Sunday, April 16, 2006

An Ethics for Living

To be frank, my utilitarian theoretical views barely impact upon my practical life. This may be just as well, according to indirect utilitarianism, but it leaves open the practical question of how to live. I'm not even much inclined to adopt utilitarianism here at the 'critical' level, and ask what practical attitudes I should have in order to maximize utility. Such issues seem more relevant at the institutional level, as a political or social philosophy. But in first-personal reflection? Impartialist consequentialism doesn't even get a look in.

Some people would see this as a hefty objection, holding that philosophy must always speak to the activity of living. I don't agree with that, since I find inquiry into even purely abstract questions to be rewarding in its own right. Besides, the utilitarianism does inform my political views, etc. Still, it's not the complete story, and so we should want to at least occasionally engage more directly with philosophy for living. (Is this what folk mean when they speak of "philosophy of life"?)

I don't know if there's much by way of principle that can be said here. I mostly tend to just do what I want, or what seems reasonable (they tend to coincide, since I want to be reasonable). Barring such situational 'particularism', I guess the two views that most attract me here are existentialism and virtue ethics. To pull out the cliches: I want to live an authentic life, true to my "self" and my ideals, making choices and seeing them through. I want a life of integrity and honesty, that respects others as best I can, and does more help than harm. I want to flourish as a human being; to pursue excellence, truth, beauty, and knowledge; to know and love others ("the greatest thing you'll ever learn..."); and to make a difference to the world, however minor it may seem in the grand scheme of things.

Last Friday I turned 21, and a friend asked whether it made me feel especially reflective about my life. Perhaps it's having a belated effect. (I realize such reflections risk sounding indulgently facile. So please stop reading if you find all this excessively painful!) In any case, as I related to her, it seems to me that what's really important is living a life whose story you can endorse. (This should come as no surprise to those who've read my old posts on theories of wellbeing. I used to discuss it in terms of 'global preferences', but I think the "story" metaphor is more illuminating.)

Life has a kind of narrative structure to it, I think. There are highs and lows, friendships and betrayals, new chapters, new beginnings, challenges to overcome, etc. Great significance can be found in the smallest details, but insignificant things get swept away. The overall structure is more important than the individual events it comprises. We want the story of our lives to be interesting, original, worthwhile, and something we can be proud of.

(The most remarkable thing is the asymmetry of regret -- at least for me, it seems always to attach to inaction rather than action; missed opportunities rather than bungled mistakes. If you screw up, that's life. If you're paralyzed by fear, that's nothing at all.)

A final thought: I've always thought that personal ethics is much more about character than actions. The fundamental question of an ethics for life is not what to do, but who to be.

So, those are my musings for the moment. I hand over the question to the collective wisdom of the internets: how to live?


  1. I'm usually told that the answer to that question is "well", but I've been doing ok up till now with "poorly" so really I'm not at all sure.

  2. I like the narrative structure idea, and I'd suggest an addition: We should want our lives to have a richness of experience. That is, in addition to a satisfying narrative structure, we should desire to personally experience and learn about what life has to offer, to the greatest extent we possibly can. Though one lifetime is nowhere near enough to see all that there is to be seen, we should drink deeply from the well of life and seek out new situations and adventures with boldness. This reduces the chance of missing an experience we would enjoy, but even beyond that, I think the enriched perception it brings is a happiness all its own.

  3. I think most people are passangers in their own lives. They dont, for the most part, choose how to live their lives just how they interpret what happens.

  4. ie it is not really that you want to live a life like a story that matters any more than you want to be utilitarian except in that your life IS like a story and isnt very utilitarian.

    It is possible for behaviour to be governed more by philosophy I just suggest most people dont get 1/4 of the way there.

    To expect to be able to entirely explain a complex set of habits and short term self serving behaviour with an over arching theory is probably doomed to failure.

  5. Sorry to drop names, but this has a lot of affinity with MacIntyre's work as well as Paul Ricoeur's Oneself as Another!

    I find it helpful sometimes to ask myself questions about "who to be" in this form: What would make sense for me to do in terms of the story I am trying live or have been living out?

    Two criticisms I have of this are:

    A) It is somewhat as stifling as Deontology if one really takes the time to reflect before acting, though it is helpful to interpreting and making sense of one's life.

    B) Although stories provide a structure, they are not necessarily as unified as we like them to be. Is there really the story of "Nedric"? Or is it this story and that story and this other story?

  6. I never read this before. What you say about the 'asymmetry of regret' reminds me of a song lyric by an obscure Australian duo, Derkajam: 'I regret / only / the things that I didn't do'.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.