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Good Lives: Prolegomena*

  • Lawrence C. Becker (a1)

A philosophical essay under this title faces severe rhetorical challenges. New accounts of the good life regularly and rapidly turn out to be variations of old ones, subject to a predictable range of decisive objections. Attempts to meet those objections with improved accounts regularly and rapidly lead to a familiar impasse — that while a life of contemplation, or epicurean contentment, or stoic indifference, or religious ecstasy, or creative rebellion, or self-actualization, or many another thing might count as a good life, none of them can plausibly be identified with the good life, or the best life. Given the long history of that impasse, it seems futile to offer yet another candidate for the genus “good life” as if that candidate might be new, or philosophically defensible. And given the weariness, irony, and self-deprecation expected of a philosopher in such an impasse, it is difficult for any substantive proposal on this topic to avoid seeming pretentious.

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1 The precepts are meant to be ordinal (not lexical) in the sense that any momentary conflict between two of them must be resolved in favor of the one prior to the other on the list.

2 I call attention below to the importance of a whole-life frame of reference in assessing the goods realized in a life. This precept simply acknowledges that importance and proposes a modest amount of schematic planning. Those who find the notion of a life-plan either empty or wrongheaded may yet be able to assent to the proposal here.

3 “This is an order which requires us to satisfy the first principle in the ordering before we can move on to the second, the second before we consider the third, and so on. A principle does not come into play until those previous to it are either fully met or do not apply”. Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 43.

4 “Other things begin equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity”. Ibid., p. 426.

5 Compare Nozick's, Robert remarks on this subject in his Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), pp. 411ff.

6 One of the themes of Costa-Gavras's 1989 film, The Music Box.

7 A deflective remark may be in order here. The prima facie diversity of goods is a commonplace. A recital of the obvious candidates would be pointless if the result were to leave open the possibility that they could all be generated and nicely ordered by some one overarching good (say, rationality or self-realization). It will be my contention, though, that an “inclusive” account of the good life — one which defines such a life as the realization (through some overarching aim) of a maximal array of goods — is only plausible when we jump too quickly over the lists to follow. I hold a similar view of the contention (which one assumes is almost audible by now in the minds of those interested in Aristotelian accounts of these matters) that lists of the goods that might be realized in a life are pointless — that the real issue is which, among the various good lives that are possible, is the best. I will argue that this issue, too, does not look fruitful against a reasonably full set of lists.

8 The idea here is to limit the list by excluding the indefinitely large number of things that have only limited, contingent, and instrumental worth. Intrinsic goods are those desired for their own sake, and not (only) as a means to something else; necessary goods are those without which no (other) goods are realizable in a life; widely instrumental goods are those which, while not necessary, are useful as means to all (or almost all) other goods.

9 See Ishiguro, Kazuo, The Remains of the Day (New York: Knopf, 1990).

10 See Harrington, Walt, “The Mystery of Goodness,” The Washington Post Magazine, January 6, 1991. The article is about Bryan Stevenson, director of the Alabama Capital Representation Project.

11 The trivial exception is the life that exemplifies an aesthetically valuable object.

12 This will, perhaps, be evident enough from a brief outline of David Norton's case for a eudaimonistic account of ethics and the good life, in his Personal Destinies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976). Norton understands the “daimon” in eudaimonism to refer to one's innate, individual “ideal possibility”. This possibility is understood as having normative force. Thus, the basic imperatives are to know oneself (one's daimon) and to choose to approximate it, that is, to turn it, as completely as possible, from an ideal possibility into an actuality. The life one thus chooses to live will be dominated by the virtue of integrity, the pursuit of one's unique destiny. This defines the notion of moral necessity. But justice and benevolence are implicit in this moral necessity, since one will refuse to consume (or exclude others from) things that are not necessary for self-actualization, will take delight in others' achievements, and will be rewarded by their reciprocal justice and benevolence. Norton's account is pluralistic in two senses. First, each person's daimon in unique, and thus there are as many definitions of the good life as there are persons. Second, each person goes through a developmental process that has distinct stages (childhood, adolescence, maturity, and old age), correlated with incommensurably distinct phases of that unique daimon. But in my terms Norton's is a unitary account, since it unambiguously insists that working out one's personal destiny (that is, finding and taking the self-actualizing path from one's actuality to one's daimon or ideal possibility) is the good (or best) life for everyone.

13 The allusion here is to a thought-experiment introduced by Nozick, Robert in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), pp. 4245. The question is this: If our only ultimate concern about the quality of our lives is about the way our experience “feels from the inside”, then if there were a machine that could (reliably) stimulate one's brain to produce any felt-experience imaginable, what objection could there be to defining the sort of experience one wants to have and then living one's whole life in the machine?

14 See Griffin, James, Well-Being (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986). Griffin lists five “prudential values” for well-being (pp. 67–68): accomplishment, the components of human existence or agency, understanding, enjoyment, and deep personal relations. He states that “being moral enters [this] list only in a limited way: only by being part of what it is to be at peace with one's neighbour and with oneself” (p. 70). In considering the necessity of moral rectitude for the good life, Griffin considers the claim that a certain sort of moral failure might make a good life impossible:

It is an extravagant claim, and… rests on a confusion. We need to split “the good life” into two. There is a sense in which moral failure, being a failure to act for the best reasons, is a falling off from an ideal — and not just in the trivial, circular sense that it is not the most moral or most rational life. It is not the finest life: the life one would hope to lead. But there is another conception of a good life, a life one would hope to lead. It is the sense that appears in judgments such as that it is better to be moral and alive than to be moral and thereby lose one's life, or that it is sometimes better to fail morelly and stay alive than not to fail and thereby lose one's life. And it is this second conception that should be the base for judgments of well-being in moral theory, (p. 69)

It is my contention that while this is plausible in an account of well-being made from “inside” one's life, its very plausibility makes well-being defective as a candidate description of the good life.

15 As opposed to one in which whatever one ought to do or be all-things-considered is morally required.

16 I say “mostly” because it is usually conceded that injustice is an inescapable part of the human condition, that all of us are to some degree culpable, and yet that even fairly extensive, persistent culpability is not a bar to having a good life.

17 An issue raised pointedly in Woody Allen's 1990 film, Crimes and Misdemeanors.

18 For example, one might say that the stain on the wrongdoer's life is proportional to the harm to the victim's life, so that to destroy the victim's good life is to destroy one's own, to destroy ten years of it is to destroy ten years of one's own, etc.

19 The remainder of this section on autonomous activity is adapted from an unpublished conference comment presented in response to a paper by Ruddick, William and Rachels, James, “Lives and Liberty”. Their revised version was published in The Inner Citadel: Essays on Individual Autonomy, ed. John, Christman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 221–33.

20 Negative liberty should not be equated with the absence of coercion or active interference. Liberty can be limited by passive, even accidental impediments, as well as by active, intentional, or coercive ones. Negative political liberty should be defined quite generally as the absence of impediments imposed or legitimated by political institutions. Other sorts of negative liberty — social, interpersonal, physical — may be defined correspondingly.

21 See Ruddick and Rachels, “Lives and Liberty”, for a developed analysis of this distinction.

22 Or, of course, by reiterating the charges against, or against the necessity of, autonomy.

23 See esp. Camus, Albert, The Rebel (1951; reprint, New York: Vintage, 1956).

24 An artist once remarked, overhearing a spectator's outrage at a silly piece in the Hirshhorn Museum, that at this museum of modern art, people are often angered by the failures they see, but that at the Air and Space Museum they find the failed flying machines hilarious.

25 Nobility, which might also be thought of in aesthetic terms, is probably best treated under the exemplification of goodness-of-a-kind. Integrity, which can also be brought under the heading of aesthetic value in various ways, is probably better regarded as an altogether separate candidate. In my view, it fails as a unitary account for reasons parallel to the ones I note for beauty and sublimity.

26 Rawls, A Theory of Justice, ch. 7.

27 Ibid., p. 409.

28 Ibid., pp. 411–16.

29 Ibid., pp. 416–33. Quote d material is from p. 426.

30 Ibid., p. 422.

31 Rawls believes, of course, that rationality will give the right priority over the good, and presumably yield a life-plan that is just as well as good. This implies that for any account of the good life based on this notion of rationality, right conduct will be a necessary component.

32 If all it means to adopt rationality as an account of the good life is that a good life must be hypothetically justifiable in terms of full deliberative rationality, then the inquiry into the nature of such a life is equivalent to philosophical inquiry (as I understand it) into the nature of the good life.

33 Williams, Bernard, “Persons, Character, and Morality”, in The Identities of Persons, ed. Rorty, Amélie O. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), p. 215. Reprinted in Williams, , Moral Luck (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

34 If indeed one could be convened. It is clear enough that people can have genuine “inside” experience of a succession of diverse ways of life. But it is not clear whether they can hold them all in mind in such a way that their preferences would be “expert”.

* My main intellectual debts for the ideas in this paper, beyond the obvious ones to the history of philosophy and the people cited in the footnotes, are to three groups: the Social Philosophy and Policy Center's conference on the good life, which both prompted and refined this paper; my seminar on the subject, offered in the fall of 1990 at the College of William and Mary, where some of these ideas were distilled from a long list of possible topics; and the Social and Political Philosophy Discussion Group, which gave me advice on a draft of the paper. Individuals who deserve mention include George Harris for discussion of the nature of integrity; Todd Davidson on the criterial good of unity; Eric Foster on the criterial good of action; Sebastian Dunne on (against) the notion of having a good life by accident; Mark Fowler on examples of good but miserable lives; and George Harris, Alan Fuchs, Sharon Rives, Wayne Sumner, and Todd Davidson for criticism of the list of precepts.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
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