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The emergent telos

17 June 2013

I’m reading Cambridge University Press’ new Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics to review it here. Today I read what has so far been the best chapter in the book (which has been excellent on the whole), ‘Virtue ethics in the twentieth century’ by Timothy Chappell. The chapter has much to recommend it, including the best account of the history of pre-1958 Anglosphere ethics and excellent presentations of Elizabeth Anscombe’s and Philippa Foot’s seminal contributions to the birth of the aretaic turn. What has been sticking in my mind since I read it, though, was a position put forward during the discussion of virtue ethics’ relation to evolutionary science and natural teleology.

Chappell accepts that modern science’s understanding of evolution utterly undoes natural teleology, the notion that there is some telos (or end) written into the very essence of our natural being, an end to which we are directed by virtue of our species. He does not accept that this fact undoes virtue ethics, nor even that Aristotle necessarily had it in mind when he formulated the virtue ethical theory par excellence. Instead he posits that the human telos, understood as eudaimonia, is emergent from human activity itself. I find this an arresting notion. Chappell points to literature and art as better places than science to look for the nature of eudaimonia than science (he highlights the work of Martha Nussbaum on this point) and I am, at this point on an aesthetic level more than anything else, to the idea that our artistic and literary productions are guideposts as well as means to eudaimonia.

I would love to hear if anyone has any thoughts on this notion of an emergent, cultural model of eudaimonia.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Alex Jones permalink
    30 July 2013 8:06 pm

    I understand that “eudaimonia” to be a tautology of prosperity. I define prosperity as happy, healthy and abundant. If I present the example of the rabbit, it is in the nature of the rabbit to be as abundant as possible to populate the world if it could with trillions of rabbits. If the rabbit has achieved all its needs it would be considered as being contented, a state of happiness. It is in the nature of the rabbits DNA to work towards being healthy. All the elements are in place for an inbuilt telos of prosperity/eudaimonia in all living things.

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