On a Life Well Lived

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 29, 2011

Ronald Dworkin opines. Some key passages:

We have a responsibility to live well, and the importance of living well accounts for the value of having a critically good life. These are no doubt controversial ethical judgments. I also make controversial ethical judgments in any view I take about which lives are good or well-lived. In my own view, someone who leads a boring, conventional life without close friendships or challenges or achievements, marking time to his grave, has not had a good life, even if he thinks he has and even if he has thoroughly enjoyed the life he has had. If you agree, we cannot explain why he should regret this simply by calling attention to pleasures missed: there may have been no pleasures missed, and in any case there is nothing to miss now. We must suppose that he has failed at something: failed in his responsibilities for living.

[. . .]

We may count a life’s positive impact—the way the world itself is better because that life was lived—as its product value. Aristotle thought that a good life is one spent in contemplation, exercising reason, and acquiring knowledge; Plato that the good life is a harmonious life achieved through order and balance. Neither of these ancient ideas requires that a wonderful life have any impact at all. Most people’s opinions, so far as these are self-conscious and articulate, ignore impact in the same way. Many of them think that a life devoted to the love of a god or gods is the finest life to lead, and a great many including many who do not share that opinion think the same of a life lived in inherited traditions and steeped in the satisfactions of conviviality, friendship, and family. All these lives have, for most people who want them, subjective value: they bring satisfaction. But so far as we think them objectively good—so far as it would make sense to want to find satisfaction in such lives—it is the performance rather than the product value of living that way that counts.

Philosophers used to speculate about what they called the meaning of life. (That is now the job of mystics and comedians.) It is difficult to find enough product value in most people’s lives to suppose that they have meaning through their impact. Yes, but if it were not for some lives, penicillin would not have been discovered so soon and King Lear would never have been written. Still, if we measure a life’s value by its consequence, all but a few lives would have no value, and the great value of some other lives—of a carpenter who pounded nails into a playhouse on the Thames—would be only accidental. On any plausible view of what is truly wonderful in almost any human life, impact hardly comes into the story at all.

If we want to make sense of a life having meaning, we must take up the Romantics’ analogy. We find it natural to say that an artist gives meaning to his raw materials and that a pianist gives fresh meaning to what he plays. We can think of living well as giving meaning—ethical meaning, if we want a name—to a life. That is the only kind of meaning in life that can stand up to the fact and fear of death. Does all that strike you as silly? Just sentimental? When you do something smaller well—play a tune or a part or a hand, throw a curve or a compliment, make a chair or a sonnet or love—your satisfaction is complete in itself. Those are achievements within life. Why can’t a life also be an achievement complete in itself, with its own value in the art in living it displays?

One qualification. I said that living well includes striving for a good life, but that is not necessarily a matter of minimizing the chances of a bad one. In fact many traits of character we value are not best calculated to produce what we independently judge to be the best available life. We value spontaneity, style, authenticity, and daring: setting oneself difficult or even impossible projects. We might be tempted to collapse the two ideas by saying that developing and exercising these traits and virtues are part of what makes a life good.

But that seems too reductive. If we know that someone now in poverty courted that poverty by choosing an ambitious but risky career, we may well think that he was right to run that risk. He may have done a better job of living by striving for an unlikely but magnificent success. An artist who could be comfortably admired and prosperous—Seurat, if a name helps—strikes out in an entirely new direction that will isolate and impoverish him, requires immersion in his work to the cost of his marriage and friendships, and may well not succeed even artistically. If it does succeed, moreover, the success is unlikely to be recognized, as in Seurat’s case, until after his death. We may want to say: if he pulls it off, he will have had a better life, even taking account of the terrible costs, than if he had not tried, because even an unrecognized great achievement makes a life a good one.

But suppose it doesn’t come off; what he produces, though novel, is of less merit than the more conventional work he would otherwise have painted. We might think, if we value daring very highly as a virtue, that even in retrospect he made the right choice. It didn’t work out, and his life was worse than if he had never tried. But he was right, all things ethically considered, to try. This is, I agree, an outré example: starving geniuses make good philosophical copy, but they are not thick on the ground. We can replicate the example in a hundred more commonplace ways, however—entrepreneurs pursuing risky but dramatic inventions, for instance, or skiers pressing the envelope of danger. But whether we are ourselves drawn to think that living well sometimes means choosing what is likely to be a worse life, we must recognize the possibility that it does. Living well is not the same as maximizing the chance of producing the best possible life. The complexity of ethics matches the complexity of morality.

It would be wrong to be content with a summary of what Dworkin seems to be arguing; read the whole thing. But my takeaway from his article is that he is asking us to live memorable lives if possible, but to certainly live worthy lives. We may get into arguments over the particulars, but it’s not bad advice, even if it is somewhat banal advice.

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