What are the ways that a life can be good? There are three of them
What makes a life good? The question is quite broad, we can admit that. One might answer by listing nice things; a cappuccino at a pleasant café on a Sunday afternoon, a gathering of good friends at the summer cottage and so forth. But there is also a deeper question: What do we mean by good life anyway? Or rather, what are the ways that a life can be good?
This question has haunted me but only when I read Dan Haybron’s book The Pursuit of Unhappiness did I find an answer that would appeal to me. He suggested that there would be essentially three different ways that a life could be good and these dimensions are well-being, morality and aesthetics. Let’s look what is meant by them.
Firstly life can be good simply by feeling good from my point of view. So we could say that a good life is a life that is good for me. A good life is a life that we have a positive feeling about. Some might call this happiness but I feel that it is a too narrow concept. Well-being covers better the broad array of ways through which a life can feel good for a person. In any case, one’s own well-being is a quite straight-forward way through which one’s life can be good.
But we can also say that someone’s life is good from the moral point of view. A certain life can be good disregarding one’s own feelings about it if one has been able to make a positive contribution to the world through one’s actions. Someone might sacrifice his or her own happiness for the sake of others and thus decrease the goodness of that life from the well-being perspective. At the same time, however, that life has reached a certain nobleness as regards morality.
Thirdly, the life of a person can be aesthetically pleasing. We can read a tragic story of someone who suffered immensely within his or her life, did the wrong choices and caused misery to those around him or her. This life might not be good from the well-being perspective nor from the moral perspective. Yet there might still be some aesthetic value in the life; it might demonstrate a certain tragic beauty.
It is easy to see that these three ways to look at good life are independent from each other. The same life can be good within one perspective but lacking in others. We can demonstrate this by looking at four persons, let’s call them Arthur, Bertha, Cecilia and David.
Arthur is an arrogant guy who knows how to make the life pleasant for himself but at the same time doesn’t care at all about the well-being of others. For him others are just instruments to be used for his own pleasures. His life might (although even this can be doubted) be good from the first perspective but bad from the second and indifferent from the third.
Bertha, in turn, has given up everything to fulfill a duty of helping the poor in some remote corner of earth. For her this duty is a heavy burden and she is not really happy out there. In addition, her life might be so repetitious that it doesn’t make an aesthetically pleasing story either. But from the moral point of view we could say that she lived an exemplary life.
Cecilia is then this tragic girl who was born into poverty, was ill most of her life, stole things to come by and even murdered someone under obscure conditions before killing herself after the love of her life abandoned her. Happiness and morality were absent from her life. Yet there might still be some tremendous beauty present in her melancholic life story.
David then is mister Right. He always does the right thing; he has cool hobbies, engaging work, perfect wife and three kids to be proud of. In addition, he is friendly towards everybody, does voluntary work in some NGO and helps the poorer kids of the neighborhood to get a good education. His well-being is excellent and his morality intact. But nobody wants to make a movie out of his life because there is not a single flaw in it that would make it interesting. Aesthetically, his life is boring.
The question about good life is the most fundamental question that a human being can ask. When you ask it the next time remember that there are three different ways to answer it. What dimension is your strength and what is your weakness?
Is there a dimension that is missing from here? How do these three dimensions resonate with your life? Share your comment!
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