The Subject Matter of Ethics: A Metaphysical Reading of NE I.3

In Nicomachean Ethics I.3, Aristotle invokes a fundamental philosophical principle: like other lines of inquiry, ethics must be adequate to its domain. In exploring this principle, I propose what I call a Metaphysical Reading of NE I.3. On this reading, an Aristotelian ethicist must ask herself what her line of inquiry is about, analyze the nature of her theory's subject matter, and observe norms of theorizing that are adequate to it. What, then, is ethics' domain? As I argue, according to Aristotle the subject matter of ethics is value as it figures in human life. Aristotle ascribes two features to value in human life: difference and variability. Other theorists, he notes, are misled by these phenomena and become relativists. They observe a lack of strict regularity, and falsely conclude that the domain of value is messy, unsuitable for any general insights. Aristotle aims to improve on that. In his view, it is possible for a domain to lack strict regularity, and yet to display for-the-most-part regularities. These lesser regularities are sufficient for ethics to be a kind of study. In arguing for this view, I pursue three aims: (i) to emphasize that Aristotle takes his ethical theory to be a competitor to relativism; (ii) to call into question some dominant trends in Aristotle scholarship, most importantly the idea that ethics' precision (or lack thereof) attaches specifically to deliberation; and (iii) to make plausible the view that the subject matter of ethics is value as it figures in human life.