WELCOME TO THE GOOD LIFE

One thing that makes philosophers unique among academics is just how often, and how fervently, they defend the importance of the subject. Almost every university has a ‘Why study philosophy?’ page, selling the subject to potential undergrads. Very few universities, as far as I’m aware, have a ‘Why study biology?’ page. The first question seems to require answering in a way that the second doesn’t.

So whenever some celebrity-scientist questions the point of philosophy, you get one-hundred furious responses from philosophers arguing for the importance and even urgency of tackling philosophical problems. Philosophical reflection, they tell us, is vital.

"As far as I’m concerned philosophy is the most important subject of all because other subjects get their importance by how they relate to the larger issues. And that’s what philosophy is about – the larger issues."
– John Searle, New Philosopher

"When someone asks 'what’s the use of philosophy?' the reply must be aggressive, since the question tries to be ironic and caustic. Philosophy does not serve the State or the Church, who have other concerns. It serves no established power. The use of philosophy is to sadden. A philosophy that saddens no one, that annoys no one, is not a philosophy. It is useful for harming stupidity, for turning stupidity into something shameful. Its only use is the exposure of all forms of baseness of thought. Is there any discipline apart from philosophy that sets out to criticise all mystifications, whatever their source and aim, to expose all the fictions without which reactive forces would not prevail?"
– Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy

I’m not so convinced. Contrary to what I wrote in my personal statement, I’ve never lost sleep over a philosophical problem. Sceptical doubts have never kept me up at night. The problem of induction has never left me tossing and turning. I don’t believe, like Socrates, that the unexamined life is not worth living. I don’t believe, like Camus, that we need philosophy to hold us back from suicide. The vast majority of it I see as a game, a project, as good a subject as any to spend three years on.

Because, honestly, what’s the harm if we never work out how atoms in the brain combine to create subjective experience? What’s the harm if we never prove we’re not all dreaming right now? It’s true that some people are worried about these problems – perhaps you’ve worried about them yourself – but these worries aren’t urgent. After all, they can only be sustained by a deliberate effort. If you find yourself on the verge of a crisis, try the David Hume manoeuvre. Put the book down, have some dinner and play some backgammon:

"Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium... I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hour's amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther."
– David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

For me, philosophy is only urgent if it’s about living well. If it doesn’t relate to that, it’s not important. It might be fun – and it often is – but it’s not important.

As far as living well goes, two parts of philosophy are immediately relevant. The first is axiology. This is the part that asks, ‘What’s valuable?’. The second is ethics. This is the part that asks, ‘How should I behave?’. The two are closely related, such that your answer to the first question can’t help but inform your answer to the second, and vice versa. Both play key roles in answering a third question, ‘What does it mean to live well?’

And this makes ethics and axiology something that so much of philosophy fails to be: practicalusefulrelevant to everyday life. Your ethic and your axiology are not just things you write about in a book or speak about at a lecture, they are things you live every minute of every day, through every dream you have and every decision you make. Every time you say thank you, make someone a cup of tea, or pee in the pool, you’re deciding how to behave. You’re living an ethic. Every time you meet up with friends, go for a run, or decide to have one more drink, you’re deciding what’s valuable. You’re living an axiology.

Given this, it’s no exaggeration to say that ethics and axiology are the most practical subjects you can study. Whether you realise it or not, you’ve been doing them your entire life, and whether you like it or not, you’re going to continue doing them until the day you die. You've got to value something, and it's all to easy to get hooked on the wrong things. I think it’s important then – urgent even – to give some thought to what it means to live well. There are, quite literally, lives at stake.

So what does it mean to live the good life?



This was another of the six or seven songs that I cycled through on YouTube as I was just getting into Kanye and it might be my favourite of the lot. The beginning – the way it jumps straight in with T-Pain and the synths – carries the promise of an obstacle overcome, a goal achieved, a destination reached. It’s as if by the very fact of listening you’ve been invited into the good life and it’s going to be all champagne and roses from here ‘til eternity. Or at least for the next four minutes.

But, of course, the first step in reaching the good life is determining what the good life is, and the jury’s still out on this one.

There are three main theories about what makes a good life: hedonism, desire-fulfilment theory and objective list theory. 

Hedonists say that the good life is the life of pleasure. They claim that pleasure is the only thing that makes your life better and pain the only thing that makes it worse. 

Desire-fulfilment theorists say the good life is the life where you get what you want. They claim that having your desires satisfied is the only thing that makes your life better and having your desires frustrated is the only thing that makes it worse. 

Objective list theorists say the good life is not so simple. They claim that lots of different things can make your life go better (for instance, pleasure, desire-satisfaction, acting morally, achieving things, having friends, being in love) and that missing out on these things makes your life go worse.

HEDONISM

A lot of people are unconvinced by hedonism. Claiming that all that matters in life is pleasure seems juvenile and shallow. The word brings to mind images of people with smiles pasted on but little behind the eyes, always chasing that next hit of dopamine.

This is unfortunate because it’s not what hedonism is about. The word is one of many in philosophy whose meaning has been distorted by newspaper columnists keen to flaunt their slapdash acquaintance with intellectual history (see also ‘existential,’ ‘solipsistic’, and, most outrageously, ‘epistemological’ and ‘ontological.’).

Hedonism is about all kinds of pleasure, not just sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, it’s less misleading to say that hedonism is about pleasant experiences, because even the word ‘pleasure’ makes it seem more sordid than it is. Far from getting loose and living for the weekend, the most famous hedonist, Epicurus, spent his days gardening, meditating and conversing with friends. He wouldn’t even eat fine foods because he thought that craving them would lead to more pain in the long run, so he stuck to water, bread, olives and occasionally cheese.

Not a big party guy.
But there are other objections to hedonism. The most famous is Robert Nozick’s experience machine:

“Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences?” 
 Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia

Most readers answer no to this question. Even though life in the experience machine could be set up to be extremely pleasurable, they’d still to prefer to live in the real world. This seems to indicate that pleasure alone is not enough for a good life. We need other things too, like contact with reality. So, Nozick says, hedonism is false.

A lot of philosophers take this passage to be a knockout blow. As far as they’re concerned, Nozick is Rocky at the end of Rocky IV and hedonism is Ivan Drago, out-cold and face down on the mat, never to fight again.


I’m not so convinced. We ought to note that not everyone has the same intuitions about the experience machine. Some people say they would enter (you might even be one of them). And I think that, of the people who say they wouldn’t enter, fear plays a role. Status-quo bias – an irrational preference for avoiding the unknown and sticking with things you know – is a real thing and I think it might be at work in the experience machine case. Thus conclude my few words in defence of hedonism, and if you don’t like them I have five and a half thousand more.

DESIRE-FULFILMENT THEORIES

The second main theory of what makes a good life is desire-fulfilment theory. This is the one that says getting what you want is the only thing that makes your life better and not getting what you want is the only thing that makes your life worse. Here, again, though, we need to be careful to avoid misunderstanding. The ‘fulfilment’ in 'desire-fulfilment’ must be understood in the logical sense, not the feeling sense. This means that your desire is ‘fulfilled’ if what you want to happen actually happens, regardless of whether or not you feel fulfilled or whether you even know it’s happened.

This clarification is important because it makes the theory subject to an objection from Derek Parfit: the stranger on the train example.

“Suppose that I meet a stranger who has what is believed to be a fatal disease. My sympathy is aroused, and I strongly want this stranger to be cured. We never meet again. Later, unknown to me, this stranger is cured. On the Unrestricted Desire-Fulfilment Theory, this event is good for me, and makes my life go better. This is not plausible. We should reject this theory.”
– Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons

Parfit was never a man to mince words. And I agree that this theory should be rejected. It just doesn’t seem plausible to say that the stranger’s recovery makes your life go better. His life? Sure. Your life? No.

The reason it doesn’t make your life go better is because it doesn’t really concern you at all. Once you’ve forgotten about the stranger, his recovery isn’t in any way connected with your life. In order to avoid the stranger-on-the-train objection, desire-fulfilment theorists need to restrict their theory to discount desires about things that are too remote.

Thus, we have the success theory, which says that only desires about your own life count: only their fulfilment makes your life go better. Now there’s a minor technical problem with this theory: it’s difficult to draw a clean line between desires about your own life and desires not about your own life. For instance, is your desire that your siblings are successful about your own life? Probably. After all, you spent a lot of your life interacting with them. Is your desire that your second cousins are successful about your own life? That’s not so certain.

But we’re not going to focus on that because the success theory faces a more pressing objection, again from Parfit. Call it the drugged-up objection:

I know that you believe the success theory. That is, I know that you believe having your desires about your life fulfilled makes your life go better. So, I say, I’m about to make your life amazing. I’m going to inject you with a drug that is extremely addictive. Every morning from now on, you’re going to wake up with an overwhelming desire to have another hit of this drug. Your desire itself won’t be painful, but if you don’t get an injection within an hour you’ll start sweating and twitching. That’s okay, though, because I’m going to be there every morning with that needle you so desperately crave. The effects of the drug are neither pleasant nor painful, but they keep your desires at bay until the next morning.

On the success theory as it stands, this arrangement would significantly improve your life. You’re getting intense desires about your life fulfilled every morning. That means your racking up some serious points on the success-scale. But our intuition tells us that this is not a good life. So, the argument goes, the success theory must be false.

But desire-fulfilment theories aren’t dead yet. Without wanting to make a load of pasty pedants seem too heroic, philosophy often feels like Hercules fighting the Hydra and this case is no different. The latest head of desire-fulfilment theory is the global success theory. This theory is just like the success theory except that instead of adding up individual desires to determine how well your life is going, it counts only desires about your life as a whole. In response to the addiction objection, the global success theorist can say that being addicted does not make your life go better because your overall desire, knowing all the facts, is not to be addicted.

But we’ve got one more objection to consider, this time from John Rawls. Call it the grass-counter objection:

Imagine a high-flying, young Harvard professor. She’s incredibly talented and looks set to solve some famous problems in mathematics. She also happens to be a great writer and public speaker. She could write a best-selling book, to rave reviews that include phrases like “illuminating,” “enchanting,” and “underlying poetry.” She could deliver a TED talk that would have audiences resonating with the Riemann hypothesis on not merely an intellectual level but an emotional level.

She chooses to do none of these things. She recognises that she could, but instead decides to quit her job and spend her days counting the blades of grass on the Harvard lawns.

The global success theory has to say that the grass-counting life is better for her than the life of glitz, glamour and Gaussian elimination. The grass-counting life fulfils her global desires – it’s what she wants to do. But, we might object, the math life is obviously better, so the global success theory is false.

This objection is by no means a knockout. A lot of people are happy to say that the grass-counting life is better for her. What side you come down on seems to be largely a matter of individual feeling, and it’s difficult to give reasons for your choice that will convince the other side. If you think you’ve got a good reason for preferring one life over the other, let me know. You might just make a major axiological breakthrough.

OBJECTIVE LIST THEORIES

The final theory about what makes a good life is objective list theory. Objective list theorists are those people who always accuse you of being overly reductive and lacking nuance. They say the good life can’t be reduced to one element as hedonists and desire-fulfilment theorists allege. In reality, you need lots of stuff for a good life, like pleasure, achievement, friendship, morality, and love.

Now this sounds all well and good. It’s the kind of commencement-address-philosophy that goes down a treat with people who like their wisdom in list-form. But as a general rule in philosophy, we should be suspicious of any theory that includes a list of more than two elements. Usually it’s a sign that things aren’t as simple as they could be.

I think the rule serves us well here. If we’re suspicious of these extra elements – achievement, friendship, morality, love, etc. – we’ll ask ‘Why do these things make our lives go better?’ And I think, in every case, we’ll answer, ‘Because they bring us pleasure’ or ‘Because we desire them.’ In this way, objective list theorists turn out to be either secret hedonists or secret desire-fulfilment theorists. They agree that the only thing that makes a good life is either pleasure or getting what you want. They’ve just given us a helpful list of things that are pleasurable and desirable (the nice way of putting it) or they’re suckers for a list and have failed to ask an important question (the mean way of putting it).

Now it’s important to note that objective list theorists will not be happy with the way I’ve presented things here. They claim that the stuff on their list makes our lives better even if they aren’t pleasurable and even if we don’t want them. In order to try convince you of this, they might say something like:

‘Imagine you have a choice between two lives. In Life A, you spend your almost all of your time sitting on the couch watching old Seinfeld reruns and eating Jaffa Cakes. In Life B, you work hard and become a world-famous athlete, the first person to run a marathon in less than two hours. You experience exactly the same amount of pleasure in both lives. Which life would you rather live?’

Chances are you're going to choose Life B. Then when you do, they’ll say, ‘Aha! That means that achievement makes your life better even if it doesn’t bring you more pleasure! So objective list theory is true!’

I don’t buy this. I think the reason we think that Life B is better is because, despite the stipulation, we can’t help but think that Life B would be more pleasurable. When considering examples of this kind, we must remember that (1) our minds often work by association (think of the pleasure that normally follows your achievements and the shame that normally follows day-long sitcom binges) and (2) our minds are naturally reluctant to respect stipulations (think of that little voice in your head that whispers ‘But the ton of bricks must be heavier than the ton of feathers. They’re bricks.’).

To stop this achievement-pleasure association distorting the way we see the example, let’s imagine an achievement that wouldn’t bring pride or pleasure. So, for instance, if you’ve ever been to an American mall you might have come across a car-kissing competition. In these competitions, a brand-new car is parked in the middle of a mall and contestants have to kiss it for as long as they can. They get a ten-minute break each hour but otherwise have to keep puckered up until they can’t take it any more. I’ve found a few news articles online about these kinds of competitions and note that Kara Stone reportedly kissed a car for seventy hours back in 2012. That’s almost three days. What’s more, she wasn’t the only person to do this. Patricia Emery took her right down to the wire! In the end they had to put a stop to it and decide the winner on a coin toss. Imagine spending three days expressing your undying devotion to a car and having it wrenched away from you on a coin toss.


So here’s our new example:

‘Imagine you have a choice between two lives. In Life A, you spend almost all of your time sitting on the couch watching old Seinfeld reruns and eating Jaffa Cakes. In Life B, you spend almost all of your life, with the exception of hourly ten-minute breaks, kissing a car. You are not participating in any competitions, so you win no cars. You are kissing the car purely because doing so is an achievement. When curious passersby ask why you do it, you reply, with as much conviction as a car-kisser can muster, ‘Because it’s there.’ You experience exactly the same amount of pleasure in both lives. Which life would you rather live?’

What do you reckon? If you’re now indifferent as to which life you live, then you don’t believe achievement in and of itself makes your life go better. You might very well be a hedonist. If you’d still rather be the achiever than the sitcom-watcher, you’re probably an objective list theorist.

If you decide that you’re an objective list theorist, your work is just beginning. You now have to decide what things make it onto your list. I’ve already mentioned a few candidates but all kinds of things have been proposed over the years. Here are a few to get you started: pleasure, desire-fulfilment, achievement, morality, love, friendship, knowledge, creativity, appreciation of beauty, spirituality, religion, wealth, power, and compassion. Circle a few and ask yourself if these things would still make your life better even if they weren’t pleasurable or desirable. If they would, then you’ve got a list-item.

Thus concludes our whistle-stop tour of the good life. Congratulations if you managed to sort yourself into one camp. Double congratulations if you sorted yourself into a camp and discovered that you’re living a pretty good life already. Commiserations if you can’t decide which kind of life is best. If it’s any consolation, you’d probably make a good philosopher.

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