The search for the foundation of ethics.
Everyone wants to live a good life, but what does that mean? Generally we picture a life with enough money to make us independent, time to pursue activities we enjoy, and opportunity for sensual pleasures.
But can you live a good life even if you don’t have the opportunity for those things? Does the good life depend on external circumstances or can it be found regardless of our position in life?
These questions have been addressed by religion, but also philosophers. Many people think of philosophy as an abstract and impractical discipline, but most philosophers have been concerned with answering these questions.
Philosophers start by analyzing our conceptual framework, making sure we are thinking clearly about our chosen topic. The first question is: What do we mean by good, what is it that makes something good? They conclude there are two ways we can understand what good means.
Something is instrumentally good when it’s valuable because it helps us get something else. It’s a means to an end.
Most people think to live a good life they need money. Money is instrumentally good. We don’t want money for its own sake. We want it because it’s an instrument to help us get other things which are valuable to us.
Something is intrinsically good when it’s good in itself, or good for its own sake.
Most of us think to live a good life we need to be happy. What type of good is happiness? We don’t want to be happy as a means to some other goal. We don’t want happiness so we can use it to get something else. We want to be happy for its own sake. Happiness is an example of something which is intrinsically good.
Another distinction related to intrinsic and instrumental goodness is hypothetical and categorical imperatives.
A hypothetical imperative is a rule for achieving some particular goal. If we say: You should eat well if you want to be healthy, this is a hypothetical imperative.
The goal is to be healthy. The imperative takes the goal as a hypothetical. Then assuming the hypothetical is true, you do want to be healthy, it gives the rule you should follow: You should eat well.
A categorical imperative isn’t hypothetical. It doesn’t assume a goal but gives a rule which holds unconditionally. The rule: You should be healthy, is a categorical imperative. Being healthy is the goal and that goal is in itself something we should be.
The foundation of ethics is found in intrinsic values and categorical imperatives. This is the foundation because the buck stops with them. They give us our ultimate goal, the thing that is good in itself, good for its own sake. And once we’re clear on our ultimate goal, we can look for ways to achieve that goal. The means to achieve our end.
This understanding between the different types of good helps us understand what type of goal we’re looking for. There are many different answers to what the particular details of the goal are and what constitutes the good life for human beings.
Aristotle called the highest good for humans eudaimonia. This is translated as happiness, well-being or flourishing. Happiness doesn’t only mean a pleasant emotional state, it’s deeper than that. The term flourishing could be thought of as something like fulfilling your potential as the type of thing you are. A bird in a cage may be emotionally happy, but it could never flourish without being able to fly.
For humans the answer to flourishing not only includes character virtues, ethical duties toward others, but also to fulfill our rational nature. These ideas of rationality include more than intellectual prowess. A better description would be wisdom, the ability to discern what is true or right. This gives us a more comprehensive understanding of rationality.
Different views on human flourishing
Socrates is famous for his aphorism: The unexamined life is not worth living. He isn’t recommending we should only engage in a private quest for self-reflection. He also thinks reason should be used to control passions, as well as participating in civic duties and working to improve the community.
Civic life was important in Greek society, and we find similar ideas in Aristotle’s ideas of what eudaimonia consists of. In his search for the highest good Aristotle rejects material wealth, the pursuit of honor and sensual pleasures.
Aristotle says wealth can’t be the highest good because it’s only instrumentally good. We use wealth as a means to some other end. Honor can’t be the highest good because it doesn’t depend on our characteristics but on how others perceive us. He rejects sensual pleasure because they aren’t a good which is unique to humans, they’re found even among animals.
Aristotle thinks that reason is the quality which distinguishes humans from animals. He concludes the highest good for a human being is a life lived according to reason and the development of character virtues which help us face universal situations.
He also thinks we need a sufficient level of health, wealth, friends and virtues to flourish as human beings. Our happiness depends on some external circumstances. We can’t flourish under tyranny or poverty for example.
While Aristotle thinks eudaimonia partly depends on our circumstances, the Stoics think happiness is found in ataraxia, being unperturbed or tranquil. Humans become happy when they control their thoughts, emotions, desires and values. This is done by aligning these mental states with the order found in nature. As long as you have a properly functioning mind, you can be happy regardless of your circumstances.
A more modern way of approaching the question was Nietzsche’s idea that happiness is about abandoning values you inherit from your community and affirming your own values. A happy life is one which embraces your fate (amor fati) and savors whatever fortune you have. Happiness is subjective.
There are also philosophical answers which include a religious view of life. These are many and varied. The Buddhist believes the good life is found in the noble eight-fold path of right action.
The various religions with a more personal conception of the ultimate truth believe a relationship with God is the highest good. The path to that ultimate goal is then outlined in certain worship practices appropriate to the context.
While there are many different ideas about what the good life consists of, everyone is searching for the same thing: To be happy, to fulfill their potential, to live well.
This understanding of intrinsic value helps us see past the pursuit of wealth and understand the broader idea of flourishing. We can see our wealth consists of much more than our bank balance. We find it in the things we pursue for their own sake. And we find we already have many of them available to us right now.
We find intrinsic good in things like healthy relationships, physical and mental health and developing character virtues. This allows us to take steps to secure a good life today, regardless of our circumstances.
“Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life.” — Seneca