On Philosophy

December 17, 2006

The Good Life

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 3:55 pm

Everyone wants to live the good life, although people differ in opinion as to what it is. In the modern age most people have come to think of the good life as a happy life (although this was not always the case). And in capitalist societies happiness has become linked to possessing money and goods.

I have argued previously that striving towards happiness is a bad idea, since people can’t accurately predict what will make them happy. Obviously there is no need to go over that again. Instead I would like to focus on the manufactured wants that cause people to associate money and goods with happiness (falsely). Why can’t a poor person be as happy as a rich person? Most people will say that it is because the poor person can’t have all the things they want. But assuming that the poor person has what they need why should they want anything money can buy? Well they don’t necessarily have to want anything, but society does its best to give people these desires, which is why they are called manufactured wants.

Manufactured wants are easiest to create in children, and hence easiest to point out, all you need to do is give the child the idea that having some item will be fun (by showing others having fun with it) and the child is likely to desire it. And children are not very discriminating consumers, so this works fairly often. Obviously this strategy doesn’t work as well with adults, since most adults have learned that not everything advertised as enjoyable actually is. To manufacture wants in adults generally the product is portrayed as being necessary to be part of the group. Ads tell people that either not having the product will cause people to shun them, or that having the product will make people like them more. (As an aside I would like to mention that products aren’t always something you can buy, sometimes they are attitudes or lifestyles.) What is insidious about these ads is that to some extent they are true, even if you don’t buy into one of them other people might, and if enough other people do they might really think less of you for not having the product (or think more of you for having it). And since people think that being accepted, being part of the group, will make them happy, and lead to them living the good life, they come to desire the things that they are told too.

Now from the outside looking in the whole process seems rather silly, but because everyone is drawn to be part of society, to some extent, everyone falls for it once in a while. Now there are some steps to avoid having too many manufactured wants. The first is to make sure that your social circle values you for things that are independent of your possessions and wealth (say your skill at writing insightful philosophy pieces). If they don’t then you need to find a new social circle. Second is to evaluate your wants, to determine if what you want will directly make you happy or if it is the fact of having it, and knowing that other know you have it, that makes you happy. If it is the second do your best to put it out of your mind. (Remember, this applies to things other than material goods too, like the way you dress, the way you talk, ect.) Still, this is only a partial solution, because in the end we still come back to happiness. But happiness is a poor goal to pursue (because by pursuing it one is unlikely to be happy). The best way out is simply to adopt a different view as to what constitutes the good life.

Although we can argue that a view of the good life that equates it with happiness fails by its own standards (by not leading to happiness) it is hard to argue for some view of the good life, because to argue for it would require some grounds upon which we can judge it as good or successful, but we can’t, since those very grounds are tied to our conception of the good life. I can think of only two “objective” standards that a view of what a good life is must meet: it must be able to be chosen (it can’t be: one must be taller than six feet), and it must not be self defeating (pursuing the good life can’t lead one to the failure to obtain it, the problem with defining the good life as a happy one). I admit that many definitions of what the good life is may meet these requirements, but I propose that we view the good life as one that meets its own goals. Goals of course can be anything, but I suspect the best ones are to accomplish things that outlive the individual. This encompasses a lot: works of art, inventions, advances in science, ect (does not include: being the best at something, having children, ect). And the good life does not necessitate making those goals one’s only focus, even if you wish to write a novel it doesn’t mean that you have to be a full time writer, one can meet their goals without devoting all their time to them.

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