A highly general conception of ethics is that it is the science by which men discover those rules which, when followed, will allow them to fulfill their end. The "end" we speak of here has classically been thought as the telos, that towards which man's nature inherently is ordered. Aristotle calls this end "happiness;" Aquinas says it is "the love of God;" Kant suggests it lies in the self-determination of the rational being according to the law of reason; the utilitarians suggest it is mass pleasure. What all these conceptions have in common is that they view the end as something to be achieved as the result or product of a series of temporal actions. Aristotle's happiness is only attainable through the habit of virtue (along with some other developments quite beyond the control of the individual) and Kant's rational self-determination is only possible after exercising one's reason, an exercise which is necessarily bounded by the sequential temporality of time as the condition of inner and outer experience. The maximization of pleasure that the utilitarians seek can only come about as the result of a series of sequential steps enacted in a communal setting.
What is decisive in these systems is a sense that the telos is temporally ahead of man. What I would like to suggest now is that the end they seek may well stand behind them; as T.S. Eliot says in "Little Gidding,"
"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
We should see how this saying does not essentially conflict with the conception of ethics as ordered towards a future teleological goal. It is not impossible that the end of man is both ahead of him and at the same time behind him. Socrates states in Republic that the most just form of speech, dialectic, is precisely that sort of speech that "makes it way to a beginning." (510b) The justice of dialectic is that it manages to comprise its own origins at its conclusion, which consists not in some sort of "result," as though thinking were a mechanical process that produced thoughts as the final output, but rather as a transformation in thinking itself.
What this means to ethical thinking is that it cannot depart from a prepackaged conception of human essence towards a prepackaged conclusion as to the ultimate end of man. Utilitarianism is guilty of this more than any other "ethical system;" but it in some way is true of all the other systems we have considered (some much less so than others). It is precisely at that point when ethics becomes separated from the rest of philosophy (and therefore becomes an "ethical system") that it become more or less inherently impossible.
It thus seems that genuine ethical thinking is an exceedingly difficult task, a task that we are perhaps not yet ready for. But is it not folly to expect things to be any other way? If ethics was the sort of easy, common-sense thing that the utilitarians suggest, why is it that we still struggle with matters of ethics? Should we not expect that the science which concerns the origin and end of the human essence would not in fact be an exceptionally difficult sort of science indeed? A science which perhaps turns out to not exactly be a science at all?
We close with some more from Eliot's Four Quartets. These words, again from "Little Gidding," could well be applied to the true nature of ethical thought:
". . . You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always."