Everyone wants to live the good life, although people differ in opinion as to what it is. In the modern age most people have come to think of the good life as a happy life (although this was not always the case). And in capitalist societies happiness has become linked to possessing money and goods.
I have argued previously that striving towards happiness is a bad idea, since people can’t accurately predict what will make them happy. Obviously there is no need to go over that again. Instead I would like to focus on the manufactured wants that cause people to associate money and goods with happiness (falsely). Why can’t a poor person be as happy as a rich person? Most people will say that it is because the poor person can’t have all the things they want. But assuming that the poor person has what they need why should they want anything money can buy? Well they don’t necessarily have to want anything, but society does its best to give people these desires, which is why they are called manufactured wants.
Manufactured wants are easiest to create in children, and hence easiest to point out, all you need to do is give the child the idea that having some item will be fun (by showing others having fun with it) and the child is likely to desire it. And children are not very discriminating consumers, so this works fairly often. Obviously this strategy doesn’t work as well with adults, since most adults have learned that not everything advertised as enjoyable actually is. To manufacture wants in adults generally the product is portrayed as being necessary to be part of the group. Ads tell people that either not having the product will cause people to shun them, or that having the product will make people like them more. (As an aside I would like to mention that products aren’t always something you can buy, sometimes they are attitudes or lifestyles.) What is insidious about these ads is that to some extent they are true, even if you don’t buy into one of them other people might, and if enough other people do they might really think less of you for not having the product (or think more of you for having it). And since people think that being accepted, being part of the group, will make them happy, and lead to them living the good life, they come to desire the things that they are told too.
Now from the outside looking in the whole process seems rather silly, but because everyone is drawn to be part of society, to some extent, everyone falls for it once in a while. Now there are some steps to avoid having too many manufactured wants. The first is to make sure that your social circle values you for things that are independent of your possessions and wealth (say your skill at writing insightful philosophy pieces). If they don’t then you need to find a new social circle. Second is to evaluate your wants, to determine if what you want will directly make you happy or if it is the fact of having it, and knowing that other know you have it, that makes you happy. If it is the second do your best to put it out of your mind. (Remember, this applies to things other than material goods too, like the way you dress, the way you talk, ect.) Still, this is only a partial solution, because in the end we still come back to happiness. But happiness is a poor goal to pursue (because by pursuing it one is unlikely to be happy). The best way out is simply to adopt a different view as to what constitutes the good life.
Although we can argue that a view of the good life that equates it with happiness fails by its own standards (by not leading to happiness) it is hard to argue for some view of the good life, because to argue for it would require some grounds upon which we can judge it as good or successful, but we can’t, since those very grounds are tied to our conception of the good life. I can think of only two “objective” standards that a view of what a good life is must meet: it must be able to be chosen (it can’t be: one must be taller than six feet), and it must not be self defeating (pursuing the good life can’t lead one to the failure to obtain it, the problem with defining the good life as a happy one). I admit that many definitions of what the good life is may meet these requirements, but I propose that we view the good life as one that meets its own goals. Goals of course can be anything, but I suspect the best ones are to accomplish things that outlive the individual. This encompasses a lot: works of art, inventions, advances in science, ect (does not include: being the best at something, having children, ect). And the good life does not necessitate making those goals one’s only focus, even if you wish to write a novel it doesn’t mean that you have to be a full time writer, one can meet their goals without devoting all their time to them.
We all have some vision of what the good life should look like. Days filled with reading and strolls through museums, retirement to a tropical island, unlimited amounts of time for video games…. Whatever they may be, our concepts tend toward fantasy of the grass is greener variety. But what would it mean to live the good life in the here and now, in the life we’re given, with all its warts, routines, and daily obligations? Though the work of philosophers for the past hundred years or so may seem divorced from mundane concerns and desires, this was not always so. Thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Nietzsche once made the question of the good life central to their philosophy. In the videos here, University of New Orleans philosophy professor Chris Surprenant surveys these four philosophers’ views on that most consequential subject.
The view we’re likely most familiar with comes from Socrates (as imagined by Plato), who, while on trial for corrupting the youth, tells his inquisitors, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Pithy enough for a Twitter bio, the statement itself may too often go unexamined. Socrates does not endorse a life of private self-reflection; he means that “an individual become a master of himself,” says Surprenant,”using his reason to reign in his passions, as well as doing what he can to help promote the stability of his community.” In typical ancient Greek fashion, Plato and his mentor Socrates define the good life in terms of reasonable restraint and civic duty.
The Platonic version of the good life comes in for a thorough drubbing at the hands of Friedrich Nietzsche, as do Aristotelian, Kantian, and Judeo-Christian ideals. Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead,” and in particular the Christian god, “allows us the possibility of living more meaningful and fulfilling lives,” Surprenant says. Nietzsche, who describes himself as an “amoralist,” uses the proposed death of god---a metaphor for the loss of religious and metaphysical authority governing human behavior---to stage what he calls a “revaluation of values.” His critique of conventional morality pits what he calls life-denying values of self-restraint, democracy, and compassion (“slave morality”) against life-affirming values.
For Nietzsche, life is best affirmed by a striving for individual excellence that he identified with an idealized aristocracy. But before we begin thinking that his definition of the good life might accord well with, say, Ayn Rand’s, we should attend to the thread of skepticism that runs throughout all his work. Despite his contempt for traditional morality, Nietzsche did not seek to replace it with universal prescriptions, but rather to undermine our confidence in all such notions of universality. As Surprenant points out, “Nietzsche is not looking for followers,” but rather attempting to “disrupt old conceptual schemes,” in order to encourage us to think for ourselves and, as much as it’s possible, embrace the hand we’re dealt in life.
For contrast and comparison, see Surprenant’s summaries of Aristotle and Kant’s views above and below. This series of animated videos comes to us from Wireless Philosophy (Wi-Phi for short), a project jointly created by Yale and MIT in 2013. We’ve previously featured video series on metaphysical problems like free will and the existence of god and logical problems like common cognitive biases. The series here on the good life should give you plenty to reflect on, and to study should you decide to take up the challenge and read some of the philosophical arguments about the good life for yourself, if only to refute them and come up with your own. But as the short videos here should make clear, thinking rigorously about the question will likely force us to seriously re-examine our comfortable illusions.
For many more open access philosophy videos, check out the Wi Phi Youtube channel. You can also find complete courses by Prof. Surprenant in our collection of Free Online Philosophy Courses.
105 Animated Philosophy Videos from Wireless Philosophy: A Project Sponsored by Yale, MIT, Duke & More
135 Free Philosophy eBooks
How to Live a Good Life? Watch Philosophy Animations Narrated by Stephen Fry on Aristotle, Ayn Rand, Max Weber & More
Learn Right From Wrong with Oxford’s Free Course A Romp Through Ethics for Complete Beginners
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness