When theorizers assess how people are doing, they often speak in terms of happiness or in terms of well-being. Neither of these appears ideal to me. In my work, I talk of a well-lived human life. This notion is inspired by ancient ethics and meets three criteria.
First, it is possible for someone to lead a good life even though, at certain moments, the person is not happy. Indeed, it may be impossible to be continually happy. At the same time, a life that is entirely without positive moods, feelings, emotions, and so on, does not seem to be a life that on the whole we would want—and as I argue in a moment, this matters. In aiming to lead a good life, we plausibly aim to live in ways that include positive experiences.
Second, we are concerned here with the lives of human beings. Aristotle says that the good is different for humans and for fish. I take this to be a deep insight, one that can be developed in a number of ways. It is remarkably close to Protagoras’s Measure Doctrine, according to which human beings are the measure of all things. In my own work, I defend a notion of good that is relative without being relativist: relative to human beings. I call this approach Measure Realism, a term that I owe to Jens Haas. There is such a thing as what really is good, though not good absolutely—ethics is concerned with the good for which we, human beings, are the measure.
In ethics, the thought goes, we ask how we as human beings should live. This may well include that we ask what is good for fish and take this into account in our actions. But we don’t ask how fish should arrange their lives: we ask how we should live. An animal’s life can go well or badly, but animals aren’t subject to norms. “Going well” and “doing well”—and arguably, happiness and well-being—fail to capture the distinctively normative idea that matters with respect to human beings, the idea I express in terms of living well.
The notion of a well-lived human life is normative. But the idea that human beings are the measure of what makes for a good human life also has a descriptive dimension. Some things are good for human beings but not good for gods, such as clean drinking water. Some things are healthy for human beings but not healthy for fish, such as taking a shower.
Third, talk about a well-lived human life makes explicit that we envisage agents. Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia stresses this idea of activity. Doing so, Aristotle moves away from pre-philosophical Greek notions of eudaimonia that emphasize fate and divine dispensation of happiness. Aristotle is concerned with the way we should view the relative contributions of an agent’s own activity and the external circumstances she encounters. There is no easy answer, which seems precisely right. Positions that emphasize one of these sides to the extent that the other is eliminated seem plainly false.
The injunction “live well!” is not sufficiently informative. But it is not entirely trivial either. For it prompts the question “what is a good life?” Some of the answers to this question appeal to the fact that it is a human life. Other answers pertain to the fact that it is my life, or yours. What sorts of things are important to me, and in which ways? Do I want to study, and if yes, what? Do I want to marry this person?
Aristotle thinks that it is the most important thing of all to come up with a conception of a good life. Doing so, we ask ourselves what, on consideration, we want. It is, of course, not easy to know what one wants: what to put at the center of one’s life and what to push to the periphery, what to choose and what to avoid, and what to value in which way. There is also the question of which options we even consider. What we see as a good life for ourselves is affected by what we can imagine—what we can see ourselves pursuing and what courses of action we reject as impossible. I argue that the attempt to live well involves distinctive uses of the imagination, which philosophy has so far neglected.
Katja Maria Vogt is a professor of Philosophy at Colombia University. She specializes in ancient philosophy, ethics, and normative epistemology.
***Author’s note: I develop many of these ideas in my Desiring the Good: Ancient Proposals and Contemporary Theory (OUP 2017) and in ongoing work on the imagination.2