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James Medd
December 2016.
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How can I live a good life?
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The happiest, it has been said, are those who were never born. Maybe life overall is bound to be bad, in view of the sufferings, the dyings, the loss of friends et al. “The good life”, though, may be understood as the morally good or the life of happiness. It can be claimed that true happiness necessarily involves being morally good. One way of seeing the combination is in terms of the concept of “flourishing”. Would you consider your children or your parents or people you know as truly flourishing, if they are wealthy and claim to be happy, yet they reached such a state through cheating, letting down friends and taking advantage of the weakness of others? Is the rich and ruthless employer really flourishing, if his employees are scared of him, are insecure in their jobs and are poorly paid? Is a wealthy country, such as the UK and US, a good country if it has vast inequalities and has millions in poverty, queuing at food banks?

Although there may well be certain ingredients necessary for the good life – not least, food, water and shelter — we should recognise that people can live well in very different ways. There is a plurality of values. Some may value the life of the monk, of the nun, or of the family man or woman. Others may value the life of diversity, of a Casanova figure or a traveller. For some, the good life would involve tending a garden, a quiet and small life; for others, a loud life of colour, of playing the trumpet. There is no recipe for “the” good life.

Philosophers have tackled this question in ways that can only be briefly sketched here. The Existentialists, famously through Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), emphasised that to live well, we must be authentic and recognize our freedom and hence responsibility in what we do. We ought not to pass (in Peter Cave’s terms) the “moral buck” to others – be it to governments, Nature or God. Our choices show what it is that we value; we are “free to make ourselves”.

“If you are incredibly mean no one will like you much, but if you’re incredibly generous then you’ll end up poor and alone.”

Utilitarians, such as Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), argued that the right way to live is to maximize happiness for all. Bentham stressed how typically we are motivated, though, by what we perceive to be our own interests or pleasures; so society’s laws and customs, possibilities of punishments and so forth, need to be so arranged that our actions promote the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”. Pushpin (a child’s game), says Bentham, is as valuable as poetry, if providing the same amount of pleasure. John Stuart Mill (1806-73; Bentham was his secular grandfather) was also a Utilitarian, but modified Bentham by means of a more enhanced understanding of happiness. Mill spoke of higher and lower pleasures – appreciating poetry is more valuable than pushpin. Mill’s idea was that we should be at liberty to conduct “experiments in living”, to avoid being automata, to seek to secure flourishing lives — and that would involve far more than the basic Benthamite pleasures. To quote Mill, “’tis better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig”.

Many thinkers in this area are often impressed by the ancient Greeks. Aristoteleanism, for example, starts off with a very simple idea: “We all seek happiness’’. How is happiness to be acquired? Well, Aristotle (384-322BC) goes through various examples: should we value honesty? Yes, because if you’re honest then people will trust you and help you out because you help them out. Of course, if people think you are friends with them only so you can use them later on, then that will undermine the friendship. Hence, we need to acquire the disposition to be prepared to act in the interests of others, for their sake. With lots of nuances and subtleties needed to be added, a happy life is one in which you acquire the “virtues” — honesty, courage, generosity, for example — but you have to strike the happy medium. If you are incredibly mean no one will like you much, but if you’re incredibly generous then you’ll end up poor and alone. 


Aristotle’s approach appeals to many people, though we have to forget his acceptance of slavery, disparagement of women and so on. Other approaches include that of the Stoics – for example, a Roman philosopher Seneca (4BC-65AD). The line of the Stoics is encouragement to be in harmony with Nature, which, for Seneca, meant prizing the rational and virtuous life, trying to overcome bad emotions, and being more accepting. A different line is that of Epicureanism, often associated with hedonism: the idea is that we should just seek happiness, but happiness is understood differently from involving acquiring more and more. Epicurus (341-270BC) valued friendships; he valued resisting desires that can quickly lead to obsessions, for example, wanting more and more — more sex, wealth, cars — when the desires can never be satisfied. He is associated with the thought, “When death is there, we are not; when we are there, death is not”. Hence, there is nothing to fear in death.

Peter Cave is the author of The Big Think Book: Discover Philosophy Through 99 Perplexing Puzzles.