The Good Life

I used to be a strict Act Utilitarian – the moral act is the one that produces the most overall happiness or least harm. The undergraduate philosophy case studies all seemed clear cut to me.

Knowing what we know now, would I have assassinated Hitler in 1934? Sure would. If a sadistic Generalissimo passed me a gun to kill an innocent in exchange for the lives of several others, would I pull the trigger? Under duress and with no alternatives, reluctantly, yes.

To my untrained late-teen moral mind, rational calculations seemed to provide a better framework than the rules of religions and imperfect man-made moral codes. Undergraduate philosophy taught me how to ‘reductio ad absurdam’ any nuance or shade of grey. Life was black and white. Add it up, make the call, don’t expect to be understood, live with the consequences.

But the pointer on my my moral compass started twitching in my mid-thirties. Act Utilitarianism can feel calculating, look immoral and set bad precedents. A good outcome is a bad justification for a rotten process. Some things shouldn’t go under the wheels as we drive hard to a destination. We have to stand for some things, or we stand for nothing. Sometimes what the head can justify sickens the heart.

Enter Aristotle in my Forties. Eudaimonia, arete and telos – flourishing, excellence and fulfilling our innate potential – they feel like the ingredients of a good life to me. There are some rules and a handful of prohibitions in Aristotle’s Ethics. But ‘moderation in all things’ is the basic gist. Thinking and talking about Aristotle this week, I have a clearer idea why I prefer the life’s work of ‘eudaimonia’, to the instant gratification of ‘happiness’, as a moral end.

Happiness is a mental ‘state’. In eras where life was nasty, brutish and short it must have been pretty rare. Perhaps no surprise then that ‘happiness’ bubbled to the surface with Bentham and Mill as the ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ were robbing people of eudaimonia and the ‘telos’ of crafts and village life. William Blake, whose poems I’m reading at the moment, gives a flavour of this in ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’.

But in the affluent, materialist, 21st century Western world, I fear happiness is a false god. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll put transitory hedonistic pleasure on an altar. Thinking about this, I was reminded of another undergraduate philosophy ‘thought experiment’ – the brain in a vat. What if all my sensations are fed me by a mad scientist thorough electrodes plugged into my brain?

Here in the ‘real’ world we are closer and closer to being able to live purely for audio-visual, digital and chemical pleasures without needing a mad scientist. People need to participate in their lives not plug in, switch off and get high. This is substantially Csikszentmihalyi’s case for embroidering our lives with varied challenges, new skills and personal growth.

Aristotle gives life an achievable and worthwhile end – to be the best of who we are. It is an optimistic, forgiving, perfectible, self-improving and thoroughly ‘open system’ – in his nutshell: ‘we are what we repeatedly do’.

Virtues and excellence grow with our actions, a little reflection and lots of practice. There’s plenty of room in Aristotle for happiness – especially through friends. There’s an explicit acknowledgement of ‘flow’ – the work of the harp player is to play the harp, and of the good harp player to play the harp well. But above all the good life is the one we lead every day by growing, improving, refining, learning, reflecting and acting.

I think Aristotle trains core moral strength better than the rational calculation of Utilitarianism. Better to act, learn, feel and constantly improve than use intellectual brute force to calculate the answers. Life is more Bayesian than arithmetic, more non-linear than deterministic. It’s a life’s work to work on the answers for myself – and to enjoy the journey.

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