Sunday, January 23, 2011

What Does It Mean to Live a Good Life?

NYU philosopher Ronald Dworkin, in "What Is the Good Life?," makes the Platonic-Aristotelian distinction between morality and ethics. "Moral standards prescribe how we ought to treat others; ethical standards, how we ought to live ourselves. The happiness that Plato and Aristotle evoked was to be achieved by living ethically; and this meant living according to independent moral principles." Even if one does not support these interpretations of "morality" and "ethics" Dworkin thinks we cannot avoid the distinction.

Should we be moral in order to be happy? That seems too self-serving. Why be moral? Because morality requires us to be so? That seems circular, although Dworkin does not think it is viciously circular. Is virtue its own reward; that is, the virtuous life is the good life? Should we be moral simply because that is what morality demands? "It seems sad to say this." Because it is so epistemically unsatisfying. Dworkin writes: "Philosophers have pressed the question “why be moral?” because it seems odd to think that morality, which is often burdensome, has the force it does in our lives just because it is there, like an arduous and unpleasant mountain we must constantly climb but that we might hope wasn’t there or would somehow crumble. We want to think that morality connects with human purposes and ambitions in some less negative way, that it is not all constraint, with no positive value."

Morality, Dworkin believes, cannot be "categorical." That is, "we cannot justify a moral principle just by showing that following that principle would promote someone’s or everyone’s desires in either the short or the long term." "Morality" need not serve our own interests. For Dworkin, as for Plato and Aristotle, ethics (how we ought to live; aka living the good life) cannot be a "matter of psychological fact about what people happen to or even inevitably want or take to be in their own interest, but [is rather] itself a matter of ideal." So Dworkin seems to reject moral subjectivism as inadequate. If this is a correct reading of him, then it seems odd foe him to give us an idea of morality and the good life without reference to God.

"We need, then, a statement of what we should take our personal goals to be that fits with and justifies our sense of what obligations, duties, and responsibilities we have to others. We look for a conception of living well that can guide our interpretation of moral concepts. But we want, as part of the same project, a conception of morality that can guide our interpretation of living well."

- We need a conception of living well that can guide our interpretation of moral concepts.
- We need a conception of morality that can guide our interpretation of living well.

That's circular. Dworkin says, when it comes to the morality-ethics question, circularity is inevitable. That, of course, is debatable.

Dworkin dismisses the religious idea that morality is related to an ideal outside of itself; viz., God. He does not deal with divine command theory, which would be what I hold to, for reasons such as this one.

We all desire to live a good life. Dworkin says "we can explain this ambition only when we recognize that we have a responsibility to live well and believe that living well means creating a life that is not simply pleasurable but good in that critical way." After saying this he asks the obvious: "You might ask: responsibility to whom? It is misleading to answer: responsibility to ourselves."

"We must instead acknowledge an idea that I believe we almost all accept in the way we live but that is rarely explicitly formulated or acknowledged. We are charged to live well by the bare fact of our existence as conscious creatures with lives to lead. We are charged in the way we are charged by the value of anything entrusted to our care. It is important that we live well; not important just to us or to anyone else, but just important. We have a responsibility to live well, and the importance of living well accounts for the value of having a critically good life." (Emphasis mine)

This language is, of course, metaphorical. If there is no God-as-personal-agent to "charge" us with responsibility, and if self-charging is unacceptable, then, literally, we are "charged" by no one to do anything. I find his reasoning too circular at this point.

Dworkin's attempt to give meaning to a life lived well and ethical responsibility without bringing in God ends up being, to me, non-persuasive; indeed, I find myself wanting there to be a God so that there is such a thing as a good life, along with objective moral values.

Elsewhere Dworkin has written: "If you do not believe in a religious foundation for life's importance, then you must say that the importance of your having a good life is axiomatic and fundamental. It is important for no further reason than that you have a life to live." (Is Democracy Possible?, 15)

OK. So if there is no God, what's left? One wants to live a good life. That's the bottom line. The importance of having a good life is grounded in your having a life to live. That may be true, but it seems odd to say we have a "responsibility" to live a good life.