The Origin of Ethics
What kind of life is worth living? wonders Socrates. The question implies two things: first, not all kinds of life are worth living and, second, one kind of life not worth living is the unexamined life. Ethics begins when we examine our lives and ask: How should we be living and what should we be doing?
We can answer these questions well only if we know what we want most from life. We know that we want more from life than life itself. We want good things in life, and we want to live well and to do well. We want what the Stoics call a [good flow] in life. Human life is a life of longing and desire for a good life.
Virtue ethics is rooted in this desire. By [desire] we mean something stronger than a mere wish such as [I wish I had something to drink] or [I wish I were rich.] Mere wishes remain wishful thinking; they do not initiate behavior. By desire, on the other hand, we mean that which actually initiates behaviors—the actions aimed at achieving whatever is desired. My desires for something to drink or for wealth, unlike mere wishes, will actually generate behaviors aimed at getting something to drink or becoming wealthy.
Desires are the wellsprings of the activities that constitute human living. If ethics is about our life-forming activities, about what we do, and if what we do originates in our natural desires, then ethics originates in our natural desires for doing well and living well.