What does it mean to live a good life? Writing in The New York Review of Books, the eminent legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin tries his hand at one of the most perplexing questions in all of philosophy. His lucid and thoughtful essay is interesting, rigorous reading.
Why is it so hard to figure out what "living a good life" means? The problem is that "goodness" can mean lots of different things. There are many definitions of goodness - and some of them mutually incompatible.
Many people, for instance, believe that "goodness" means being useful, and that living a good life boils down to doing good deeds. But this simple idea - that goodness equates to usefulness - doesn't sit well with our equally powerful sense that a good deed should be done "for its own sake," and not just because it happens to be useful to somebody. It looks as though there are two ways to live a good life: a practical way, focused on living a life of consequence, and a principled way, focused on things that are good in themselves.
Most of the time, of course, we muddle through, assembling a Frankenlife out of these two kinds of goodness. At other times, though, we actually have to figure out which kind of goodness to prioritize. If you're a young person graduating from college and deciding on a career, this is the kind of distinction that matters to you. Should you pursue a useful career in medicine, or your love of mountaineering? As a doctor you'll do many good deeds; on the other hand, mountaineering, though useless, is worth doing for its own sake.
Faced with this dilemma, you might throw up your hands, deciding (very unphilosophically) that it doesn't matter - that they're both perfectly good lives. That's true - but it'd still be nice to know which one is better! As Dworkin points out, you only live once, and you have to be careful with your choices. "We are charged to live well," he writes, "by the bare fact of our existence as self-conscious creatures with lives to lead. We are charged in the way we are charged by the value of anything entrusted to our care."
Dworkin argues that, to the extent that you get confused about these two kinds of good lives, you're getting needlessly confused. The point, he writes, isn't what you do, but how you do it. Life is a performance, not a product. He points out that we value the same things in life that we value in an artistic performance: "spontaneity, style, authenticity, and daring." Whatever idea of the good you choose to pursue, the important thing is that you pursued it. And that's a good thing, since many of our best-laid plans come to nothing. Even if you don't succeed in doing good deeds (inventing new therapies, say) or in pursuing something for its own sake (like writing poetry), you still tried: part of living a good life means "setting oneself difficult or even impossible projects."
It might seem odd for Dworkin to be writing about the meaning of life - normally he writes about the Constitution and jurisprudence. This essay, though, is actually an extract from his new book, Justice for Hedgehogs, which "argues that value in all its forms is one big thing: that what truth is, life means, morality requires, and justice demands are different aspects of the same large question." His thoughts here dovetail with the other ideas he has to offer in ethics, epistemology, and jurisprudence. You can read a great summary of the book at Persuasive Authorities.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.