Tom Gilson

Ethics and the Good Life

Contemporary ethical theories like that of Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape, Alonzo Fyfe’s desire utiltarianism, and your typical man-in-the-street relativism make human flourishing, the fulfillment of needs and desires, etc. — the “good life,” in other words — their standard for ethics.

In other words, they measure virtue by how it contributes to “the good life.”

There was a time when serious thinkers measured the good life according to how it developed and displayed virtue.

It seems to me the latter approach is richer and deeper. In fact, it seems to me that it’s the best route to “the good life” in both senses of the term.

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6 thoughts on “Ethics and the Good Life

  1. So you prefer virtue ethics over consequentialism. But why? So far your only argument is that virtue ethics seem “richer and deeper,” but what does that even mean?

    I have a request for you: Can you try to keep separate the concept of relativism from the “human flourishing” idea? Please don’t mix them up, because human flourishing is a particular objective thing, and it’s not a matter of personal opinion. Human flourishing is an essential part of human nature, common to everyone. In that sense, it’s an objective basis for morality. This is different from relativism.

  2. How can you evaluate my argument “so far,” John, when there’s no argument at all in this post, just observations and opinions?

    I spoke of two objectivist ethical approaches (Harris’s and Fyfe’s) along with relativism. Thus it’s not true that I equated ethics of human flourishing with relativism. What, was I supposed to name every other objectivist ethical philosophy that’s based on human flourishing, too? (Or were trying to make the point that relativistic ethics are never associated with ideas of human flourishing? I seriously doubt it: it would be far too obviously false.)

    In other words, John, you’re picking misplaced two fights here. Rather bellicose of you, I would say.

    I’d be glad to answer your question in the first paragraph if I thought you meant it seriously.

  3. You might be interested in one of the latest podcasts fom that dealt with ethical schools of thought from the context of the lives and actions of superheroes/ villains. Is Superman an example of someone driven by virtue ethics, deontology, utilitarianism and so on? What about Batman et al? Sounds silly but I think that they used a very accessible medium to get to the heart of otherwise difficult and abstract concepts. There is a bit of geeky stuff throughout, and especially at the start, but I found it to be a rewarding listen.

  4. We have to be a little careful here not to get confused with terminology.

    A central concept in virtue ethics is eudaimonism, which bases virtues in human flourishing. In this instance, human flourishing is to perform one’s distinctive function well.

    Harris’s concept of human flourishing is talking about the flourishing of the human race, in a consequentialist sense.

  5. Thank you for that clarification.

    Harris’s preferred term is actually wellbeing.

    The question these terms raise is indeed a central one; it is the question of the post: what does it mean to experience the good? What is the good for humans? Is it comfort? Safety? Satisfaction? Fulfillment? All of these are good, yet corruptible for evil. All of them are easy to recognize in ourselves when we experience them, but exceedingly complicated to recognize in others. Any of them could be accomplished in one person’s life if the rest of the world cooperated, but the rest of the world competes instead, not just over the experience but over the definition of the experience.

    Thus all of them are good, but none of them defines the good, not individually nor in combination.

    The ancient moral philosophers recognized that too much pursuit of any of these was a bad thing. They were right. This implies that there must be some principle greater than any of these, one that guides and supervises them as it were. For some it was moderation. For others it has been justice, or the cardinal virtues taken together. Either way, when we begin talking about this kind of higher principle we have moved into the realm of virtue.

  6. Another way of looking at virtue ethics is that it is about being (i.e. character), whereas other ethical theories are about doing (i.e. moral duties, achieving good consequences).

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