Friday, October 8, 2010

Starting from scratch

So, for what's it's worth, what is a good life?

I think Nozick's experience machine thought experiment shows that a good life will not be purely passive. Like Aristotle, I think it must be characterized by some activity or activities. For a good life, these should be good activities. For the good life, they should be the best activities, if there are such things. And these activities must be done successfully.

What is a good activity? It should be sane. It should probably produce a net gain in well-being for oneself or others. The idea of the sanest activity, though, doesn't seem to make much sense (unless we accept an enormous tie for first place). And it's hard to say what well-being is, let alone to see how it could be quantified. Generally Aristotle seems to be in the right ballpark (wisdom is good, public service is good, too much pain is bad, lots of things are worth having even if they aren't the most important things, etc.). But this doesn't really get you very far.

Hume says you should be the kind of person you would want your child to marry, and the worst thing of all is the kind of ingratitude involved in murdering a parent. The first, positive part of this sounds about right. The second I'm less sure about, although ingratitude is certainly bad.

Nietzsche says that one thing is needful: to give style to one's character. You are like a piece of land that can be changed in some ways, but not in others. The task is to turn this land into a garden. This sounds like a sort of cross between Reinhold Niebuhr and Stuart Smalley. There is more to Nietzsche than this, thankfully, but he's much clearer on what he's against than what he's for.

Marx says that creative labor is our basic need, which sounds about right, although he would probably be the first to admit that food and shelter are pretty basic needs too.

Kant says we should be rational in the triple sense of acting on principles (that's one) that are sanely (two) universalizable (three). It is very hard to say what these principles are though. He thinks the worst thing you can do is stuff like watering your lawn when there's a water shortage, failing to execute murderers, and making lying promises: acting as if there is one rule for some and another for everybody else. As with Nietzsche, he's better than I'm making him sound. But the theory he presents (so far as it is a theory) seems pretty hopeless.

Bentham says we should maximize pleasure, but has a hopelessly crude idea of what pleasure is.

Mill recognizes this problem, but struggles to come up with a viable alternative.

Schopenhauer says we should be compassionate, and that the kind of disregard for others involved in (non-consensual, casual) cannibalism is the worst thing there is. This sounds about right, but misses Marx's insight (which is also somewhat Nietzschean). Schopenhauer also thinks of the world as will-or-music, which expresses itself in a tremendous variety of forms, each of which has its own aesthetic value even if none has any ultimate point really.

And that's about it. I suppose there is a small chance that these nutshell versions of great philosophers distort their views badly, and that other people have had some good ideas too. But, that aside, there doesn't appear to have been much progress since Aristotle (unless you count Wittgenstein's and Heidegger's apparent belief that ethics cannot usefully be discussed). The best thing since Aristotle's attempt to provide a target for us to aim at (the ideal life) seems to have been a recognition of the value of creative expression, both our own and nature's. And the best philosophy (the kind that I like the most) is itself a work of such expression. (Which is, incidentally, how I think Kant's moral philosophy is best understood.)

So I should really be writing poetry rather than blogging. But that's hard.


  1. If you're interested in this, Joel Kupperman has a nice, clear book called Six Myths About the Good Life. (This could be used in a class on the topic.) John Kekes has a recent book (which unfortunately I didn't finish) called Enjoyment where he upholds such activity as central to a good life. I don't think that's implausible, and I don't remember whether Kekes wants to distinguish that from a hedonistic theory (though I think there's a difference). This could be connected to your point about activities in that even enjoyment is an activity, and in order to enjoy certain things (say, Walt Whitman's poetry) takes other kinds of activities and accomplishments. (Of course, Kiekegaard had his worries about the "aesthete"...and I often think back to a line attributed to Wittgenstein (paraphrasing a bit): that he didn't believe as Kierkegaard did, but he did agree that we aren't here just to have a good time...)

  2. Thanks, Matthew. I've seen Kupperman's book, but I don't think I've read it. I should, along with Kekes' book. I agree that we're not here to have a good time in the merely hedonistic, aesthetic sense, but there's a lot to be said for being oneself and expressing oneself as honestly as possible, along with promoting the well-being of others and appreciating the aesthetic value of the world (which I think is one aspect of Aristotle's contemplative life). Finding a way to harmonize all this, or the best way to harmonize it all, is no easy matter though.

  3. Yes, you should be writing poetry. You're very good at it.

  4. Look out, I might start a poem of the month feature. Not for the weak of stomach.