I don’t like the word moderation. It sounds boring, as if I were only letting myself have half the fun I could. I was glad to discover that’s not what it means. Turns out that moderation is like walking a tightrope. Grownups in the moral life discern at every moment which way they’re starting to lean and compensate to find the right balance point for that situation.
Moderation applies to lots of good things. With food, it’s called abstinence. With alcohol, sobriety. With sex, it’s chastity and with dress, it’s called modesty.
Say you’re out to lunch with the boss — drinking alcohol is likely not a good career move and moderation in that case is zero. If you’re at a friend’s house for dinner, a glass or two of wine may be the right amount. Watching the Superbowl in your own house may allow for more than two beers. In other words, “moderation” means the right amount of a good thing at a particular time and place. Determining the right amount of a good thing brings in the virtue of prudence, with which we make that judgment call.
A virtuous act is sometimes called a middle point between extremes, but that’s misleading, too. It’s not the middle point as in “mediocre” or “bland.” The right “middle point” can move like crazy, depending on the circumstances, as with the answer to “How many drinks should I have?” above.
Trying to keep upright on our moral tightrope, we sometimes have to pull really hard to keep from falling to one side or the other. I may like to crank up my speaker volume really loud, but when my neighbor in the next apartment is home, I play it way softer or use headphones so I don’t ruin his evening. Moderation is a dynamic state that keeps us plumb with reality and keeps our actions from having bad effects on ourselves or others.
Staying upright on the tightrope and living “dynamic moderation” give us the best chance to grow into our full strength of character and deepest dignity and integrity. Those who have tried moderation for a while know that the short-term losses they may feel, like “Aw, I’m dying for another piece of cherry pie, but there’s only one piece for each person,” are outweighed by long-term gains. The strong moral muscles (the habit of virtue) we develop open up more and more chances to make free decisions that result in long-term benefit for everyone involved. Happy balancing!