Before Eudaimonia: Rethinking the Relationship between Ethics and Ontology

Greg Wurm, University of Notre Dame

Though discussions about ethics are largely ignored in the social sciences in fear of committing the naturalistic fallacy, or of deriving an ought from an is, scholars from the critical realist tradition have proposed that this separation of facts and values is misguided. Facts are value-laden just as values are fact-laden. And while the value-ladenness of “facts” puts a (supposed) limitation on scientific objectivity, the fact-ladenness of values (supposedly) enables science to speak beyond the ontological domain into the realm of ethics. For humans, the central good is to become who they are, which teleological endpoint is based on philosophically proposed, scientifically confirmed, and dialogically agreed upon understandings of what human nature essentially consists of. Moreover, as one achieves the fullness of one’s capacities as a human being through the development of virtues—conceived as the mean between two vices—they attain a state of being known as eudaimonia, human flourishing, or (per the conference theme) wellbeing. I argue, however, that although this approach is helpful in many respects, it misses what is truly ethical about ethics. Drawing upon the ethical phenomenology of Emmanuel Levinas, a French and Jewish thinker whose work is increasingly making its way into the social sciences, I argue that ethics often demands excessive action on behalf of others rather than the balance between two vices, that when acted upon, such as when a person sacrifices their life for another, this can often lead to the destruction of capacities rather than the development of them, and that to propose a universal theory of human personhood, or ethics even, is in fact unethical—in the sense of destroying the infinite particularity of the other—though not unjust or unjustified—in the sense of building institutions that serve the common good and lead to actual human flourishing.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 140. Reflexivity, Ethics, and Translations in the History of Social Science