I don’t have an answer. But I do find the question sociologically and ethnographically interesting. In The Ethics of Psychoanalysis Lacan suggests that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is completely incomprehensible within the framework of our modern sensibilities. We get a sense of this in the first two paragraphs of the text. In the first paragraph Aristotle reiterates how every art and inquiry aims at some good. In the second paragraph he argues that there must be an ultimate good for the sake of which all other arts aim. The modern reader– at least me –does a double take when he tells us what art studies this ultimate good. My jaw drops in surprise. He says “It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature…” (1094a1-27). Politics? Really? Political science is the highest art and is the subject of ethics? Set aside your political passions for a moment and just let that resonate in all it’s strangeness. It is an utterly bizarre claim from the standpoint of modern sensibilities. It is a claim, I believe, that only an ethnographer can begin to untangle. But I’ll save that story for another day. Let’s just say that philosophers– and above all, ethicists –are perhaps the last people to ask if we wish to understand such a thesis (ditto for the first two books of The Republic and Plato’s Euthyphro).

As we read further in the Nichomachean Ethics, our perplexity increases. We’re told that the goal of ethics is eudaimonia (or human flourishing), yet we’re then told that the life of eudaimonia, human flourishing, or happiness is virtue. For modern sensibility, by contrast, we often sense a stark disjunction between the demands of virtue and happiness. Yet here virtue and excellence are being treated as identical to one another. What are we to think? (Here we should not forget that the term “arete“, for virtue, is perhaps better translated as excellence, and that the English term “virtue” comes from the Latin “virtus that has connotations of “potency”, “power”, “efficacy”, “strength”, and so on. We begin wondering if there’s something to Nietzsche’s Genealogy.)

read on!

The modern reader’s perplexity increases as we read on. There’s nearly no discussion of lying and truth-telling, contractual obligations, murder, sex, theft, etc, yet there are two chapters devoted to friendship. Friendship? Friendship?!?! Friendship is a burning issue in ethical philosophy, yet contractual obligations, such a burning issue in Kant’s moral writings, find almost no mention at all (are they even mentioned)? What is this strange universe we’ve landed in? From what perspective does this ethical philosophy make sense? In what ethical universe does Epicurus’s and Lucretius’s ethical philosophies, which spend a great deal of time talking about what to eat, make sense? And let’s not forget the elaborate chapter of De Rerum Naturata discussing appropriate sexual positions. These are very different ethical universes.

Lacan and Zizek talk about how moral thought underwent a fundamental ethical mutation with Sade and Kant, yet strangely the latter leaves unasked the question of the broader social context that might have instigated this ethical transformation. Zizek seems to treat Kant as having discovered the true kernel of ethical thought (he doesn’t fail to make reference to the “closed” universe of the ancients as depicted by Fellini… Life and history imitates art, I guess. Total tripe.). He doesn’t even raise the question of whether Kantian (and subsequent) style ethics is a symptom of something else, a fundamental break and slippage, in the social field. I mean seriously, when you have to appeal to a command of reason to explain why you should keep your promises and tell the truth, when telling the truth becomes a burning ethical problem, doesn’t this indicate something about the nature of the social field worth analyzing and reflecting on?

So how is it that questions of contractual obligation, of norms, etc., became the core, the burning issue, the central problem of ethical thought? Aristotle is funny. People don’t often notice this. When he talks about murder, rape, eating other humans and babies, etc., it’s an offhand reference, in a single paragraph, where these things are dismissed as monstrosities. He speaks of women running through the hills dismembering men. For him these aren’t even really ethical issues. What space of meaning, what “being-in-the-world”, what horizon of existence, is such where these things don’t present themselves as having anything to do with questions of ethics? Let’s not go the route of Fellini-Zizek, conceiving these ethical universes in terms of what they are not, but instead raise the question of what they positively are and how it’s possible to think the world in these terms.

The real question here is that of how contractual obligation and truth-telling became a crisis. Doesn’t the fact that these things appear in our ethical writings today indicate the mark of a crisis? So what mutated in our social space, how did our social relations change, to make these things problems? I suspect the key is to be found in Aristotle’s enigmatic hypothesis that political science is the highest science or the science that deals with the highest goal. In what historical context, in what framework, is it possible to make such a claim? How have things changed such that such a claim can appear enigmatic to us today?