The Good Life in Western Philosophy
The concept of the ‘good life’ is a matter of debate among several philosophers in various philosophical traditions in the world which possess different ideologies, it is also a highly discussed topic among spiritual leaders, religious doctrines and also in the creative fields of the visual arts, poetry as well as in musical melodies. In a layman’s terms, a good life is something which can be considered as a life which is lived in a meaningful manner along with possession of good virtues, that of serving the purpose of propagating happiness and well-being among the fellow species and also in oneself, in order to be perceived as a ‘good’ human being. But, is this what philosophy describes living a good life as, as well? In order to understand the conception of the good life concept in philosophy, let us understand it in a narrower perspective with the Western Philosophical tradition’s ideals regarding a good life.
The Good Life in the Western Philosophical Tradition
The Western Philosophical Tradition considers ethics to be the foundation of the good life. Several philosophers such as Henry Sidgwick are considered as the key torchbearers of laying emphasis on moral philosophy which considers ethics as an important guiding factor for understanding what a good life essentially constitutes to the core. Sidgwick suggests that the nature of moral value, can be conceived into two completely contrasting forms, one based on the notion of right and one based on the notion of good. In the early Greek philosophical tradition, there was more emphasis laid on the good and was considered as a priority by the Greek philosophers and in the modern Western philosophical tradition, there is more emphasis and priority given to the right in understanding ethics. Therefore, understanding the idea of the good and the idea of the right as two different approaches in order to understand what is a good life, also leads us in understanding the foundations of ancient and modern Western philosophical traditions.
Henry Sidgwick considers the notion of the right as a basic concept in order to conceive ethics. According to him, the notion of the right helps one understand the idea of authority, power, rules, dictatorship, norms in terms of the subsequent conduct that needs to be maintained upon observing the former ideals as expressed by important figures in one’s life. Whereas, on the other hand, the idea of the good is considered as more basic by Sidgwick in order to approach the concept of ethics as a guiding factor of a good life. If one approaches the notion of the good rather than that of the notion of the right, then the nature of ethics, or what Sidgwick terms as ‘the moral ideal’ seems to become attractive rather than authoritative as seen in the notion of the right. Therefore, if one has to make basic distinctions between both of these notions, then the notion of the right makes one understand what is binding or necessary in a compulsive sense for him to observe as an individual, which leads him to make a clear distinction between his wants, desires and his urgent needs and the notion of the good emphasizes upon the fact what would an individual be concerned in attaining or achieving if he were informed sufficiently earlier in terms of what his desires are.
The notion of the ‘right’ is considered as fundamental in guiding human behaviour towards ethics and the notion of the ‘good’ is based more on what the individual engages in terms of his actions, but they should be inclined towards obligatory nature of those actions.
On the other hand, the notion of the ‘good’ is considered as fundamental when the notion of the ‘right’ emphasizes upon what the individual is bound or is ought to do in his actions in order to successfully gain or attain, what he wants or desires, upon being informed regarding in sufficient prior notice.
Therefore, it can be summarized by stating that the imperative conception of ethics in terms of leading a good life, can make the right prior to the good. On the other hand, the attractive conception of ethics in terms of leading a good life, can make the good prior to the right.
The ‘Notion of the Good Life’ or ‘Virtue Ethics’ of Plato and Aristotle
The orientations in Philosophy of great philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle are more inclined towards an attractive notion of the good. According to both Plato and Aristotle, in order to lead a truly ‘happy’ and ‘meaningful’ life, that which is an aspiration of each human being, is necessarily fulfilled by exercising or practicing morality and a behaviour guided by virtues of the noble and just manners. Therefore, they are more interested in knowing what an individual necessarily desires, so that they can decipher whether he is inclined towards acquiring morality or virtue or not. This exercise of virtue is an intrinsic part of the individual pursuing it, as per Aristotle and Plato. Therefore, if one has to understood Aristotle and Plato’s views in amore comprehensive sense, then it can be stated that they consider morality to be best understood as existing in the self-interest of the individual.
Therefore, according to Plato and Aristotle, there is no inherent ego present within the individual. Therefore, they consider the fact that self-fulfillment or leading a well-fulfilled and meaningful life is necessary by the exercising of virtues. Therefore, if an individual devoid of virtues and virtuous behaviour, is describing his life as ‘good’ and ‘meaningful’, then they are driven of delusion, since it does not within the premise of the notion of the good as perceived by Plato and Aristotle and it is a short-lived happiness, that the individual perceives as long-lasting. Therefore, under the notion of the good, there is an unconditional application of virtues as ethics and which eventually leads to the individual understanding their desires and prioritizing over their purpose and giving perspective to a good life. This notion of the good, is referred to as ‘virtue ethics’ in the modern approach towards it and it is also best described as the teleological approach to good life.
Now, let us understand what does the ‘notion of the right’ essentially constitutes.
Immanuel Kant’s ‘Conscience’ or ‘The Notion of the Right’
According to Immanuel Kant, Aristotle and Plato’s approach to morality and ethics can be considered incomplete, since it does not accommodate the modern approach towards obligations, wherein there are unconditional as well as categorical obligations. Therefore, keeping aside one’s interests and desires and realizing them, there are several obligations which need to be considered be all individuals, regardless of their specific orientation and the fact that they might not be interested in pursuing them at all. Therefore, Kant brings in reason and rationalism in order to understand and progress towards ethics and living a good life. He denies the specific importance given to religion and divinity, when making one understand ethics and virtues. We have encountered the term ‘conscience’ in our lives, upon quite incidences. Conscience basically refers to an individual realizing the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or in a more literal sense, the distinction between the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Similarly, the notion of the right brings in the concept of human reasoning into the realm of conceiving virtues and leading a good life, since it makes the individual engage in certain actions which might be morally bad or evil, but he is bound by responsibility of some or the other kind to perform them. Kant brings in Christian law in order to better understand his conception of the good life through the notion of the right and by comparing it to the Aristotelian approach towards the notion of the good. Christian law considers the fact that unconditional love can be considered as morally virtuous, and it also includes divinity in it by stating that morality is best understood by following God’s footsteps. Since God is the ultimate authority who has a perfect understanding of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’, and if he considers whatever the individual considers as ‘good’ to be ‘evil’, then it might actually be evil in nature. But, at the same time it also accommodates the notion of the right by including the concept of ‘disinterested love’. Disinterested love can be understood as a form of love which binds you as an individual to a relationship, to which you have committed your attention, inclination, emotions, importance and essentially your entire life. Therefore, eventually even if it does not interest or excite you in the same manner as it used to during its initiation, you are morally bound to stay in it and keep loving the person in the usual manner.
Kantian thought of considering good by approaching the right through reasoning can be observed in the economic ideal of utilitarianism as well. Utilitarianism focuses upon the utilization of those resources and technology which can be considered as ‘rightful’ in boosting productivity of the organization or firm and not those which are considered of ‘good quality’, ‘good performance’ or ‘good price’. Similarly, even consequentialism is based on the notion of the right. It considers an action as right, if it brings out the good in an overall sense.
Therefore, the notion of the right focuses more on the opinion that an individual is inclined towards reasoning in defining what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ for him by applying his conscience. Conscience is based on differentiating the good from the bad, but is not an accurate representation of morality, in its true philosophical perspective.