Thoughtful Thursday: what does leading a good life really mean?

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. 🙂


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30 Responses to Thoughtful Thursday: what does leading a good life really mean?

  1. Hi! Thank you for mentioning my blog, so very kind of you

  2. bernieLynne says:

    I think the meme’s are perfect! That book sounds much less fun than searching for meme’s and other posts on your favourite engine. And yes the bear of little brain had a lot of wise things to say about the world and how it works. In fact probably my favourite philosopher!

  3. barryh says:

    Sounds like your book has led you in the right direction, despite itself. Maybe you don’t need to persevere to the end?!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Lol. We will undoubtedly persevere to the end, because that’s what we do, but bit by bit and taking some side routes. This morning we agreed to take a break from this book and delve further into evolutionary ethics. Phew!

  4. LA says:

    You know I’ve been struggling with the whole karma thing. I love the idea of helping one another, but yet I keep seeing hurdles. On the day I wrote about karma I was waiting in line at the spice store (yes, we have an awesome Indian store that is mainly spices) and I was waiting for the cashier to clean off the area after her last customer and some guy literally barreled into me and ahead of me because he didn’t like that I was waiting patiently for the cashier to be ready. After you’ve been exposed to that type of behavior a few times a day, it’s so easy to stop caring. Agree in the theory completely. Am losing my faith in people though

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Oh dear, LA, sadly, your response is in keeping with everything you’ve been saying about what’s happening in NYC. It makes me so sad; one of the many things I’ve always loved about NYC is how friendly people are to others on the street compared with other big cities. It sounds like the struggles of living through pandemic restrictions have put that trait to rest. I will just hope with all my might that that sense of friendliness will slowly re-emerge once restrictions are no longer necessary. So difficult to live through.

  5. Ah yes the joys of discussion! Jill and I are now discussing your first paragraph here with my view being you are referring to the current book and author while Jill thinks the paragraph refers to all philosophy authors?

  6. Jill davies says:

    Hear hear on KISS! Keep it simple, stupid…. I loved the first paragraph of your post which encapsulates my views on Philosophical writing. I admire your being part of this reading group, I wouldn’t last long….

  7. I am impressed! Not easy to stick with a book that is, ahem, so densely written. But living a good life is an important topic that never gets old.

  8. Great post Jane & the Keep It Simple, Stupid! phrase of decades ago comes to mind here. It’s all really simple, but if we start to think too much about what we do, worry about what others will think etc then we start to hold back, I used to say to my students (re: getting an assignment written) “Just do it”, ie. drop the agonising and come from your centre, be proud of your views etc. And I usually got the assignment pretty soon afterwards. Now I sing in a choir (remotely & on Zoom for the time being) and our choir leader always encourages us to sing out “Loud and proud, strong and wrong” – doesn’t matter if we get it wrong, it’s the doing that’s important. Just meandering from the philosophy a bit here, but you’ll get the gist. Being kind & true can be applied in all walks of life.

  9. Roy McCarthy says:

    As a bear of little brain I have no capacity to think deeply on the subject. For me, all the philosophy ever written can be ignored apart from Dr George Sheehan’s exhortation, “Be a Good Animal.” You probably know him Jane, he wrote beautifully on the deeper meaning of running for running’s sake.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Lol. You don’t fool me, Roy, you’re no bear of little brain (although the real bear of little brain is very endearing). But thanks for the reminder about George Sheehan; I had forgotten about him and his spot-on writings.

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