The Degradation of Ethics

Larval Subjects .

alienAs 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…

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