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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The importance of asking what it means to lead a good life

<ossession of wealth, power, and status does not equate to the possession of a good life. These things are valuable to the extent that they provide us with the opportunity to lead a good life, and yet continually we see those possessed of all three of these advantages squander this opportunity. This, it would seem to me, poses for us a serious problem. The resolution of what we see as the primary injustice of the world around us - poverty, inequality, and favoritism - still leaves our species in a position where, collectively possessed of equal wealth, power, and voice, we might still be at a loss as to how to pursue a good, meaningful life. This is not to say working for the equal opportunity of all is a goal unworthy of pursuit, but rather that it must be understood as a means to the ultimate end of providing a good life for each and every human being, which itself might require the provision of more than just material, political, and social goods.

So what is it, then, that is sufficient for the leading of a good life? The only answer I could imagine giving to this question is “wisdom”. Wisdom, here, we can take to be highly accurate knowledge of human being, and that which is good for it, coupled with a predisposition to think, feel, and act in ways in accordance with this knowledge. Note that knowing what it is to be good is not the same as being wise; an individual could excel in such knowledge and yet still fail to be good. That being said, inquiring into what it is to be good nevertheless seems like a good first step to take for anybody concerned with either leading a good life or helping others to do so.

Such inquiry, with it’s labyrinth-like potential to disorient, confuse, and disorder, necessitates guides well versed with its obscure and twisting alleyways. However this poses a problem for us: whom and what we can take as a guide, which will lead us forwards and which back, is not entirely clear. What’s worse is that by taking no guide, and essentially refusing to inquire into what is good for human beings, we still don’t avoid the possibility of error. This is because we all inevitably have, form and impose upon one another conceptions what is important and valuable – this is an unavoidable fact of human life – and so not making a conscious effort to understand these ideas of ours or revise them in no way preserves us from error.

While there was little fear among the educated in centuries past of asking and posing answers to this question of “what is good”, we now hesitate to incorporate issues of value into any kind of intellectual endeavor, for fear of their potential to compromise our objectivity. Accordingly, we are trained to approach our world in an analytic way, and to ask certain kinds of questions about it (e.g. “How is this phenomena located in space and time?”, “What kinds of assumptions underlie my understanding of this”). While this critical process is undoubtedly useful, I don’t think it’s benefits are fully realized until it is applied in the service of a larger approach to life, one that involves asking different kinds of questions (e.g. “What does this mean for us?”, or “Why?”). Because of this, I think the two have to be wed – our goal as thinkers has to be not just to think critically, but to think critically about issues of fundamental importance to ourselves and to the world around us. I fear though that if we focus only on training people to think analytically without teaching them to ask bigger questions about human life, we run the risk of communally failing to contemplate this most important of questions – “What is it to lead a good life?” – a question not only important for us to think about as a community of people trying to lead good lives ourselves, but also as people wanting to help others to do the same.

– Peter Berg is a fourth year student.

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