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How Moderation is Essential to the Moral Life

by Gil Sanders
How Moderation is Essential to the Moral Life

Living the good life is all about moderation. Every day I see just how right Aristotle was about this. Humans are prone to taking extremes. Food is good, but too much of it is bad and too little of it is bad. There is a proper amount that satisfies our nutritional needs and avoids significant waste. Wealth is good, but sometimes people desire it too strongly as if it’s an end in itself, or others shun it too strongly as if it’s evil in itself. Do not be too eager to be wealthy. Our attitude should be like Proverbs, “Give me neither riches no poverty.” If riches do come, be wary of becoming too attached to it and use it wisely for the good of others, not just yourself. Do not excessively indulge in pleasure like some mindless animal, but rather find pleasure in the good, and do good because it’s good. Do not be prideful, but nether should you be too humble or timid. False humility says, “I am terrible” at something they’re in fact good at. Pride says, “I am the best” at something they’re not in fact the best at. Humility is confidence that is neither arrogant or timid. Humility is thinking truly about one’s actual abilities, and using those abilities to love and serve others, as opposed to tearing them down. 

Another example is anger. Aristotle puts this best, “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” We are too easily persuaded that we are right. If we feel x degree of anger and express it, we feel we are right just because we felt it. But how many of us ask ourselves, “Was I right to react as strongly as I did?” Do not let feelings control your beliefs or your responses. Be slow to anger. Self-control is everything. As Solomon says, he “ who controls his temper is greater than one who captures a city.” Since self-control is essential to doing good, destroying that self control with something like alcohol or drugs is bad even if it’s temporary. In moderation alcohol is good, but in excess it (becoming drunk) is bad for us. This is why I also think taking 20+ selfies a day is wrong. it shows narcissism. But I also think it’s ridiculous to say that all selfie-taking is wrong, or that taking more than 2 selfies in one day is wrong. This is “holier than thou” legalism. 

The difficulty with Aristotle’s doctrine of moderation is that it is hard to pin down at exactly what point something becomes “excessive.” We all know that there is such a thing as eating too much, but can we put an exact number? 4 burgers? 10.453 burgers? When does it become too much? But Aristotle dismisses this objection. Ethics isn’t some precise, mathematical science in the first place. Some of it varies from person to person. That’s not to say it is all relative either, however. There are absolutes, but those absolutes aren’t mathematically precise but more like general rules. If you eat 50 burgers a day, for example, that’s clearly excessive. But when it comes to when something STARTS to become excessive, that’s what we cannot pinpoint. Some think this is bad, but I think this is a good feature of Aristotle’s ethical theory because it is true of real life. Can you pinpoint exactly how many pieces of hair a person must have until we can call him “bald”? I submit to you that you cannot, but we still have a general idea of when a person is bald. The moral life is very similar.

Against Legalism & Relativism

I cannot stand legalists and relativists because this aspect of morality goes over their head. They have to think in a black and white way with mathematical-like precision for everything. It’s either all or nothing for them. I understand perfectly why some women, for example, would be upset at men “slut-shaming” them. Some women have been shamed just for showing the skin on their shoulders. Some have been shamed for wearing dresses 0.2 cms shorter than the “standard.” I get that, but then they go to the other extreme where pop artists are allowed to show a lot of their butt and do all kinds of sexual poses (including dancing on a pole), all in the name of beauty, expression, and empowerment. Is there any line? I am speaking specifically of this year’s Super Bowl Half Time Show that Shakir and Jennifer Lopez. Not the worst thing I have seen, but definitely immodest. They think that in order to liberate themselves of legalism, they must go in the total opposite extreme and reject any rule whatsoever, including the more general and reasonable ones. In principle, all the justification they give to support such behavior can justify going naked.

Lastly, I want to clarify one common confusion. Moderation does not mean doing everything mildly like some dull boy. There are times to be extremely angry, but we must also be sure that it does not control us. There are times to be intense in our responses or feelings that is anything but “tame.” Moderation is not about being tame, mild, or anything like that. It’s more about being proportional and doing things at the proper time and for the right reasons. If someone murders and rapes you wife, your anger should be proportional to that. In fact, if you fail to feel any anger at all, one would suspect that something is morally wrong with you. You should feel very upset!  But if someone tapped your car by accident, it would absurd for you to start acting as if someone murdered your wife. Moderation may not be the most precise of doctrines, but I think it steers clear of two extremes: legalism or lawlessness. We learn what moderation is by experience; not by pure intellectual thought.

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