a1 Philosophy, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Early in Peter Abelard's Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian, the philosopher (that is, the ancient Greek) and the Christian easily come to agreement about what the point of ethics is: “[T]he culmination of true ethics … is gathered together in this: that it reveal where the ultimate good is and by what road we are to arrive there.” They also agree that, since the enjoyment of this ultimate good “comprises true blessedness,” ethics “far surpasses other teachings in both usefulness and worthiness.” As Abelard understood them, both fundamental elements of his twelfth-century ethical culture — Greek philosophy and Christian religion — held a common view of the nature of ethical inquiry, one that was so obvious to them that his characters do not even state it in a fully explicit way. They take for granted, as we take the ground we stand on, the premise that the most important function of ethical theory is to tell you what sort of life is most desirable, or most worth living. That is, the point of ethics is that it is good for you, that it serves your self-interest.
* I have benefited from comments by many people on various drafts of this essay. Tara Smith served very ably as the commentator when it was presented at the 1996 annual meetings of the Ayn Rand Society. Ellen Frankel Paul was good enough to send me comments in writing, as did Irfan Khawaja, Eyal Mozes, Chris Sciabarra, and Douglas Rasmussen. Remarks made in oral discussion by Richard Kraut and Richard Arneson also proved to be helpful.