A sketch: Living well

Do what you want, but do not hurt others—this is what many people think we should do. There are two elements: the idea that you should do what you want to do, and the idea that you should not hurt others. Both imply a philosophy, a philosophy of doing what you want to do, and a philosophy of not hurting others. Which one is moral philosophy? For most people, the second one. It is believed to be immoral to hurt others (at least for no reason), but few people would claim that morality requires that a person does what he wants to do. But if we understand goodness in an abstract way, this answer is not self-evident. It is surely good to be able to do what you want to do, and to actually do it. How could it be bad? If our wants are not a factor in what is good, what is? If this is right, it is good both to do what you want and—what is commonly accepted—not to hurt others.

Moral philosophy is often said to be about the goodness of life. But of course it is not. It is about its morality, which is not the same as its goodness. This is what I assume: moral life can be good life, and good life can be moral life, but one does not necessarily imply the other. Moral philosophy could be about good life, and perhaps some of it is, but it is typically approached the wrong way. We have too many expectations. We turn to ethics only when we are faced with questions about how to treat others. These questions usually arise from practical situations. (A philosopher may of course be interested in questions of moral philosophy in a purely theoretical sense as well.) But who do we listen when we want to know how to treat ourselves? If we are to be individualists (I think we have to be), we have no recourse to any authority: we have to decide for ourselves. But how? Do we necessarily know how to treat ourselves well? No: in fact it may be more common to treat oneself badly than to treat others badly. (Maybe it will be argued that we may actually know how to treat ourselves without actually treating ourselves well. I will answer that if this is so, then the passage from knowing to being able and doing is just one more important matter to investigate.)

And maybe we are not our own experts in the sense that we know everything about ourselves better than anyone else; in fact it sounds plausible that in certain circumstances a psychologist may be able to explain our behavior better than we can. There are many issues here. For example, are questions about the goodness of life ultimately psychological questions, or reducible to psychological questions? But is this not a philosophical question itself? The traction and interaction between philosophy of life and the special sciences is complicated. But perhaps it is acceptable for a dilettante like me to assume that understanding good life and being able to at least strive for it is possible without a good grasp of any science. It seems to make sense to think of life as a DIY thing.

I assume there is a way for us to treat ourselves, or in other words, that there is goodness in human life, and that this goodness must be found. It seems that there is goodness in music, in warmth, in humor, in friends, in food, in faith, in drink, in love, in wealth, in power, in sweetness, in winning, in beauty, and in other things. As far as I know, for this goodness there is no philosophy. In moral philosophy, there is an idea of duties to oneself, but they are controversial, and not really what I mean: it is not a duty to pursue good things. Hedonism is too limited, and it is a doctrine, not a philosophical subject matter. Aesthetics is on the other hand too impractical, and it is not philosophy of action (and living is inevitably action).

Where should I go from here? There is the general theoretical project, which is to understand goodness in general. Philosophers have tried to think about this before. Aristotle did, for example, but he reached conclusions that I am not willing to accept. (Or perhaps he was doing something else altogether.) Anyone else? Plato? Epicurus? Nietzsche? Mill?

In addition to the general project, there are the applications. I need to find out what has been said of the good things before. Perhaps a lot of this is pure aesthetics, and since aesthetics has a long tradition, little new work is required. It also seems that this has to be a very practical enterprise. It is not possible to understand music without hearing it or food without eating it. This is not philosophy as love of wisdom, but thinking in service of the love of good things, as a slave of the passions.

See also

Originally posted: July 7, 2004.