On Philosophy

February 28, 2007

The Real Good Life

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:05 am

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.


  1. Very nice, high-quality content site, Peter. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. It reminds me of when I used to ruminate seemingly endlessly about the “meaning of life.” Eventually I came to discover (for me, anyway) that the meaning of life is that life has meaning. Keep writing!

    Comment by bobyglot — February 28, 2007 @ 12:49 am

  2. I can imagine people choosing Ends that they know will bring them happiness when satisfied? For instance, you know that collecting stamps make you happy, so you choose to collect stamps as an End.

    As a matter of fact, I am at a loss trying to figure out what is behind the fundamental motivations people invoke to choose their Ends. It is not random. It must be some kind of desire for some kind of satisfaction (OK, maybe I should call it the pursuit of satisfaction instead of happiness). But isn’t it just as tricky?

    Comment by mandarine — February 28, 2007 @ 6:04 am

  3. And then there is something else: the Ends that people choose must be consistent over time. This is related to how much people change in the course of their lives. Probably if somebody is satisfied with something all his/her life then it can qualify as a good life goal. What if I spend twenty years playing World of Warcraft, then when I turn forty, I realize I do not have any true friends, that slaying digital orcs was just a lame derivative, and that I have lost twenty years to what I now believe was a petty motivation. Here goes my good life.

    Comment by mandarine — February 28, 2007 @ 6:11 am

  4. See here: https://onphilosophy.wordpress.com/2007/02/20/freedom-from-happiness/ to start. Basically people don’t choose Ends because they think they will make them happy (see 4th paragraph), they usually choose Ends because of a prompting by their existing Ends, because any End that a person has that they fufill will make them happy, it is almost the defintion of being an End. I would argue, in addition, that the only reason a person ever abandons their previous Ends completely for a new life goal, in the way you describe, is if their Ends were contradictory to begin with. For example they wanted to make a difference in real life all along, and then one day it finally bothered them enough to actually pay attention to it. Because if they didn’t have that goal, or something like it, it is hard to see what could motivate them to abandon their intial set of Ends. Perhaps those Ends weren’t satisfying? But then it is more likely that the Ends they weren’t pursuing weren’t their real Ends after all, and that they were only pursuing them because they were under the misconception that by meeting them they would satisfy their real Ends, like the person who pursues wealth because they want to be happy, but then never actually uses that wealth to be happy. And finally I don’t think there is anything contraductory in saying that a person can lead the good life for part of their life but not for the entirety of it, although when we talk about someone else’s life we usually refer to the entirety of it for simplicity’s sake. I hope this addresses your concerns.

    Comment by Peter — February 28, 2007 @ 11:25 am

  5. What about psychopaths whose only end is to harm others? Would the Columbine kids have been living the good life if their bomb in the cafeteria had gone off?

    Comment by Carl — March 1, 2007 @ 1:26 am

  6. Are we talking about real psychopaths? Because the Ends of the insane are really unknowable for the most part, and they are unlikely to be consistant or reachable. Most criminals, even violent ones, are not insane in this way, rather they have some goal they are trying to reach. Usually its happiness, they feel the need to kill to remove the people who are making them unhappy. Obviously a) pursuing happiness is a bad idea to start with and b) killing people usually doesn’t actually bring them closer to that goal, they are just confused in thinking that it will. So no, they aren’t living the good life.

    Comment by Peter — March 1, 2007 @ 1:43 am

  7. I dunno, it seems like you’re just defining your way out of a problem. “People who want only to hurt others are by definition crazy and crazy people have no Ends, so my definition is fine.” But I don’t know if it’s really fair to define people out of existence like that.

    Comment by Carl — March 1, 2007 @ 1:51 am

  8. I didn’t say that crazy people have no Ends, I said you don’t have a hope of understanding them in most cases. It’s what makes them truely crazy, that their view of the world and their Ends seem incomprehensible to us, because the world as understood by them is not the world as understood by us.

    Comment by Peter — March 1, 2007 @ 2:10 am

  9. So the mind of the psychopath is just incommensurable for us? Don’t we have any grounds to condemn them besides, “We can’t understand the reason for your motivations”? (I think I may be straying out of The Real Good Life and into ethics at this point, but oh well.)

    Comment by Carl — March 1, 2007 @ 2:59 am

  10. Sure, we have plenty of reasons to condemn them on ethical grounds: they aren’t acting in the best interests of society.

    Comment by Peter — March 1, 2007 @ 3:06 am

  11. Why don’t we just say, “Real Good Life = this blog entry + be ethical”?

    Comment by Carl — March 1, 2007 @ 3:27 am

  12. Because the good life is seperate from the ethical life; I thought I had made it clear here that the use of good was not to be taken in any way as ethical, but instead as signifying (very roughly) valueable, as it has every time that I have written about the good life.

    Comment by Peter — March 1, 2007 @ 3:33 am

  13. The good life can be a subset of the ethical life without being identical to it.

    Comment by Carl — March 1, 2007 @ 3:50 am

  14. But that is simply not the kind of good I am talking about here, as I have made clear. If it happens that for many people ethics is involved in some way that is fine, as I have mentioned, but to start from considerations of ethics is to lose the kinds of lives that I am interested in as an object of study, lives that are valuable/meaningfu/sucessful, not lives that are ethically good.

    Comment by Peter — March 1, 2007 @ 11:09 am

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