Friday, November 30, 2012

Questioning the good life

There is a series of talks and discussions going on this year next door at Washington and Lee University called "Questioning the Good Life." I missed the first talk but made it to the second (Eric Wilson praising melancholy in a way that seemed plausible yet oddly uninformed philosophically). (Why do so many people so freely jump into philosophical discussions without even pretending to have done their homework? Do they not know that Aristotle, Mill, Nietzsche, and co. have written about the nature of happiness and its relation to the good life? Do they not care? I don't get it. Wilson even used the word 'philosophers' and named a couple of relatively obscure ones, but said nothing about the ones I just mentioned. And I don't mean this as a criticism of Wilson in particular. I'm thinking too of this essay about economists and psychologists studying happiness since the 1950s and, especially, since around 2000. Near the end it says parenthetically "oh, the philosophy professors have also joined the pursuit." Joined?! How about started, and started more than 2000 years ago at that? Sigh.) 

Anyway, yesterday they had Charles Taylor, who does know a thing or two about Aristotle and the others. At the risk of misrepresenting his views, I'll try to briefly summarize what he said here. He began by distinguishing three "baskets" of questions and issues: one about happiness, which is often thought of as something that happens to us, in relation to which we are largely passive; one about living a meaningful life, involving the kind of questions one might ask when about to graduate from college and thinking about career choices (should I try to make as much money as possible or pursue my interest in music?, for instance) or else when dying and looking back on one's life and the choices one has made (did I spend too much time at the office?, etc.); and the third about morality and the claims of justice.

Aristotle, he suggested, treated all three baskets as one. For him the one subject of ethics (a label Taylor likes to use for the second basket) covers how to be happy, how to live a satisfying life, and what one ought to do. But the moderns reject this view, Taylor said. For one thing, they distinguish between egoism and altruism in a way that Aristotle did not, and tend to think that Greeks like him were too egoistic. (Taylor attributed this to the influence of Christianity, but also suggested that the word 'altruism' was a recent invention, I think naming Auguste Comte as the inventor.) For another, they tend to think of moral reasoning as a relatively simple matter: you develop or identify a decision-procedure such as the principle of utility or maxim-universalization and then apply it. And for a third and final thing (I may be getting this wrong, be warned) they reject Aristotle's list of virtues. This rejection has several aspects: some of the names of virtues no longer mean what they used to (apparently 'generous' used to mean 'suitable to someone of high social rank,' so that one might kill an insulter out of generosity); some of the characteristics that Aristotle regards as virtuous do not seem desirable to us (you would not want a magnanimous person at a dinner party); and we are aware of ways of life other than the Greek, each of which might have its own virtues. 

Taylor's thesis, if I can simplify this way, is that neither Aristotle nor the moderns has it quite right. We cannot go back to Aristotle's view, he seemed to be saying, because his list of virtues is unacceptable, and because we now recognize duties to people outside our own polis, in a way that Aristotle did not. I don't know why we couldn't add such duties to our conception of justice (could Aristotle not have understood or incorporated somehow the Stoic view that so far as I am a human being my country is the world?). Nor why we couldn't hope to correct his list of virtues, rather than seemingly moving in a more relativist direction. No doubt either I missed something, I misunderstood something, or else Taylor has answers to these questions that he did not have time to go into in this talk.  

We cannot, though, accept the modern view because it oversimplifies what thinking about how to live is really like. Putting morality ahead of all other concerns (I think Taylor might argue) fails to give due weight to concerns with one's own happiness and the importance of living a meaningful life. Perhaps more to the point, we simply cannot separate the three baskets as neatly as we might like. If justice requires that people have certain rights or freedoms, we need to be able to distinguish the important from the trivial ones. For instance, the freedom to speak and worship freely is far more important than the right to drive without a seat-belt. What justice requires (a question from the morality basket) cannot be decided without reference, perhaps merely implicit, to what is significant (a question from the ethics basket). What we count as happiness might also depend on what we regard as a significant or as a meaningless life. And we can hardly take morality seriously without concern for the happiness of others. So the three go together, as Aristotle recognized. 

And each set of issues is in itself more complicated than we often recognize. We cannot expect to find a decision-procedure that will make all moral questions easy or straightforward. There are no simple answers (or ways to generate answers) about what makes for a significant or satisfying life. And happiness does not simply happen to us (or not happen to us). True, much might depend on a chance meeting. But relationships need also to be cultivated, and one can do this well or badly. It isn't all passive. And the relationship itself might have a kind of life of its own. It is like a plant or garden that might need help from a gardener but that also has a natural tendency to develop in this way rather than that. So we need some teleology in our thinking, too, in order to make sense of the ideas and experiences we have of people and relationships either fulfilling their potential to varying degrees or failing to do so. Again, Aristotle, or at least a broadly ancient view, is useful here.    

It was an excellent talk.

And speaking of the good life, the results of Jean Kazez's survey are now out.


  1. judging from his books (and their length), i wouldn't be surprised if taylor didn't have time to go into his answers in ANY talk.

  2. Probably very true. It was a long talk too.

  3. On the topic of the good life, I've recently liked this post from Thomas Basbøll, a colleague of mine. Especially the last sentence gives it an unmistakebly (and to my mind, correct) Wittgensteinian twist:

  4. Thanks, yes, that sounds right. I need to think about it more, but I think there is at least something in this.

  5. I meant to ask when you posted this: why wouldn't I want to have dinner with a magnanimous man (assuming he would accept my lowly invitation)? Maybe not if we're in a Jane Austen novel...

  6. I don't know, but it's what Taylor said. Maybe because they don't like gossip, are not given to wonder, and move slowly? If nothing seems great to them and they are frank in expressing their opinions, maybe they would insult the food.

  7. But insulting the food would be beneath the magnanimous person. They are frank, but not trifling. And I'm not fond of gossip myself.

    I guess I'd need to know more about what Aristotle means by "not given to wonder" (think Gradgrind: "you must never wonder!")...that seems iffy.

  8. True. They might frankly say that the food was bad, but that could be avoided by serving good food.

    Maybe Aristotle has in mind the kind of person who never says OMG! That doesn't seem too bad.

    Taylor gave this, as I recall, as a kind of (jokey) argument against Aristotle. That is, he didn't say what was wrong with the magnanimous man and then infer that you wouldn't want him at a dinner party. He just gave that (alleged) fact as if it were an argument against Aristotle. Maybe I misheard or have mis-remembered.