Modern philosophers have been understandably reluctant to pontificate about “the good life”. They have mostly taken the view that it is not the job of philosophers to tell other people how to live their lives. Tastes and preferences differ, people get a kick out of a great variety of things, and if your particular enthusiasm is for gardening, or running marathons, or playing computer games, or playing the financial markets, why should you take any notice of philosophers telling you that you ought to be doing something different?
Maybe there is a place for philosophical accounts of what the morally good life is like. Given the diversity of ways of life, any society, and any modern pluralistic society in particular, is bound to need moral rules which hold this diverse society together and enable people with different ideals and enthusiasms to live alongside one another – values of mutual respect and tolerance, of cooperation, of justice and honesty.
So, it might be said, there is room for substantive philosophical theories about the content of morality, but when it comes to competing pictures of the good life in that wider sense, philosophers are no better placed than anyone else and should refrain from imposing their own predilections on others. We could take a warning from Plato and Aristotle, who were held back by no such inhibitions, and who laboured as philosophers to convince the world that the best life is … the life of the philosopher! To which the appropriate response is “Well they would say that, wouldn’t they?”
Nevertheless, while acknowledging the diversity of tastes and temperaments, maybe we can say something in more general terms about what any human life would have to be like in order to be experienced as satisfying and fulfilling. Perhaps after all we can take a leaf out of Aristotle’s book. The good human life, he says, is the life of happiness – but that as it stands is an empty truism (and it’s even more of a truism in Greek, where the term translated as “happiness” is “eudaimonia”, which could also be translated as “well-being”). What we need, Aristotle says in the Ethics, is some more definite account of what eudaimonia consists in, what makes for a flourishing human life, and for that purpose we need to look at what is distinctive of human beings compared with other living things. I want to take that idea and turn it on its head. What are the distinctive ways in which human lives may fail to be satisfactory? Human beings don’t just suffer physical pain; they don’t just suffer from lack of food and shelter. They may suffer loneliness. They may be bored and frustrated. They may find their lives empty and meaningless. I don’t know whether we can confidently state that these kinds of experience and suffering are uniquely human, but in comparison with the experiences of most other living things they are distinctively human. Conversely, we can venture the general claim that any human being, whatever the particular activities which he or she may go in for, will need to live in a way which avoids or surmounts those sufferings and failings.
So what these distinctive features of human life might point us to is an account of distinctive human needs, in the sense of conditions for a flourishing and fulfilling human life. Here are some of the needs we might identify. First, picking up on the fact of loneliness, we can say that human beings need positive and supportive relations with others. Here immediately we can distinguish between the general need and the great variety of specific ways in which it may be met. Family relationships, for instance, often provide the supportive network which enables people to flourish, but we know that families can also be destructive, and that some people choose not to take the route of family life for themselves. People find friendship and companionship in many different contexts – in work, in shared interests and in their membership of groups and communities of all kinds.
Sexual relationships of course may bring a particularly intense and rich dimension to life, but they take different shapes and luck or choice may exclude that dimension altogether – it would be foolish to suggest that sex is an essential component of the good life. This is a classic area where talk of “lifestyle choices” comes readily to hand, but we can still say something in general terms about the contribution which relationships with other people make to the good life – by providing support and recognition, confirming one sense of one’s own identity and worth, and enriching one’s experiences by sharing them.
Now consider the experience of boredom – again a deep feature of human beings and one which points to correspondingly deep needs. (I remember, as a child, infuriating my parents by declaring “I’m bored”.) It is part of the good life that one is active, in ways which make full use of one’s mental and physical powers. We get satisfaction from exerting ourselves, and from seeing the fruits of our efforts and taking pride in them as an expression of who we are. Hegel has a lovely image in his Lectures on Aesthetics: “A boy throws stones into the river, and then stands admiring the circles that trace themselves on the water, as an effect in which he attains the sight of something of his own doing.” So parallel to our need for recognition from others is our need to see ourselves as making a mark on the world. Both stem from the distinctive human capacity for reflection. We think about ourselves, we think about who we are, we are prone to self-questioning and self-doubt and we look for external confirmation.
As with relationships, so with self-expression, the general need is one which is met in a huge variety of ways. If we are lucky, our daily work may be of a kind which gives opportunity for creativity and imagination, and furnishes us with a sense of achievement. (The “luck” required is a matter not just of the vicissitudes of our individual lives but of the kind of society and economic system we live in.) Some of us have imaginative and artistic talents and can get a sense of achievement from creative writing or painting or music-making. Creating a colourful garden, or growing your own vegetables, or decorating the house are popular activities because they offer the experience of being able to stand back and say, “I did that”. Whether it’s baking cakes or making a model of a cathedral out of matchsticks or whatever, these mundane-sounding activities are in their general character a fundamental component of the good life.
I’ve suggested that both the need for supportive relationships and the need for self-expression stem from the fact that humans are reflective creatures. We think about who we are and ask questions about ourselves. This propensity for reflection goes deeper still – and this is where it connects to our need to make sense of our lives, and our need to avoid experiencing our lives as meaningless and pointless. One way of putting this is to talk about a need to tell a “story” about one’s life – to see it as having a shape which unfolds as a continuing narrative over time. The concept of “narrative” has been very fashionable in philosophy and sociology over the past 30 years, and it has also been criticised, notably by Galen Strawson.
If it is to escape criticism the narrativity thesis must not be overstated. It’s not that we all write autobiographies, even in our heads. The story which one tells about one’s life may not be explicit, it may simply be implicit in how one talks about oneself, what one focuses on in conversations, what memories one dwells on and what aspirations one prioritises.
Think of that great song “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”. It’s an exceedingly simple narrative of two lives:
Someday we’ll build a home on a hilltop high,
You and I,
Shiny and new a cottage that two can fill ….
Someday we may be adding a wing or two,
A thing or two.
We will make changes as any family will …
And when the kids grow up and leave us,
We’ll sit and look at the same old view,
Just we two …
The folks who like to be called,
What they have always been called,
“The folks who live on the hill”.
It’s easy to be patronising about this “narrative” – in the words of another song made famous by Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?” – but it is probably the story by which the great majority of people shape their lives. The “narrative” of succeeding generations – of nurturing life, of having children, and seeing them grow and leave, and being able to look back with a sense of completeness – has informed and shaped the experiences and aspirations of countless individuals.
But once again it is equally important not to lose sight of the diversity. One’s life may well not be constructed around that story, but in any number of other ways. It may be built around work and career, or some grand project, or some sense of a vocation, perhaps artistic or creative or humanitarian. I emphasise again, the “narrative” may be implicit in one’s day-to-day decisions and choices rather than explicitly spelled out. But the underlying general need is to be able to make sense of one’s life by seeing it as having a shape.
The propensity for reflection also goes deeper still. Insofar as we reflect on our lives, we need to be able to make sense of them in the context of some wider framework of beliefs. This is a role which has traditionally been played in most societies by systems of religious belief, but these have over time become increasingly implausible, and the need remains. Most people are not intellectuals, and their alternative to religious belief often turns out to be an exceedingly vague and inarticulate thought that “There must be something”.
But there are questions which cannot be evaded, even if our answers to them are, like our life-narratives, implicit in the ways we live our lives. We need some way of understanding the place of human beings in the natural world, as a part of it or as set apart. We have either to see ourselves as subject to some higher purpose or as responsible for our own lives and our world. We have either to see our lives as a prelude to some future mode of conscious existence, or as ending with death and the merging of our bodies with the rest of the natural world. Academic philosophers become impatient with being asked, “What’s your philosophy then?”, but it is significant that the question so regularly gets asked. It points to a general need for some framework of beliefs which can underpin our self-understanding and enable us to make sense of our lives. It is, as such, a necessary condition of the good life.
I don’t of course claim to have given a complete account of the components of the good life, but I hope I have said enough to support my overall view. There is no one magic ingredient which makes a human life a good life. People live their lives in many different ways; they find fulfilment from many different pursuits and activities. What I have suggested is that there are certain general features of those manifold activities which reflect general human needs and are necessary conditions for a good life. And though there is no one essential ingredient, there is perhaps one overall description which we can plausibly give: the good life is the fully human life. A good life is one which employs to the full our distinctively human capacities for rich emotional experiences and cooperative relationships with other people, for creativity and imagination, and for making sense of our lives through reflection on who we are and where we belong.
All this may sound pretty obvious. Most people know, at least in practice, that these are the sorts of things which are important for the good life, and as a philosopher I do not have anything particularly new to say on the matter. In conclusion, though, I want to switch perspective and say that as a humanist I find it annoying when people claim, as they frequently do, that none of this is enough, that a life of creative activity and supportive relationships, taking on a determinate shape over time, is not enough, because it lacks the essential element. It leaves out “spirituality”, people say, and has no room for God. What basis do they have for the claim that it’s not enough? I do not necessarily want to denigrate religious ways of life. To return to where I began, the religiously guided life is one kind of life, and it may be one way of meeting the kinds of needs I’ve been discussing, building on the support of a certain kind of community, inspiring its adherents to certain kinds of achievement and providing a framework of beliefs to make sense of it all. But it is just one way of living a good life, one among many. The good life is a human life, and the things that make us human are the things that enable us to achieve it.
Richard Norman is emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Kent.