Previously I have attempted to define what makes a life good, not in the ethical sense, but in the sense of a life that is valuable or noble. (see here and here) But when attempting to define what the good life was I didn’t get far. It was easy to point out what it wasn’t, for example it isn’t the pursuit of happiness, but not to point out what it was. Recently I addressed the meaning of life, and when thinking about that topic I realized that it didn’t make sense to pick out a single “meaning of life” for everyone, that the meaning of life might simply be different for different people. So perhaps it was hard to define what the good life was because there really was no one definition that was suitable for everyone (in the sense of a recipe of what to do in order to make a life good).
So let me propose the following: a good life is one that satisfies that person’s Ends given that their Ends are consistent. (A person’s Ends are what motivates them fundamentally. For example, wealth might be an End for a greedy person, knowledge might be and End for a scientist.) Such a definition does not simply label every life as the good life (one of the criteria for a successful definition of the good life), as there are two ways a life might fail to be good. One is to not pursue the person’s Ends. For example, if one of my Ends is to collect stamps then if I never collect stamps (because I am lazy) then my life isn’t good; or if I get caught up in trying to make a lot of money to pursue my stamp collecting hobby, but never get around to it, then again my life isn’t good. And the other way a life can fail to be good is if it is lived in the pursuit of conflicting Ends (for example if I want to be a movie star but want to avoid acting in any movies). It also requires effort (another criteria for a successful definition of the good life), because it is entirely possible for someone to have Ends and yet fail to pursue them, or to pursue them only haphazardly. And because it is defined as the pursuit of consistent Ends it is guaranteed not to be self-defeating.
The only possible problem here is the requirement that the good life be different from the ethical life, but not in direct conflict with it. Obviously a life lived in the pursuit of one’s Ends is not the same as the ethical life, but it might seem possible for these goals to come into conflict. What if my desire to collect stamps leads me to steal them from other collectors? There are two ways around this problem. The first is simply to realize that the pursuit of one’s Ends can be done without taking the shortest path to the goal. Obviously a serious pursuit of ones Ends means that you will do your best to satisfy them in a timely manner, but it doesn’t force you to commit crimes in order to lead the good life. Perhaps it is harder to earn money to buy stamps within the bounds of ethics, but staying within those bounds doesn’t mean that you aren’t pursuing your Ends. The second reason that this is less of a problem that it initially seems is that adopting ethical behavior as an End is usually motivated by any set of other Ends a person has anyways. If their Ends motivate them to be part of society then it is because society helps them further their Ends. And thus it is beneficial to that person to remain part of society, which means at least appearing to be ethical, and to contribute to society to some degree, because it indirectly aids their own Ends. Since these considerations motivate adopting ethical behavior as an End to lead the good life they would have to act ethically, at least most of the time.
Of course the real worry about such an analysis of the good life is that it devalues the good life in some way, perhaps by failing to rule out some unsatisfactory kinds of lives, or simply cheapening it by offering so many alternative. However, I can’t think of any kind of life that obviously fails to be a good life and that satisfies the definition I have proposed here. For example, the person who seeks only happiness obviously cannot live the good life. Obviously seeking happiness directly is often self-defeating, so already that is a problem. And, more seriously, happiness is not really the kind of thing you can seek independently of other considerations. People are made happy because they are satisfying their Ends, usually. For example, I want to write this post, because it contributes to one of my Ends, and so doing a job I am satisfied with makes me happy. But what if happiness itself was my only End instead? Well then writing this post wouldn’t make me happy, because it didn’t satisfy any of my desires. If someone really had no Ends besides happiness then the only thing that would make them happy would be those Ends that we have as a biological necessity, like eating. (Although drug use might also be able to make one happy without meeting any End.) In any case, it simply doesn’t make sense to lead a life that strives for happiness, instead it seems like a better idea to lead a life that strives for other things, and thus is full of happiness as an unintended consequence.
But, in addition to simply showing that certain “shallow” lives don’t satisfy our requirements let me give a positive defense of the definition I have given here. The good life, independent of any definition, is usually thought of as a valuable life. Obviously what counts as valuable is something that seems different from different perspectives. Under our definition of the good life the good life is one that is valuable* to the person who is living it (note: not that the act of staying alive is valuable, that is valuable to almost everyone, but that the contents of that life are valuable). Of course there are other perspectives. For example someone else’s life might not be valuable to me, by my standards, or their life may not be valuable to society as a whole, by its standards. But at a certain point we must admit that an individual’s life is his or her own, and thus that what matters most is if it is valuable to them. Whether society’s opinion, or the opinion of other people, matters depends on whether it matters to the person living that life.
* Obviously I am using a restricted sense of what it means for something to be valuable to an individual. I don’t mean that it simply seems valuable or desirable to them, but that it really is desirable, meaning that it is really satisfying their Ends. If someone focused all their energy on making money because their only End was to have money then I would have to concede that their life was good to them. But if they focused all their energy on making money because they thought it would make them happy then I would not say that their life is valuable (or certainly not as valuable as it could be) to them. Instead they should try to meet their real Ends, which will make then happy, unlike money, which can only lead to happiness if it is actually used to further your Ends; simply having it does nothing.