I came to philosophy motivated by a long-standing sense that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we live, a sentiment well expressed in a gorgeous 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi, Hopi for “life out of balance” or “crazy life.” I had experienced ways of living that made sense to me and ways, depicted in the film, that did not. I wanted better to understand this worry. It was surprising, then, that my first ethics course persuaded me that it was probably not worth taking another. The readings sometimes claimed to be talking about the good life, but for the most part they just talked about this or that fragment of a good life: being morally good or being happy, for instance. The fragments made sense, but seemed simplistic and never really added up to anything very compelling. At least, I could never connect them with my original unease at contemporary living. Though not religious, I found more of relevance in religious studies classes, especially on East Asian thought. A later course on MacIntyre brought a deeper appreciation of Aristotle’s insights. But nothing quite hit the mark.
Part of what draws so many students to ancient philosophy, including non-Western thought, is that it seems clearly to address our fundamental concern to lead good lives. What we get from Aristotle and the Stoics, for instance, are comprehensive visions of the sorts of lives we should want. For Aristotle, a good life is a full and active life involving many sorts of excellence, not just moral virtue. It is a deeply pleasant and meaningful life, and includes some element of fortune in things like health and wealth. This is what we should aim at, for ourselves and our children, and the measure by which we should assess our lives in our deathbed reckonings. In broad outline, it is an attractive and reasonably commonsensical picture of the good life.
But it is also wrong, I think, mostly because it tries to cram all that stuff into just one value: well-being. (Aristotle used the ancient Greek word for this, ‘eudaimonia’, which is usually translated to cause varying degrees of confusion as ‘flourishing’ or ‘happiness’, because ‘well-being’ is an awful word. Well-being has to do with what benefits us or is in our interest.) In the philosophical tradition of Aristotle and many other ancient Greeks, it was just assumed that whatever matters in life must connect with your own well-being. If you should be moral or otherwise admirable, that can only be because it’s in your interest. So excellence or virtue only makes its way into the theory because it’s supposed to be good for you.
This view has much to recommend it, and should not be lightly dismissed. But it runs against the grain of most commonsense thinking about the good life today, which seems quite comfortable with the thought that well-being and virtue are just different things. (I am using ‘virtue’ loosely, so that it encompasses various ways of being good or admirable, both moral and nonmoral.) No doubt, cultivating good character and other excellences in your children is generally going to serve their interests. By and large, clods, slackers and jerks seem not to have the happiest lives by any standard. But it also seems plausible that an important part of living well is navigating the tradeoffs we often must make between happiness and excellence, or doing what is morally best and what is in our interests. A person can lead an unhappy life and be no less admirable for it. And a ruthless warrior might well flourish, indeed exemplify one form human flourishing, trading on our talent for out-group cruelty. (If you don’t agree, that’s ok—it shouldn’t affect my larger point.)
Those with Aristotelian leanings might object: but a life of cruelty isn’t a good life. This is actually quite a common complaint. Conversely, many seem drawn to such theories because they allow us to say that virtue is essential to a good life. That is indeed something we should want to say. Excellence matters in our lives, and Aristotle allows us to say that.
But here’s the thing: nearly everyone’s theory allows us to say that. Virtually of the major ethical theorists, including Kant and the utilitarians, take the good life to essentially involve virtue. Indeed, they agree with Aristotle that virtue is the most important thing in deciding how to live, and take it a step further: for Kantians and utilitarians, morality trumps all other values, including your own well-being.
Now suppose you think well-being can’t be defined in terms of virtue. Instead you think that what’s good for a person is just to get what she wants: you hold a desire-fulfillment theory of well-being. (This is roughly the standard view among economists, much of the public, and arguably Kant. It is not my view, but close enough for present purposes.) You step into the ring and publish a paper defending this account. An Aristotelian writes a reply: this is a terrible view, because a horrible degenerate pig could get what they want, and that isn’t a good life. Yours is a Philistine view, discounting the role of virtue in human life. What say you?
The first thing you could do is point out that this is just a non-sequitur. You aren’t talking about the good life, but about something much more specific, well-being. And it just isn’t plausible, you argue, to think that virtue necessarily benefits us, still less that well-being just is, in large measure, virtue. It’s easy to imagine happy, thriving villains.
This is a fairly standard sort of response, but it seems to me not nearly enough. We can also suppose that you’re a Kantian and rather fond of virtue yourself, indeed half inclined to scold the Aristotelian for not taking the moral virtues seriously enough—as if being able to tell a good joke, one of the Aristotelian virtues, is remotely on the same plane as being a morally decent person. And for heaven’s sake, supposing that we’d have no reason at all to be moral if it weren’t good for us. Go Philistine yourself. Harrumph.
Aristotle’s theory of well-being isn’t entirely akin to your desire theory, because what you’re comparing is a complete ethical framework with a fragment of one. It’s like Kant went to battle with a tank and Aristotle shows up with a Panzer division. Part of what makes Aristotle’s theory of well-being seem attractive is that it charts an appealing vision of the good life. Kant’s theory of well-being is so unimportant to his vision of the good life that he can scarcely be bothered to give it a clear articulation of it.
To fully weigh the merits of a desire theory of well-being against Aristotle’s theory, we need to know what else the desire theorist takes to matter for a good life, and how it all adds up. The desire theorist needs an account of the good life. What’s needed, that is, is a theory that specifies what fundamentally matters in a person’s life, encompassing all the values that figure in determining which sorts of life are desirable or choiceworthy—whether for reasons of well-being, moral reasons, or something else. Perhaps it should also specify how good a life must be to qualify as a good life. Only armed with the desire theorist’s account of the good life can we fully assess how their theory of well-being stacks up against Aristotle’s.
For systematic ethical theorists like Kant and the utilitarians, we can extract a proto-account of the good life by drawing together the various elements of their ethics—in these cases roughly two elements, morality and well-being. The resulting view of the good life—crudely, being good and faring well—is not a weird distortion of what they’re doing, and indeed it should not seem wholly alien to the person in the street. Did Grandpa have a good life? Normal people seem able to understand this sort of question, and tend to answer it by considering what there was to admire (or deplore) in Grandpa, whether he was happy, things like that. They consider all the things that seem to them to matter in a life. And they seem to do this because the present concept of a good life is familiar enough to them that assessing a person’s life typically isn’t completely baffling. Complicated, yes, but not particularly recherché. To ask for a theory of the good life is not to impose a strange burden on ethical theorists. It seems like kind of a basic part of our job.
Question: where ‘good life’ takes the present broad meaning and isn’t just a term for well-being, how often has one come across a philosophical theory that explicitly takes the form: S has a good life iff P? Or, a good life consists in….? I suspect that for some, at least, the answer will be “never.”
Perhaps one reason we don’t see more explicit theorizing about the good life is that the most popular moral theories of our time might not in fact hold up very well under that sort of scrutiny. For classical utilitarians, a theory of the good life would boil down to something like this: a good life, a life worthy of affirmation, is one in which the individual’s actions advance the sums of utility in the world, and in which she herself is happy. For Kantians, the basic structure would be similarly austere, if quite different in content. The Koyaanisqatsi worries may not get a satisfying articulation within these frameworks, and indeed one might discern in them some of the machinery that gave rise to the off-its-gimbals world that the film depicts. The allures of the Aristotelian approach may not be much diminished even if we allow Kant and Bentham all the armor they wish to field.
The question arises whether the problem really lies with the moderns’ theories of well-being. I’m roughly on their side here, equating well-being more or less with some composite of happiness and value-fulfillment. But why limit our conception of the good life to just the values of morality and well-being? It is not crazy to think that, say, excellence has noninstrumental value in its own right, apart from either morality or well-being. I’m not sure Wittgenstein’s brilliance did him much good, but it certainly gave us something to admire; his was a better life for it—perhaps even “wonderful,” as he put it—whether he profited or not. Perhaps there are other basic values, like beauty, and our lives are made better by engaging appropriately with them. Such moves would bring us a lot closer to Aristotle’s picture of the good life, perhaps even improve on it, but without saddling our notions of well-being with more freight than they can plausibly bear. Ironically, reflection on the debates over well-being might vindicate moderns on one of the points where Aristotelians most like to bludgeon them, while leaving Aristotelians approximately victorious on the questions that really matter, like how we ought to live.
Dan Haybron is a philosophy professor at St. Louis University focusing in ethics, moral psychology, and political philosophy.1