January 01, 2014

Advance Sheet: Can Moderation Give Us Justice?

Robert E. Shapiro

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The Greek philosopher Aristotle famously described moral virtue as a mean between extremes. The extremes comprised either too much or too little. A fine example of this was the virtue of “liberality,” what we might call generosity or even charity. A person who gave too much was a spendthrift or possibly a too-conspicuous consumer. One who gave too little was a miser, a Scrooge, more worried about his purse than other persons. Between these two vices of excess and deficiency was the virtue of proper giving, no more than, but at least as much as, one could afford.

The Goldilocks-like simplicity of this formula is deceiving. Knowing just how much one can afford is often the hard part. And what makes the porridge “just right”? How much is too much? Or not enough? Not coincidentally, Aristotle’s apparent rule works least well, indeed not at all, with the all-important moral virtue of justice. Speaking of too much justice or too little seems to make no sense at all, even if “just right” is exactly what justice seems to be about. So it seems that the key to moral virtue is not really a matter of quantity, after all, but of quality. Finding just the right balance, the “just right” approach to a situation, whether one is concerned with giving or courage or friendship or justice, is really the heart of the matter.

This is not to say that the qualitative shares nothing with the quantitative. Moderation bears a certain resemblance to self-restraint, and when we think of justice, we can see that self-restraint in both directions makes a great deal of sense. Take sentencing, for example. Finding the right sentence requires finding the mean between a penalty too harsh and one too lenient, too many years and too few. And, as a judge approaches sentencing, we want the judge to be neither too angry nor too demure. We want self-control, but not total detachment. Moderation, we might say, in these and all other things.

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