Humans, Animals, and Aristotle. Aristotelian Traces in the Current Critique of Moral Individualism

Martin Huth


The concept of moral individualism is part of the foundational structure of most prominent modern moral philosophies. It rests on the assumption that moral obligations towards a respective individual are constituted solely by her or his capacities. Hence, these obligations are independent of any ἔθος (ethos), of any shared ethical sense and social significations. The moral agent and the individual with moral status (who is the target of a respective action) are construed as subjects outside of any social relation or lifeworld significations. This assumption has been contested in the last decades by diverse authors with very different approaches to moral philosophy. In the last years, an increasing number of philosophers like Cora Diamond and Alice Crary (with a Wittgensteinian background), but also phenomenologists like Paul Ricœur, Klaus Held, and Bernhard Waldenfels question the presupposition that individual capacities are the agent-neutral and context-neutral ground of moral considerations. This critique of moral individualism in different contemporary discourses shows a striking similarity between Wittgensteinian and phenomenological philosophers as their critical inquiry of prominent theories like the ones by Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, Peter Singer or Tom Regan is derived from mostly implicitly efficacious Aristotelian theorems. Telling examples are the ἔθος (ethos) as pre-given normative infrastructure, the ἕξις (hexis) as individual internalization of the ethos, the φρόνησις (phronesis) described as a specific practical know-how in contrast to scientific knowledge, and not at least the definition of the human being as ζῷον πολιτικόν (zoon politikon). However, the Aristotelian sources of this movement have not yet been scrutinized systematically. This paper aims, first, to reveal the significance of these sources to make them visible and, second, to contribute to the notion of the topicality of Aristotelian philosophy in current debates on ethics. 


Aristotle, Cora Diamond, Alice Crary, phenomenology, moral individualism, ethos, hexis, phronèsis

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