On Philosophy

December 18, 2006

More On The Good Life

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 5:42 pm

Yesterday I pointed out that most people in our modern society see the good life as happiness, which allows them to be manipulated by perceived social pressures into having manufactured wants, which in turn leads to unhappiness since they don’t have the resources to meet all of them. I proposed another possible view of what the good life is in response, and by doing so made apparent how hard it is to argue for a view of the good life, since the standards we would normally use to judge something such as this are tied up with our conception of the good life.

Today, instead of pursuing further what the good life is, I will explore how we might possibly pick one view of what constitutes the good life over another. This means that we need some kind of requirements that a view of the good life must meet in order to be “successful” (by which I mean worthy of being chosen, or perhaps should be chosen, as a view of what the good life entails). Last time I proposed that, whatever the good life is, it should be able to be chosen and that it shouldn’t be self-defeating. I don’t think I can improve on these, but I can add a few more.

First the good life should be independent of ethics. This is not to say that one shouldn’t be ethical, but simply that our conception of the good life shouldn’t be a life lived ethically. The ancient Greek philosophers did have a tendency to combine to the two, so that to them the good life was not only a valuable/desirable life worth living, but also a life lived ethically. I think this confuses the issue. Certainly we should strive to be ethical, but being ethical does not alone provide an adequate guide as to how to lead the good life. One could take the good life as a happy life and live ethically. One could also take the good life as one that meets its goals and live ethically. One could also fail, by all standards, to lead the good life, and still live ethically. So, while ethics is an important guide for life, it simply doesn’t provide everything necessary, and our conception of the good life fills that omission. However, since we do have to live ethically, perhaps I should rephrase by requirement for possible views of the good life as: what makes a life good shouldn’t be living ethically, but living the good life should be compatible with living ethically.

Another requirement for the good life is that living it should be take effort. No matter what the good life is it has to be something that is strived for if it is to be valuable. It is hard to think of a serious version of the good life that doesn’t require effort, even if the good life is happy life it is generally assumed that it takes some effort to become happy, or to maintain a state of happiness. I can, however, think of ridiculous examples. Consider then a view of the good life that says that the good life is thinking of the color blue on a daily basis. Certainly this is a choice, not self-defeating, and not tied to ethics, so it meets our other requirements. But I think no one would seriously consider this as a possibility for the good life, because the good life, so defined, doesn’t seem to be in any way better than a life lived in the same way, minus thinking daily about the color blue. And I think this is because no effort has been expended to set the life above the non-good life. Now this is not to say that expending effort guarantees that one is living the good life, work can be expended without purpose, for example rolling a boulder uphill all day, only to have it roll back, and, if I am correct, in pursuit of happiness. Nor do I think that work is correlated with the “goodness” of the life, simply working harder doesn’t make your life better. But I think the fact that some work must be expended is a good indicator that we have a serious candidate for what might be the good life.

A third requirement for the good life is that not everyone should be living it unless everyone is purposefully trying to live it. In many ways this is simply another way of looking at the previous requirement, but it does rule out a few additional possibilities, like eating and breathing, which technically both require effort. Again the rationale behind such a requirement is that the good life is supposed to be superior to the life lived carelessly, which is clearly not the case if everyone is living the good life already.

So, now that I have outlined five requirements (including the two from yesterday) that a good life is supposed to meet, we can better ask where these requirements come from. Is there a justification for them besides intuition? It seems apparent to me that they all follow from the view of the good life as something that represents the best possible life, something that is not given, but must be earned, and something that, as in ideal, can be a guide for us. But here we might already be going in circles, if we allow what the best life is to be tied to our notion of the good life. But perhaps we can ground it in ethics, by defining the best life as the one that, when led by everyone, results in the best society. Worrying about what constitutes the best society is something we have already tackled within ethics, when dealing with consequentialism, and hopefully something that we already have an answer for. If you think that the best society is a “utopia” with everyone as happy as they possibly can be then it would seem that that the good life should be a happy life, the common conception of the good life. But if you think that the best society is the one that survives for the longest under all conditions, as I do, then I think that you can make a case for thinking that the good life is one that meets its goals (since such people will contribute the most to society).


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