divinity should resonate with secular and religious leaders alike. I present a compatible approach in my lecture on Consilience.

Also included with this course is a free book. If you pay for the course, you will get a physical copy of the book for free, mailed to your chosen address — anywhere on the planet!

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