As I teach Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (along with the thought of Epicurus and Epictetus), I’m struck by just how much our ethical discourse has changed. This is attested to by what is absent in these discourses as much as by what is present. What’s so striking in Aristotle, is that the question of ethics is one of eudaimonia, happiness, or human flourishing. How ought we live our lives in order to attain human flourishing or happiness, he asks? Similarly, in the case of the Epicureans and stoics, the question is one of ataraxia, peace of mind, or tranquility. For these thinkers there is a clear telos to ethical thought and action: happiness and tranquility.
Such questions seem thoroughly absent from the ethical thought of the last couple hundred years. Ethics instead seems to become a question of how to determine the rules that should govern behavior and that would allow us to assign praise and blame, a discourse about remaining committed to a particular cause when everything suggests it will fail (Badiou), or a particular encounter with the Other (Levinas). Of these three I find Levinas the most baffling, for while I find his work deeply beautiful, I just don’t see how you can get a robust ethical philosophy out of a contingent encounter that one might or might not have.
In the case of Aristotle and Epicurus, we also see the question of ethics deeply intertwined with the question of the polis. Aristotle opens the Nichomachean Ethics arguing that every science (body of knowledge) aims at a good and that if we aren’t to fall into an infinite regress, there must be a highest science that investigates that good that is valued for its own sake rather than for the sake of something else. In other words, there must be a “science” of happiness. Much to the reader’s surprise, Aristotle declares that this highest science, this science of happiness, is political science. I suspect that Aristotle was presupposing that we are inherently social beings, such that not only are our relations to others a condition for our happiness (he devotes two chapters to friendship), but also if we don’t live in the proper way others will rebound back upon us diminishing our possibilities of human flourishing. In the work of the Epicureans we find a similar preoccupation with our social being. It’s necessary, for example, to the proper sort of community– “The Garden” –to achieve ataraxia, for if we have no control over our social world it will be very difficult to achieve peace of mind. Likewise, there are remarks about the necessity of friendship scattered throughout Epicurus’s writings.
Now before the critical animal theorists jump all over me, denouncing these points as anthropocentric and having no place for “the animal”, I think it’s worth pointing out that we don’t really know what a polis is. There’s an empirical dimension to the thought of ethical thinkers such as Aristotle and Epicurus, requiring us to have knowledge of both our own being and the being of things such as the social world. Thus, for example, if we can show that a polis is not simply composed of human beings, but includes a variety of other animate and inanimate questions, we’ll have to modify our conceptions of happiness, peace of mind, virtue, and right action accordingly. The rejoinder is similar in the case of Lacan. Lacan can tell us all he wants that happiness is impossible because of the structure of desire. However, this changes nothing with regard to question pertaining to the good and bad life, peace of mind and a troubled mind. Rather, it just means that we have to take this dimension of our being into account. Jonathan Lear is good on these points. Here I think it’s worth recalling that the term “ethos” has etymological relations not only to hexis or habit, but also perhaps oikos or dwelling. In it’s earlier formulations perhaps ethics was a meditation on how best to dwell.
What’s even more striking in these works is the absence of certain sorts of questions as worthy of ethical reflection. Questions of murder, theft, lying, rape, breaking contracts, and so on hardly appear in the works of these sorts of ethical thinkers at all. It seems that it was obvious to these thinkers that these things belong to the bad life and therefore fall outside of ethics. Epicurus, for example, shows more concern about the types of foods we ought to eat, while Aristotle is preoccupied with what sorts of friendships we ought to have.
With the exception of the stoics, the predominant tenor of these sorts of ethical philosophies is a deep awareness and appreciation both of how we are embedded in a broader world and therefore how questions of our good are bound up with questions of how to navigate this world, but also a profound sense of our embodiment. This seems to disappear in ethical thought around the time of Kant– though vestiges of it can still be found in Mill’s unjustly maligned utilitarianism –as if we are no longer thought as embodied and ecologically situated. Ethics gets de-sutured from questions of happiness and flourishing, and becomes incredibly abstract, as if its no longer a question of living amongst our human and nonhuman others. As I say this I’m sure some irritating person will come along and say “what about this contemporary ethical theory and that contemporary ethical theory and that?” However, statistically or in terms of what dominates in popular discourses, I think we clearly see this phenomenon. Why has this happened, I wonder? What shift in the nature of our existence allowed this to take place? Why do we now primarily think of ethics in terms of rules for action and assigning praise and blame, rather than as bound up in questions of flourishing. I can’t help but think that this shift is a symptom of deep alienation, indicating a disappearance of the ecology of the social world, marking a shift to a conception of self as independent of all human and nonhuman others.