This term the philosophy discussion group I belong to has been exploring what it means to lead a good life, or at least that’s our intended theme. Mostly we try to decipher the convoluted writing of the author of the book we’re following. The defining features of this particular author’s writing are, in my humble opinion: (1) why use 5 words when 500 would challenge his readers so much more effectively; (2) why use 1- and 2-syllable words when 4- or 5-syllable words would ensure his meaning is as difficult to grasp as possible; and, (3) all other philosophers throughout the millennia have been mistaken in their approaches to ethical theory, and his job is to tell you why. Perhaps by the end of the book he’ll enlighten us as to what he believes leading an ethical life really means, although I’m not sure I’ll be able to understand it if and when he does!
While I’m waiting to find out, I’ve spent some time reading more readable, constructive articles on the subject … and of course also googling the topic, one of my favourite pastimes. One of the recent books I’ve been exploring for enlightenment is about evolutionary ethics. The underlying idea of evolutionary ethics is that human beings evolved to be social beings, to live together in societies cooperatively. Clearly, there was (and still is) an evolutionary advantage to living cooperatively in hunter-gather societies. If you don’t work together – and if you don’t share – you’re not as likely to survive. Hence, cooperative societies.
I like that message, in fact I love that message. It’s saying that our genes predispose us to cooperate with all members of our communities for the betterment of everyone. So the question becomes: why does this seem to be so difficult for so many people, or at least why is it so difficult to scale up that feeling of cooperation to larger, more diverse communities? Why is it so difficult to put the good of others ahead of, or at least on a par with, our own self-interest? Our failure to do so is on display all around us.
Not that everyone should follow in Mother Theresa’s footsteps, but how do we as a society encourage more kindness to strangers? Or even more kindness to non-strangers? Every major religion in the world promotes some version of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Why is acting on this well-known principle of ethical living so difficult for so many people, including many of our leaders? Do we just need to slow down and take the time to realize that there is value for each of us individually in reaching out and helping others, not just value for the recipients? Making sure we take care of our own self-interest is in our genes for sure; it’s our survival, after all. But so is working cooperatively with others to make sure that our society survives and thrives.
An impressive blog I follow called Fun with Philosophy – written by a 16-year old young woman – had a post earlier this week that considered how to reconcile looking out for #1 with helping others. The post is called ‘Why do we really do random acts of kindness?’ In her post she quoted a teacher she had had who had given her some advice that stayed with her:
… my very wise teacher told me – we should operate from happiness, and not for happiness, and treat people with no expectations of being treated the same. Spread love. Don’t always do it for them – do it because that’s who you are!
Heeding that wise advice allowed her to benefit from overcoming the very human expectation that every good act should be reciprocated and feeling hard done by when it isn’t. We have to get past that feeling in order to experience the joy that comes from helping others just for its own sake. That’s an important step in living a good life and helping ensure a healthy society.
My suspicion is that by the end the book our philosophy group is labouring through the author will have provided no truly meaningful insights into the question of what constitutes a good life. Meanwhile, my 16-year old fellow blogger, Saania, has figured it out pretty darn well, thank you very much. Bravo, Saania!
Postscript. Yes, our philosophy group is meeting in COVID-safe conditions (alternating weeks of Zoom and a socially-distanced meeting room with masks) and, yes, we have a great time arguing about what the author really means. 🙂