We might describe ethics as the attempt to give a well-argued answer to the question: ‘How should I live?’ The Good Life is about so-called empirically informed ethics. Here is some background.
Traditionally, ethics has been the search for key principles of moral obligation, and for an answer to the question: ‘What should I do?’ A few decades ago, however, ethicists rediscovered Aristotle, who taught us to ask a broader question, namely: ‘What life is worth living?’ or: ‘What kind of person should I be?’ This gave rise to what we know as virtue ethics. Virtue ethics seemed more relevant to the life of real human beings than classical ethics.
Meanwhile, various developments in evolutionary, developmental, social and cognitive psychology – with themes such as emotion, unconscious mental processes, environmental triggers, cognitive bias, self-deception, or our kinship with other primates, to name just a few – challenged a long philosophical tradition of thinking about human nature.
Apparently, human behaviour wasn’t governed by reason so much as by the ‘passions’ - as another great thinker, David Hume, had already claimed. But if our views of human psychology have changed so much, shouldn’t this have consequences for how we do ethics?
It might seem that instead of an ethics for beings that are esentially rational and virtuous, we rather need one for the somewhat sophisticated apes that we really are. However, don’t we humans still have a potential for goodness and excellence – if only we knew how to cultivate it?
This, indeed, is the idea behind so-called positive psychology and happiness research. Informed by our best empirical research, as well as by wisdom from the world’s great spiritual traditions, we – natural beings of incomplete goodness and rationality – can develop methods that enable us to flourish and live happy, healthy, virtuous, and meaningful lives.
At this point, the traditional divide between science and ethics, fact and value, or ‘is’ and ‘ought’ seems no longer very productive. First, it seems that scientific psychology cannot be value-free anyway. And secondly, it seems that ethics had better be ‘empirically informed’ in order to be useful to real human beings.
In The Good Life we read some contemporary sources that seek to achieve this promising cross-fertlization of ethics and psychology. We discuss key ideas from these sources and, in the form of an essay, apply some of these to a real-world situation.