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conceptuality of a good life
june 2010


The 5 topical areas listed are heuristic. They name my grouping of many themes into those topic areas. The integration I’m seeking—an holistic sense of generativity—will develop through each area, yet especially in a sense of so-called “flourishing.”


Living brightly: self-determining efficacy
Good sense of holistic well-being
Living fruitfully

Believe it or not, I value plainspoken expression, though I write otherwise. I’m venturing toward discursive inquiries and integrations; so, my conceptual prospecting plays to that horizon.

There’s no such thing as the good life; merely good [enough] lives. The conceptuality of a good life [“enough” will remain implicit] would exemplify the value of conceptual prospecting relative to lives considered “good.” “Conceptuality of a good life” expresses the value of seeking general features of our plurality. Presuming a good sense of ‘good’ (which I’ll address shortly), what general understanding about the plurality of good lives might be tenable? I expect my discussions to exemplify many general features of good lives, but also in an obviously individualized way.

Subjectivism is a risk in conceptual inquiry just as it is in lives. Prospecting is proposal. My venture is part of a learning process made public. Though I’m quite aware of subjectivism, learning never ends. (I date my pages not to mark a milestone, but the current version.) In this regard, I might focus on David Sobel’s recent essay for Ethics, “Subjectivism and Idealization,” which is nearby (and I’ll discuss it later). Any exemplarity in my prospecting belongs to your assessment of insightfulness here (i.e., the site generally) and usefulness for your own understanding.

There’s a legacy of thinking about good lives (classically in terms of the “Good life”) that can counter risks of self-possession, inasmuch as prospecting validly enowns that legacy, but (to my mind) for the sake of thinking about our plurality of good lives in general terms (i.e., theorizing plurality) relative to recent work in “positive psychology,” literary philosophy, and “art.”

What’s “good”?

Questioning the concept of goodness is as old as philosophy, but now antedated by theory of value. We know what “good” is: It’s what deserves the modifier ‘good.’ Goods are “things” which are desirable, worthwhile, worthy, commendable, better than B, better for X, etc. “Good” is that which deserves one of the meanings of ‘good’ in a standard dictionary, the lexical sense(s) of ‘good.’ The many senses of ‘good’ in Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged online can be usefully divided into attributive valuation (favoring, fitting, appealing, sufficient, valid, satisfactory) and exemplary valuation (admirable, respectable, capable).

I endorse the baseline sense of ‘good’ that Mark Schroeder advocates at the end of his essay for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on “value theory” (2010). In short, the best baseline sense of ‘good’ is a formulation of being “better for” or “better than,” relative to other available options.

If being a good K is just being a better K than most (in some comparison class), and “it would be good if p” just means that p’s obtaining is a good state of affairs, and value claims like “pleasure is good” just mean that, other things being equal, it is better for there to be more pleasure, then [the] pair of accounts [that Schroeder has just explicated near the end of his article, sec. 3.2.4] has the right structure to account for the full range of “good” claims that we have encountered.

Starting with such a baseline sense of ‘good,’ common senses (lexically-correlative instances or tokens) in everyday life can be usefully understood to presume or build on the baseline, relative to contextual features: individual preferences, cultural values, ethnic engagements, etc., which implicitly determine intuited (or pre-reflective) senses of private and public “goods.”

I’m developing a bioethical approach to “good” which has no concise synopsis yet, but includes an elaborated and deepened sense of Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness (2001); an ontogenic notion of empathy cognizant of recent work on “emotional intelligence”; Michael Slote’s sense of ethical care (and, I anticipate, his sense of “natural value”); Harry Frankfurt’s ethics; Michael Bratman’s “planning” theory of action; and J. David Velleman’s sense of practical reason. All of this winds me into questions of our increasingly self-designing bioethos.

For joyous, beautiful living

Living well is not a state of being (and happiness can be more than an ephemeral ambiance). Rather, to my mind, the rubric “living well” stands for all the specifics that unwittingly (unto themselves) make one’s living go well.

More than homeostatically being well, we want to keep enactively going well, growing well (even in elderly years). We want generativity—the more commonly elating, the better—not homeostasis; or so I will argue. The freedom or integrity of one’s own long-term well-being that I mentioned earlier is an issue of enactivity and its promise of fulfillment.

Yet “living well” (even “growing well”) is just a baseline to many lives that aspire for great fruits of excellence that leave a legacy. I want to conceptualize a good life relative to high-aspirational idealization.

Later, I’ll prospect the notion of happiness philosophically, in terms of some recent work of others. (There surely are enough recent books on happiness to give one choices.) Thinking about “happiness” has become big business because a pursuit of happiness, in some sense of the notion, is basic to our nature. Everyone idealizes a possibly rich sense of happiness. The notion is fundamental to positive psychology, to ethics, to value theory, to all the academic humanities, to health care, to our careers, marriage, family, and culture. It’s very easy to defend the claim that desiring “happiness”—in some sense—is integral to every sense of a “good” life. For any life, some sense of “happiness” is found intrinsically appealing.

Seeking the best in our humanity

What is being-human at best? What’s the “nature” of human potential for distinguished individuation? What are excellent conditions for furthering excellence? What might be a good horizon of ethical exemplarity?

It’s natural to aspire, to idealize, to seek excellence, and to welcome admiration and influence. For evolutionary reasons, I would argue, wanting to embody ideality is intrinsic and integral to our nature, shown by brightly living exemplars of fruitfully purposive lives that everyone highly admires.

We want a world where our sense of humanity is commonly “high.” I want to explicate how a high sense of humanity may become integral to one’s identity, even understood as intrinsic to our nature. I want to proffer a sense of high individuation that understands “ethical” life as derivative of Self interest in one’s humanity.

There are protean lives by which to give actual sense to the living of a life as high individuation. Such lives are not only highly admirable, but a good sense of postconventional” identity (which protean identities exemplarily ground), beyond standardly-understood “ethical” life, can provide a very good sense of humanitarian care, such as we associate with supererogation, deriving (I conjecture) from an aspiration to embody the best in our humanity. (The natural appeal of the best in our humanity—appropriately detailed—might provide an adequate basis for understanding our intuited good reason for regulatory constraint which is standardly called “moral.” I’ll pursue this further relative to Michael Slote’s new Moral Sentimentalism).

Seeking to understand human nature relative to idealizing lives has a generative appeal for understanding how a life may be better than otherwise, as the aspiration for bettering one’s life is integral to our cultural histories. The hallmark of this aspiration is individuation of human potential, generally as a matter of how we diversify most creatively, most fruitfully, and what we may exemplify, at best.

Howard Gardner made a career of accessibly showing how extraordinary lives model the potentials of human development that belong to us all, to our nature. One doesn’t have to endorse a full-dress virtue ethics (Slote’s “agent-based” ethics doesn’t) to strongly identify with Classical Greek aspiration for excellence, in terms of aretaic values “like ‘morally good,’ ‘admirable,’ ‘virtuous’” (Slote, Morals from Motives, 4) that can be given a basis in our cultural evolution (I will argue). The awful legacy of “aristocracy” is not due to aspiring to genuinely actualize the best (aristo) in our humanity that continues to make aristocratic life so fascinating for general culture (which is also avaricious, but...). Classical aspirations for high humanity were reborn in the humanism of the Italian and northwest European Renaissances (leading to the Enlightenments), which have evolved into modern humanisms and the wealth of humanities, as well as being keynotes of peak eras of modern society (commonly identified with portions of great cities).

elderly happiness

The Baby Boomers in the U.S. will have their day of prevailing “elder culture,” which will fade away. But population is declining in highly-developed societies, as the living live longer; the old are becoming a prevailing feature where immigration isn’t high. Rise in quality of life decreases rate of population growth while progress in health care will continue to shift the bell curve of prevailing age.

How will we continue to love the days when biomedical progress gives us longevity commonly beyond a century? What happens in earlier decades that keeps life lovely a long, long time? We know what physical health factors contribute to physical longevity; but what ensures that life stays engaging “forever”? (We also know how important mental thriving is to physical longevity.)

Our nature belongs to our living lifespan (not basically a homeostasis of presence) relative to our time. We all get old (become “seniors”), of course; but what about a sense of elderhood relative to some sense of our contemporary humanity, seeking to embody an elderliness of our kind?

Such is the heart of philosophy, perhaps: to want to embody the elderhood of our time (now so academic—so manifoldly specialized). Can inquiry embody the elderhood of our kind well enough to be useful? It would be some discursive contemporaneity of our evolving.

Given that we’re ultimately mysteries, one has to ultimately fail, inasmuch as evolving belongs to humanity, not discourse that partially comprehends it and may contribute to our general self-understanding.

At least the endeavor to gain a comprehensive comprehension may be useful, transforming my self-understanding insightfully, for my sake—maybe exemplarily; but that’s not for me to assess. Wanting to express our evolving cognitivity as such (which would have to be philosophically post-metaphysicalist) might be admirable; but succeeding may be impossible.

Yet, the venture!

living well




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