One of the critical concepts of Aristotle’s virtue ethics is finding the mean, or balance, between excess and deficiency.
As part of Aristotle’s virtue ethics, the Doctrine of the Mean can be explained in the following manner: “Excellence in any field is achieved by hitting the mean and not by excess or deficiency. So, to be virtuous in our acts and emotions, we must avoid excess or insufficiency in our activities and feelings” (Velasquez 470).
Thus, the goal becomes finding the trait that falls between deficiency and excess. It may be applied to various characteristics in terms of caring for oneself. For example, a person may be excessively stingy and unwilling to give to anyone. On the other end, a person may be too selfless, taking care of everyone else before caring for themselves.
Locating the balance comes by sliding away from these distinct poles and coming to the middle ground. In this case, the mean may be characterized as generosity. Yet, what if selfishness became one’s goal in a refined sense of the term?
Codependent No More, Melody Beattie cites Nathaniel Branden: “Thus, to respect oneself is to practice selfishness in the greatest, noblest, and most misunderstood sense. And this, I would argue, requires considerable independence, boldness” (Branden in Beattie, 126).
Many people will reject this immediately upon reading it. “Be selfish? That’s ridiculous! I have kids, a family, and a company! I can’t afford my health. It wouldn’t be fair to everyone else.” In response, Beattie urges readers to realize the following: “Out of high self-esteem will come true acts of kindness and charity, not selfishness” (126). It is, in a sense, selfishness that leads to selflessness. Being honest with oneself is selfish.
Applying Aristotle’s Ethics
How does Aristotle fit into all of this? His Doctrine of the Mean encourages balance. In situations where one needs to care for themselves, it can be beneficial to examine the excess and deficiency of their actions and the mean they are striving for.
“Giving ourselves what we need does not only mean giving presents; it means doing what’s necessary to live responsibly—not an excessively responsible or an irresponsible existence” (Beattie 116). Utilizing Aristotle’s model, responsibility to others at our expense is categorized as an excess. Conversely, downright irresponsibility is a deficiency. The balance here is a responsibility to oneself.
As Beattie pointed out, caring for yourself does not necessarily mean treating yourself to lavish gifts or vacations or focusing on your own needs at the expense of everyone else. Responsibility to yourself involves realizing and acknowledging your own needs and wants, even if there is nothing you can do about them at the moment.
Being honest about your feelings and needs seems an overly simplistic way to begin practicing responsibility to yourself. Yet, sometimes the most superficial answers are ignored because they seem too easy. Unfortunately, these are often the most excellent options.