Call ‘‘conventionalism’’ in ethics the view that ethical requirements are ultimately based only on human decision or agreement.
‘‘a good person is especially distinctive because he sees the truth in each case’’ (3.4.1113a32–33); ‘‘in any particular case, things are the way they seem to be to a good person’’ (10.5.1176a15–16).
What is it about reality that is perceived when a good person perceives correctly some ethical attribute? Aristotle variously describes virtuous actions as ‘‘noble’’ or ‘‘admirable’’ (kalon); ‘‘fitting’’ (prepon); or ‘‘fair’’ and ‘‘equal’’ (ison); but he does not give criteria or standards for these things. Does he have a view, which he presupposes and is implicit in what he says, or has he simply not given sufficient thought to this matter at all?
In our time, a chorus of voices may here protest, if not in unison then in perfect harmony: there is no single greatest human good or best way oflife! Everybody now knows that nobody knows what the good life is! To undergraduate freshman and sophisticated scholar alike, this view of things is mother's milk, which means that the average freshman is superior, in the most important respect and without lifting a finger, to Aristotle himself. According to the prevailing view, the individual's good is necessarily "subjective"; it is "relative;' relative to the tastes and inclinations of this or that individual. And because we can know not the good but only the fact of its "subjectivity" and "relativity;' each of us really has no alternative but to pursue happiness according to whichever opinions of it propel us onward, while tolerating or celebrating as much as possible the differing opinions of others. Some such claim of the relative or unknowable character of the good or good life constitutes the orthodoxy of our time; it is for us the chief product of the modern political-philosophic revolt from ancient thought in general and from Aristotle in particular.So it is that a good many readers who approach the Ethics for the first time today understandably bring with them the conviction, or the hunch, that Aristotle's project is impossible. "Interesting;' maybe, but impossible. Yet such readers must admit, at least to themselves, that they have not conducted a full inquiry into the question. They must admit that they are guided less by knowledge than by sanctioned opinion, or by inherited prejudice, in a matter whose importance goes well beyond the proper approach to an old book.
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