The ethical problem

One necessary condition of Aristotle inventing ethics was that the ultimate end of human life is not evident. What’s worse, the end is not just inevident but we have strong initial convictions about it that can’t bring ourselves to believe.

The ultimate end of human life has to at least be what you would do if all the needs of life were met. So if one knew all his needs were taken care of, what then? The young shrug at the question and assume (or fear that) this is as far as one could go, and the occasional boy thrills at the thought of playing video games forever, but a shrug is no answer and if we exist for amusements then life is a joke.

[T]hose things are both valuable and pleasant which are such to the good man; and to each man the activity in accordance with his own disposition is most desirable, and, therefore, to the good man that which is in accordance with virtue. Happiness, therefore, does not lie in amusement; it would, indeed, be strange if the end were amusement, and one were to take trouble and suffer hardship all one’s life in order to amuse oneself. For, in a word, everything that we choose we choose for the sake of something else-except happiness, which is an end. Now to exert oneself and work for the sake of amusement seems silly and utterly childish

Eth. 10 c. 6

The “what then?” that follows this is one of the background questions of human life that Aristotle tries to push to the foreground. We live for something but the common attempts to answer what it is can’t be taken seriously. The popular answers are sometimes sentimental,* sometimes it’s a joke, and no amount of backgammon or tending one’s garden deals is a healthy response to the problem.


*Included among the sentimental answers, and maybe even the chief among them, is the idea that “everyone has to answer the question for himself” which is simply our refusal to face a question that can’t be answered without judging the lives of others, no matter how loathe we are to do so.

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