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July 2, 2008

good lives

Friends returned recently from Alaska, where they had encountered people who prefer to live alone and "off the grid," with as little interaction with the United States as possible. I don't think this is a great form of life. I admire people who provide more service to humanity. Also, I'm not impressed by a way of life that must be denied to most other human beings (for we simply don't have enough space on the planet to allot each family many acres). It's possible that some day we'll all gain benefit from Alaskan survivalists--we may need their special knowledge. But that would make the case easy. Let's keep it hard by presuming that they will never do any practical good for anyone other than themselves.

This example is an opportunity to try to make sense of three premises:

1. Some ways of life are better than others.
2. It takes many types of lives (each with its own prime virtue) to make a livable world; and
3. It's a better world if it contains many different types of character and virtue, rather than a few.

I take 1 as pretty obvious. If you don't agree with me that Alaskan survivalists lead less meritorious lives than hospice workers, you must at least concede that hospice workers are better people than Storm Troopers. It might sound pretentious to assert that some lives are lived better than others. But the alternative is to deny that it makes any difference how we live, and that makes life a joke.

I think 2 is also pretty obvious. If we didn't have people who were committed to practical organizing work and productive labor, we'd starve. If there was no one who was concerned about security (and willing at least to threaten legitimate force on behalf of the community), we'd be in grave danger. Were it not for curious scientists, we would live shorter lives. But what follows from these examples? Not that several different kinds of lives are equally meritorious. Aristotle knew that it took many types of people, including manual laborers and soldiers, to sustain the polis. He nevertheless believed that the life of dispassionate inquiry was the single best life. He could hold these two positions together because he was no moral egalitarian. For him, it did not follow that if we need laborers and soldiers as well as philosophers, therefore all three are equally valuable. Moral egalitarianism is not self-evident or universal, although I certainly endorse it.

One can combine 1 and 2 by saying that there is a list of valuable ways of life, which includes all the necessary roles (e.g., producers, protectors, healers) plus some that have less practical advantages: for example, artists and abstract thinkers. This is a limited kind of pluralism. It supports moral distinctions but admits more than one type of goodness.

I'm inclined to go further and say that the world is better if it includes forms of life that are neither essential nor intrinsically meritorious. Our environment is simply more interesting if it contains Alaskan survivalists as well as productive farmers and cancer researchers. Thus I would propose that an individual who goes off the grid is probably not leading the best possible life for him; yet it is better that some people do this than that none do.

July 2, 2008 10:18 AM | category: philosophy | Comments


Good post. It makes sense.

I think the world is relatively a better place than it was 20 years ago. I also think it is a more secure place. The reason I think it is better and more secure is because it is a world full of different things happening at once. My thinking is that the more complex the world is the better it works and is.

The more things that happen in the world simultaneously and the more competing interests there are the better prospects for democracy. Democracy is about serving many masters at once, on an equalitarian basis. So the more masters democracy has demanding of it the better it works because all those demanding interest keep it growing, vital and as legitimate as possible. The more players the better, since that keeps democracy accountably and forever renewing and adding to itself.

I keep going back to 9/11. In an earlier time such an attack on a nation would have provoked a world war. This time it didn't. It didn't because the world, with all its coinciding activities, had grown extremely interdependent and nobody wanted to upset that interdependence or the networking the world had establish. Each demand and fulfillment that has occurred between nations acts like a layering of the cake and each layer adds an additional immunity to all out conflict. The world essentially has reached a point where there is just to much to loose - civilization wise, for the sake of starting a major fight. Now that's progress.

July 2, 2008 2:13 PM | Comments (3) | posted by airth10

OK, I'm not actually a libertarian, but something like this gets my hackles up a little. Isn't it a little egotistical to judge whether or not people--especially people not in your community, whom you don't know very much about--are living the best possible lives for themselves?

I realize that we all do this from time to time ("Tsk tsk, he should have broken up with her months ago"), but this seems a little much.

July 2, 2008 3:34 PM | Comments (3) | posted by Meelar

It's a good point (Meelar) that one should be very careful about judging people one doesn't know. I haven't even visited Alaska, let alone interviewed survivalists to find out about their lives and values. I do, however, believe that one should make moral comparisons among the various forms of life that one does know. They are not all equal, and to evaluate them is a fundamental responsibility.

July 3, 2008 9:46 AM | Comments (3) | posted by Peter Levine

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