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Personal Growth

What Makes Someone’s Life Go Best

“How are you?” It’s a question we ask each other every day, almost reflexively, and we rarely pause to think when responding: “Fine, thanks. You?”

Of course, these frequent exchanges are polite greetings or icebreakers, not actual inquiries into each other’s well-being. There’s nothing wrong with that. But we are derelict livers of our lives if we don’t pause once in a while to ask ourselves this important question and think, hard, about how things really are going and whether we should think about making some changes.

Last week, I wrote about Derek Parfit’s philosophical ruminations on personal identity and his conclusion that death becomes less scary when we think differently about who we are. In his book Reasons and Persons, Parfit includes an appendix whose title I have stolen as my headline for this blog post. It seems to promise readers a lot: the key to making “life go best.” Let’s see if he delivers.

Parfit says there are three theories of self-interest that prescribe different answers to this question. Let me briefly outline them:

Theory #1: Hedonism (“How are you feeling?”)

What is best for you, on this first take, is what makes you happiest. It’s an appealingly simple idea: happiness = good; unhappiness = bad. You’re doing well if your ratio of pleasure to pain is positive, doing badly if it’s negative. This way of viewing things has the advantage of matching what we mean by “how are you” most closely. Maybe happiness is all there is to living a good life. Well, here’s the trouble:

Narrow Hedonists assume, falsely, that pleasure and pain are two distinctive kinds of experience. Compare the pleasures of satisfying an intense thirst or lust, listening to music, solving an intellectual problem, reading a tragedy, and knowing that one’s child is happy. These various experiences do not contain any distinctive common quality.

A touch more sophisticated are “Preference Hedonists,” who hold that “all pleasures are, when experienced, wanted, and they are better or greater the more they are wanted.” But this stance is problematic too:

Near the end of his life Freud refused pain-killing drugs, preferring to think in torment than to be confusedly euphoric. Of these two mental states, euphoria is more pleasant. But on Preference-Hedonism thinking in torment was, for Freud, a better mental state.

We might not want to begrudge Freud his dying wish, but it would be downright strange, if not sadistic, to visit him while in great suffering, smile, and say, “Look how well his life is going!”   

So the quality of one’s life may lie in something beyond how we feel, or what we prefer to feel.

Theory #2: Desire-Fulfillment (“How are things going?”)

So let’s try again. There are several variants of this theory that are worth exploring in Parfit’s book. I will simplify. One possibility is the “Unrestricted Theory,” according to which the satisfaction of any and all of your desires adds up to a better life. Here’s the trouble:

Suppose that I meet a stranger who has what is believed to be a fatal disease. My sympathy is aroused, and I strongly want this stranger to be cured. Much later, when I have forgotten our meeting, the stranger is cured. On the Unrestricted Desire-Fulfillment Theory, this event is good for me, and makes my life go better. This is not plausible. We should reject this theory.

It’s true: it seems odd to say your life took a turn for the better because something you once hoped for comes true, and you neither hear the news nor remember once wishing it would come true. But there is another possibility: the “Success Theory,” which “appeals to all of our preferences about our own lives.” Let’s say you want your children to live happy, good lives (leaving aside the infinite regress of what that means, which is the elusive idea we’re searching for in this post). “Suppose,” Parfit writes, “that my children’s lives all go badly only after I am dead. My life turns out to have been a failure, in one of the ways I cared about most. A Success Theorist should claim that, here too, this makes it true that I had a worse life.” But how can a theory about how your life goes continue to collect evidence after your life has ended?

Theory #3: Objective List (“How are you measuring up?”)

That leaves one more lens for considering what it means for your life to go well:

According to this theory, certain things are good or bad for people, whether or not these people would want to have the good things, or to avoid the bad things. The good things might include moral goodness, rational activity, the development of one’s abilities, having children and being a good parent, knowledge, and the awareness of true beauty. The bad things might include being betrayed, manipulated, slandered, deceived, being deprived of liberty or dignity, and enjoying either sadistic pleasure, or aesthetic pleasure in what is in fact ugly. (emphasis added)

Note that some of the items on this list are character traits or habits of mind that are at least partially within your control, while others are purely contingent on happenstance. You have some influence over your “moral goodness” and how you develop your abilities, but you might be slandered or betrayed or manipulated by others unwittingly or against your will. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Objective List approach is wrong, but it is hard to apply.

How does one know what should be on this list? It is like asking, what is the meaning of life? Your personal philosophy or your religious tradition may be helpful in providing you with items to add to your list, but in today’s topsy-turvy moral universe, it’s an even bet whether you have such a ready standard by which to judge your life, and you might be the type of person who floats from tradition to tradition, or who abjures metaphysical or value-laden inquiry altogether. If so, that leads you fromHow are you measuring up?” right back to “How are you feeling?”

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How does Parfit answer his own question? By hedging. “I shall not attempt an answer here,” he writes. But Parfit does offer a thought-provoking closing word on the subject. Perhaps, he muses, “each side in this disagreement saw only half of the truth. Each put forward as sufficient something that was only necessary”:

Pleasure with many other kinds of object has no value. And, if they are entirely devoid of pleasure, there is no value in knowledge, rational activity, love, or the awareness of beauty. What is of value, or is good for someone, is to have both; to be engaged in these activities, and to be strongly wanting to be so engaged.

So there you have it, a possible answer to what makes our lives go best: doing good things, and loving every minute of it. Not bad.

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