Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Aristotle & Nussbaum I: The Good Life

Eudaimonia means well-being or happiness.  The literal translation is "to live well".  Aristotle thinks that ethics should be based on realizing a good life, or to have eudaimonia.  There are many questions about the good life and about the role that luck plays in the good life.  For example, is having a good life in my control?  Aristotle and Plato thought that well-being was beyond our control.  Epictetus, however, thought that we have total control over whether we live a good life or not.  Another question would be whether we should try to limit the role of chance in our lives.  Plato thought that we should try to be self-sufficient from luck.  We should try to live cautiously and try to avoid risks.  Aristotle, however, thought that it is better to live with risk and to manage the vulnerability that results from risk, chance and luck.  Living the good life means taking chances and managing the dangers of risks.  Before we can address these questions, let's try to understand what a "good life" is.

One approach to defining the good life is hedonism, which is the view that pleasures are central to a good life.  The key to a good life is maximizing happiness and pleasure and minimizing pain and sadness.  Some might think that it matters what kinds of pleasures are being experienced.  For example, pleasures associated with reason such as learning, reading and listening to music might be better than pleasures that are based on senses alone, such as food, sex and warmth.  John Stuart Mill thought that pleasures that required thinking and use of the mind were better than pleasures that did not require using your brain.  Jeremy Bentham, however, thought that all pleasures should be considered equally.  Someone might be inclined to reject hedonism after considering the following example: Pretend there is a machine that you can use and that the machine provides you with lots and lots of pleasure.  Since hedonism is the view that we seek the most pleasure, then it would make sense to simply stay on the pleasure machine rather than to live life in the real world.  Because this kind of result of hedonism seems ridiculous and unacceptable, many reject hedonism.

Another approach to defining a good life is a preference-satisfaction theories, which say that a good life is a life where your desires are fulfilled.  For example, say that Britney Spears grew up always wanting to be a famous pop start.  Since she has satisfied that desire, she is living a good life.  Preference-satisfaction theories are also problematic because they allow for cases where I person may be satisfying his or her desires but we think that such a person is not truly living a good life.  For example, Britney Spears wanted to shave her head at one point.  Or say that in the future, Britney decides that she wants to overdose on drugs and kill herself.  Just because Britney satisfies desires does not mean that she is living a good life or that she is "truly happy".  Many people think that being happy is more than just getting what you want.  In addition, a person must also want the right things!  Britney may have satisfied her desire to shave her head, but this was not the right thing to want.  Because Britney did not satisfy worthy desires, she cannot be said to be living the good life.

The last kind of view that we discuss is a substantive good theory, which is a theory that provides specific elements that make up the good life.  Even if people do not actually want these things, they are objectively good, such as being morally virtuous.  Certainly experiencing pleasure and satisfying desires are also part of a good life, but they are not necessary to it.  Plato, Aristotle and Epictetus all thought that being morally good is not just part of a good life.  Rather, being morally virtuous just means that you are living a good life.  It is being moral that makes your life good.  To be virtuous is to live a good life.  In other words, moral virtue is constitutive of a good human life.


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