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).


  1. it is right to say good life must be perposeful. but what is the perpose of life? money? power? passion? i think no may be the answer. life is like a travel, but nobody is in hurry to reach the destination, but enjoy the traveling, facing the difficulties, taking rest, eating food available, nature hobby etc with never ending list according to personal choices. but can every body enjoy this alone? or he want somebody with him to participate? or whether he can live away from all the humanity? everybody should try to find out their own choices. but another person shall be there, depending either on choices or compelled by situations. so good life depends on ‘his/her’ presence, which is dificult to avoid. so if it is there it will be better to ‘know’ him, which leads to wisdom when used in practical life. and everybody likes to be treated as human baing as others. so you should think of him/her first. this leads to love to care and share with him. let him/her not think as like this, but one is doing this for his living, and satisfaction at a moment. there are very few moments like this. the memory chain will give oneself satisfaction. may be on other day the participent behave in different way which should be done away with. if we keep thinking only on past or future we may be sacrificing the present moment, which is very important and passing away. give justice to ‘the moment’ which gives you a sense of satisfaction and good life.

    Comment by dattusing — December 25, 2006 @ 4:48 am

  2. Two things:
    1. On the one hand, it seems right to want to keep the good life and the moral life separate, where “moral” is fairly narrowly defined (say, as those behaviors and actions that affect other people). But then hard questions arise about just how compatible the good life must be with the (strictly speaking) moral life. Bernard Williams appeals to this problem when he discusses the case of Gaugain, who left his family to pursue art, and subsequently became an accomplished (famous) artist. He lived a good life (let’s say), but this did involve some morally dubious moves (abandoning the family). The question I want to ask is: does the good life, on your view, need to be TOTALLY compatible with the moral life (such that Gaugain-esque moral let-downs disqualify you), or does the good life just need to be GENERALLY moral, and intelligible from a moral point of view (i.e. we can sympathetically identify…).
    2. I’ve been courting value-pluralism lately, and so I must ask: isn’t it misleading to speak of THE good life? (Rather than A good life.) Or, how much content do you think we (as philosophers) can pin onto notions such as the good life, or the happy life? (Are we, as with other big ideas, condemned mostly to argue about what it is NOT?)

    Comment by Matthew — December 26, 2006 @ 7:46 pm

  3. 1. Certainly an interesting question. I would definitely say that in general terms what one must do to lead the good life shouldn’t always require something that is imorral. Now in a particular case, in which one’s seeking to live the good life conflicts with one’s ethical duty … Well, obviously the ethical duty would trump ones desire to lead the good life. But we could not rule these conflicts out in principle, since they can be created no matter how one defines the good life (i.e. someone threatens to destroy a city if you decide to lead the good life). Now if someone did ignore their ethical duty in order to pursue the good life in the case of a conflict I would say that they may lead the “good life”, but not the ethically-good life, which is the distinction I was trying to bring out … but this is straying from your question.

    2. well if by value pluralism you really mean relativism then I think the game is up. But let us say instead you are thinking of some possibility in which a limited set of ways to lead lives are “good lives”. But if there is such a set there is also some criterion that defines which ways of living are memebers. But in that case we could take this meta-criterion and make it our cirterion for what is a good life (it is a life that satisfies one of the kinds of lives described by the following principle: …) Thus we have acheived once again a single good life. Likewise we could take a single way of leading a “good life” and break it up into a plurality (“good works” could become “art” and “non-art”). Thus I think that to argue for one or many good lives is misguided, only to argue for one set of guiding principle or principle vs. some others is completely sound. As for content … you could pin a good deal to the happy life, but I certainly wouldn’t want to focus on pursuing it. As for the good life in general, well my hope is that it could be pinned down some, and then with some principles borrowed from elsewhere a more concrete description of the good life could be created, which more could be done with. Obviously a bit of a work in progress here.

    Comment by Peter — December 27, 2006 @ 5:22 am

  4. Peter,

    No, I don’t mean relativism. BUT, it’s not obvious that a set of various good lives can captured by a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. (However, I’m not SO Wittgensteinian that I will simply deny the possibility of producing criteria altogether. It’s just not obvious.) Let’s look at your criteria-in-progress:

    The Good Life is: (1) Choosable, (2) Not self-defeating, (3) Compatible with morality, (4) Requires effort,
    (5) Intentional.

    The criteria are nice and broad and so leave the good life relatively open (to almost everyone). Are they necessary? Sufficient? I’m not sure: Is Sisyphus’ life self-defeating because the stone keeps rolling down the hill? Can we nevertheless imagine him happy (as Camus instructs us)? Problems here for the necessity of (2).

    (4) is good, I think, because it seems to rule out things like living in an “experience machine” (like in Total Recall) as a good life. BUT, even saving up the money to get in the experience machine takes effort, and I can satisfy (5) by claiming that I am intentionally and self-consciously choosing to spend my life in a virtual machine (high on pills, etc.) because that’s the best option. Problems for the sufficiency of 4 and/or 5. Maybe you could invoke some moral principle which makes it wrong to plug into an experience machine (say, (3) is a necessary condition, and 4 and/or 5 are sufficient, once 3 is satisfied).

    I guess my worry is that there are lots of lives that would somehow satisfy these criteria, but which the people living those lives would not consider “the good life.” (Say, a librarian in Montana who wants to pursue acting in the big city but stays home to take care of her aging father and is somewhat miserable in this situation.) Maybe people are wrong about the quality of their own lives. Or maybe you need to add some content that explains the KIND of effort, and the KIND of intentions/sense of purposive pursuit that 4 and 5 pick out. The unhappy librarian is putting in great effort, and is doing so from a sense of duty or purpose – she’s consciously choosing this life – but it seems like the fact that she’s somewhat miserable means that she’s not leading the good life. However, nothing external is missing; if she changed her attitude toward her situation, this would seem to make all the difference. Maybe I’m conflating the good life with (subjective) happiness here, but it seems like you’d want to say something about the agent’s own sense of her life. A person who met the objective criteria but was miserable surely would not be living a good life.

    Comment by Matthew — December 27, 2006 @ 10:14 am

  5. I would disagree with you, in that I think it is perfectly acceptable for a miserable person to lead “the good life”, for some defintions of what the good life is. I know that not everyone would accept such a definition of what the good life is, but it is my opinion that people put too much importance on being happy (because of our culture).

    Comment by Peter — December 27, 2006 @ 2:18 pm

  6. Can one lead the good life even in a prison of whatever sort?

    I want to say, you can make choices that allow you to live better, but you cannot live a truly “good” life in the sense of a life the goodness of which is above a certain threshold level. The Montana example seems like a particular kind of prison. Yes, you can live a good-ish life even under the circumstances, but so long as your sick father is a metaphoric chain around your ankle, it’s not what we usually mean by “the good life.”

    Comment by Carl — December 27, 2006 @ 2:52 pm

  7. Thinking about it some more, there’s the old saying, “Four walls do not a prison make,” ie. for a girl who wants to be in Montana or a guy who wants to be in jail, that can be a good life, but not for other people who aren’t satisfied with such things. So the problem of a prison is that your wants are not in line with your limitations.

    In general, we can classify limitations in these ways with each successive class being a finer subdivision of the previous one:

    1. Personal circumstances. (ie. I’m not rich so I can’t do X, but Bill Gates could.)
    2. Human physiology. (Even Gates can’t train to run a 2 minute mile.)
    3. Physics. (“In this house, we obey the laws of thermodynamics!”)
    4. Nature-of-experience-itself. (A Faustian desire for the totality of knowledge of things in themselves will necessarily be squelched if subject to experience as we know it.)

    Certainly, we should all try to keep our wants from developing for things out of our class, if we want to be happy with what we have. That said, dissatisfaction with current circumstances is the engine behind all social and scientific progress, so we don’t want to tell people to prohibit themselves from wanting things within the perceived bounds of class 1, since it would probably cause stagnation since the limits of each category are unclear in practice. Desires of class 4 seem to be the heart of the religious desire for “transcendence,” etc., so depending on one’s feelings about religion, you may or may not want to tell people not to want things of class 4.

    Of course, these are all bounds of happiness, not the good life per se, but even if happiness isn’t the primary consideration for judging a life to be a good one, I think it still should pretty clearly be one of the criteria taken into account…

    Comment by Carl — December 27, 2006 @ 3:21 pm

  8. Limit 4 also comes up on some of Mandarine’s issues. Lets say that in this life, I have a desire to make my children happy. Certainly, I also have a desire that they continue to be happy even after I’m dead. However, limitation 4 ensures that so long as death is the great barrier, I can’t be sure that I will have knowledge of whether my kids actually are happy after my death.

    We can phrase that a little bit more philosophically like this: Let’s say it’s important for my happiness for me to believe that trees falling alone in the forest do make a sound. Limitations of experience in itself ensure that I’ll never be able to know if my belief is correct. Thus, you’d think it’s the sort of desire that we should just cut out, since it cannot be satisfied.

    On the other hand, we want our families to be really happy and not just to seem happy to us and be miserable on the inside. Yet, we can never show that our families are really happy, just that it’s the most likely explanation for things.

    So, a desire for limitation-4-abutting certainty is one that’s self-defeating, but also seems like the sort of thing that we can never fully eliminate, since no one is happy to think that it might the case that their families are enduring hell all day…

    Comment by Carl — December 27, 2006 @ 3:31 pm

  9. Peter, I’m not wholly convinced by what I suggested above either. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s “perfectly acceptable” that a miserable person could be living the good life. In the case I sketched above, I claimed the woman was “somewhat miserable.” That’s kind of vague on my part, and invites multiple interpretations.

    So, suppose instead that she’s *completely* miserable – in the sense of highly dissatisfied, NOT in the sense that she FEELS bad all the time – but nevertheless remains at home to fulfill her duties to her father, and let’s also suppose that she doesn’t (explicitly) disclose her misery to anyone. From an external point of view, she might appear to be leading the (or a) good life.

    Upon discovery of her misery, again, I suppose we could try to convince her that she IS leading a good life, and so doesn’t need to make herself miserable with her regrets and unfulfilled dreams. (Perhaps this is the line you would take, and Carl above, too.) But I think by your own criteria, her own misery would disqualify HER life as representative of the good life because her misery indicates misguided intentions (she has intentionally chosen to remain with her father, but has become alienated from her own choice).

    So, maybe my question is not, “Can a miserable person be living the good life?” but rather, “Can an alienated person be living the good life?”

    Comment by Matthew — December 27, 2006 @ 9:09 pm

  10. Well since she isn’t meeting her goals I wouldn’t say that she is living the good life, under my interpretation of it, but I don’t see a reason to rule out the possibility of a defintion of the good life that she might be living. There have been cultures that viewed fufilling ones duty as the good life, and if she had been raised in such a culture she might even think she was living the good life.

    Comment by Peter — December 27, 2006 @ 9:46 pm

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