Monday, July 12, 2010
What is good about life? What makes life worth living? Terms such as “good”,”bad”,”right” and “wrong” are all evaluatory terms. In other words, such terms will not make any sense if we though of them in isolation from an evaluating subject who applies certain evaluative criteria to determine whether those terms can be used or not.
I can further clarify this through the use of an example. What does the statement “this is a good car” mean? This statement would mean that if we took the car in question and examine its fulfillment to certain evaluative criteria we would be able to determine whether it’s good or not and accordingly whether this statement is true or false. Evaluative criteria for distinguishing a good car from a bad one might include; its speed, its design, its horse power and so on. All of those criteria are considered to be the evaluative criteria we need to use since they determine what the evaluator would like this car to do for him. Hence, the process of evaluation has to be under lied by the interests of the subject making the evaluation.
Now let’s go back to our main question; what is a good life? It might be clear to you now that this question can be paraphrased into the following; “what are the evaluative criteria we would tend to apply to determine whether a particular form of life good or bad?” we might think that the only one criteria that is of importance in distinguishing a good life from a bad one might be happiness. We might find it plausible to claim that I can say of myself that I had a good life if I had a happy one. Those who hold this assumption are called hedonists. It is important to notice that this assumption is a highly respectable one. Some might think that holding this assumption would mean depending on material and sensual sources of happiness to provide a good life. However, this is not necessarily the case. There are a lot other different sources of happiness other than sensual and material ones. It is clear that serving others, defending a higher cause or gaining success in work are all important sources of happiness which are neither material nor sensual.
However, hedonism still suffers from internal incoherencies which make it a less plausible theory. Those incoherencies were best demonstrated through the objections that have been raised against John Stuart Mill’s hedonism. Those objections were recognized by Mill as we will see and he attempted to defend his hedonism against them. However, it seems that he failed to do so. I will mention some of those objections here. It might seem highly intuitive that a good life is a happy one, but isn’t it intuitive as well that Socrates, who was delineated by his society and was sentenced to death, had a better life than any other fool who rejected his wisdom. You might argue that Socrates might have had difficulties in his life but this doesn’t necessarily mean that he was unhappy. He must have enjoyed his wisdom to a greater degree than what he suffered because of the people surrounding him. Even if this was true, we can still think of someone who was not happy in his life and yet he had a good life. We can think of some one who has discovered a particular truth that would benefit humans greatly. However, he suffered a great deal in his life to come up with this discovery; his discovery was not appreciated till after his death. Such a person might have felt happy for some time when he came up with his discovery but any one else who suffered less in his life must have had a happier life than him. Even though such a person didn’t have the happiest life possible but he can still be considered as having lived a good life, might be even better than the lives of most of us. It is important to notice that it is not only us, who see the whole thing from the outside, who judge his life as a good one, but this person himself would be considering himself as having lived a good life based on his assumption that he made a great achievement that will be evaluated properly one day even after his death. We might still argue that it’s his realization that he has made an achievement which will be recognized one day is still a significant source of happiness that can overweight any other suffering that he might have experienced. Therefore, over all, he had a happier life and thus a better life than most of us. By accepting this response we accept the assumption that making a big achievement yields a greater amount of happiness than most of the other sources and therefore it would over weight any other suffering that one might have experienced.
This would lead us to the following argument that was offered again in objection to hedonism. Imagine that you were given the choice between leading the life of a great scientist who would make very big achievements to the human kind, but who would die at the age of 78, and the life of a moderately intelligent man who would lead a luxurious life style full of sensual delights and who will die at the age of 500 or even will live forever. It seems that most of use would still find the life of this scientist better than the life of this immortal man, even though the amount of happiness experienced by the immortal man must at some point exceed what was experienced by the scientist. Note that even though you might choose to live this luxurious long life, but it is still hard to deny that the life of the scientist would still be more memorable and better.
In response, we might still argue that the happiness created by achievement is of entirely different nature that it can never be compared to what ever the amount of happiness developed by other sources. In such a case, we must have to face this question: what makes the happiness developed by achievement better or of higher value than the happiness developed by other sources. It seems clear now that there must be other evaluative criteria which we have to use to distinguish higher sources of happiness from lower ones. Accordingly, there must be other evaluative criteria which are important in distinguishing a good life other happiness.
We will continue searching for those criteria in later posts.