My philosophy discussion group has been pursuing the topic of what constitutes a good life. We started our quest with a look at ethics and moral philosophy. Wow. In case you’re wondering, there are no real answers in the realm of moral philosophy, even fewer answers than in other fields of philosophy, if that’s possible! Is morality something that is universal, with certain moral “rights” that transcend individual societies and cultures, or is morality relative? And if there really is such a thing as universal human rights, which many of us would like to believe, then how come agreements on what constitutes morality change with history even within one culture? See, no real answers.
But I did come across an essay from 2 years ago that I think does a great job of addressing our group’s original question of what constitutes a good life. This essay, entitled The good-enough life: the desire for greatness can be an obstacle to our own potential, by Avram Alpert, suggests that we do ourselves a big disservice by expecting too much of ourselves, as if life is a competition. He posits that, just as our philosophy group has been realizing from our frustrating pursuit of absolute answers to moral questions, trying to please everyone all the time just can’t work. Your definition of “best” isn’t necessarily someone else’s definition of “best”. And that’s all right!
Alpert’s thoughts are worth sharing, and his essay says it a lot better than I could. With that, I’m going to share its highlights with you.
The desire for greatness … unites the diverse philosophical camps of Western ethics. Aristotle called for practicing the highest virtue. Kant believed in an ethical rule so stringent not even he thought it was achievable by mortals. Bentham’s utilitarianism is about maximizing happiness. Marx sought the great world for all. Modern-day libertarians will stop at nothing to increase personal freedom and profit. These differences surely matter, but while the definition of greatness changes, greatness itself is sought by each in his own way.
Swimming against the tide of greatness is a counter-history of ethics embodied by schools of thought as diverse as Buddhism, Romanticism and psychoanalysis. … To fully become good enough is to grow up into a world that is itself good enough, that is as full of care and love as it is suffering and frustration.
In this radical vision of the good enough life [as opposed to the unobtainable great life], our task is not to make the perfect human society, but rather a good enough world in which each of us has sufficient (but never too many) resources to handle our encounters with the inevitable sufferings of a world full of chance and complexity.
Being good enough is not easy. It takes a tremendous amount of work to smile purely while waiting, exhausted, in a grocery line. Or to be good enough to loved ones to both support them and allow them to experience frustration. And it remains to be seen if we as a society can establish a good-enough relation to one another, where individuals and nations do not strive for their unique greatness, but rather work together to create the conditions of decency necessary for all.
Achieving this will also require us to develop a good enough relation to our natural world, one in which we recognize both the abundance and the limitations of the planet we share with infinite other life forms, each seeking its own path toward good-enoughness. If we do manage any of these things, it will not be because we have achieved greatness, but because we have recognized that none of them are achievable until greatness itself is forgotten.
I don’t know about you, but I find more comfort in this approach to living than in striving to be better than someone else (or have more than someone else) for no apparent reason. Let’s find happiness in our good-enough lives. And let’s support others in achieving theirs.