Thursday, October 22, 2009

Drawing the Good Life

This week in class we approached our investigation of the good life in a new way: we decided to draw the good life. I must admit, I hadn't actually sat down to draw in a long time--it was fun! I was also struck by the "openness" of the class. Class members stood up and shared their drawing with everyone else, discussing hopes and dreams. That is not always easy to do. So, thanks to all of you for being so willing to share in class.

But, I think there is some basic philosophical importance in our drawing activity as well. At the end of class we started to think about this: did our drawings of the good life "match up" with any of the philosophical theories we have read (the ethical theories of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Mill, or Rand)? For example, perhaps Nakia's drawing of donating to St. Jude's relates to Aristotle's virtuous action. Or, perhaps drawings centering on successful careers relates to Ayn Rand's "self-interest." These are just possible examples of drawings "matching up" with a philosophical theory.

Now, think about your own drawing and the philosophers we have read. If you were to match your drawing to one of theories we have discussed which would it be (such as Mill on creating the "greatest happiness for all", Rand's "self-interest", Socrates' virtue, or Aristotle's focus on virtuous action)? As best as you can, explain why you see a connection between your drawing and the particular philosopher/theory you chose. It will be helpful to look back at class notes/readings/handouts on these philosophers.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Taking Stock of the Good Life

How time flies by--here we are 8 weeks into the class! What a great time it has been! And, I wonder, are we any closer to determining what it means to live "the good life"? We definitely have had some great discussions while exploring this question. Along the way every person in class has offered up some potential clues to the solution of our problem. Class members have argued for the importance of friendship, family, education, virtues (such as bravery, loyalty, and honesty), forgiveness, pleasure, money....(the list goes on).

So, it is safe to say that we are all deep into the philosophical question of the good life. What I want to do now, then, is take some time to reflect on the different philosophers we have read and their answers to this question. Specifically, which philosopher's idea of the good life do you agree with most and why? For example, Aristotle locates the good life in happiness coming from virtuous actions; Ayn Rand locates the good life in pursuing one's own rational self-interest, or, being "selfish"; John Stuart Mill locates the good life in the Greatest-happiness principle--we are living a good life for him if we are promoting pleasure and preventing pain for the majority of people in our society. Our job is to reflect on these different answers to our question and try to determine which works best.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What "Makes" a Person? Actions vs. Intentions

Our discussion throughout the last week has largely been based in selections from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Specifically, we spent time discussing "actions" and how these define a person, or, make a person who he/she is. Taurean raised a great question about forgiveness--Is it possible to forgive actions while still "keeping them in mind" or do we need to "forget" that the action in question ever took place? We also discussed Stanley "Tookie" Williams and his actions, both as a founder of the Crips and as an author/activist working against gang violence in the United States. This raised questions about the possibility of one to be forgiven or "redeemed" for any act, even murder or assault.

 But consider the following passage from the Nicomachean Ethics: "we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions" (1103b). Here Aristotle is putting an emphasis on action as defining "what" or "who" a person is (How do I know if I am brave? If I act bravely I am brave). Now that we have thought about this in class--what do you think? What is most important in defining "what" or "who" a person is? Their actions?  Or, perhaps the intentions that guide actions are more significant? Perhaps neither of these is right and we need to look at another aspect of a person to define "who" or "what" they are?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Pleasure, Happiness and the Experience Machine

It has been a busy but rewarding few weeks! We have discussed the life of Socrates, friendship, happiness, justice, and the possibility of finding objective components of the good life (or, as we have sometimes called it, "the most excellent life possible for a human being"). We will see these topics come up again and again as we continue to seek the truth as philosophers.

In particular, you might recall the discussion we had on pleasure and happiness. Are they the same? Is having pleasure equal to being happy? There have been sound arguments put forward by members of the class, both maintaining that pleasure is happiness and, alternatively, holding that there is more to happiness than a feeling. Happiness is then seen as a state of being, or a continuing project in one's life.

As we think about this debate, here is something to consider--a thought experiment known as "The Experience Machine"(written by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia):
"Suppose there were an experience machine that could give you any experience you desired. Scientists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel; or making a friend, or reading an interesting book [or any other experience you want to pick for yourself]. You can pick and choose from a large library of experiences, selecting your life experiences for the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours outside of the machine to select the experiences for your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won't know that you're there; you'll think it's all actually happening...Would you plug in?" Explain why or why not?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What is Justice?

In our discussion of the Apology we have become familiar with Socrates' view of the good life. We have seen that he was willing to give his life for his beliefs--one must be virtuous and live an examined life to be good. Socrates feared the possibility of acting without virtue more than he feared death. But, we might ask, what does it mean to be virtuous and how do we know if we are virtuous? For example, how do we define a virtue such as "justice"? What, exactly, is "bravery"?

This week we will turn to Plato's Republic. Like the Apology, this work also features Socrates as he engages in discussion with friends and fellow Athenians (who are sometimes not so friendly to Socrates!). The Republic outlines the creation of Plato's ideal state, a republic ruled by philosopher kings. Among the many topics discussed in this work, the virtues are again taken up and examined. We will focus on some of the passages considering the virtue of justice and what it means to be just.

In preparation for this discussion it will be helpful to do some thinking about justice. Where and in regard to what do you hear the term "justice" used in our society? What does it mean for something or someone to be "just" or act with "justice"? As usual, considered thought is all that is required here. Perhaps if we make some initial attempts at an answer we can get closer to the truth about justice as a class.

Monday, August 17, 2009

What is the Good Life?

Discussions in the course thus far have centered on questions concerning the good life (What does it mean to live a good life? What are the necessary components of a good life? Is the good life different for everyone?). As we read last week, in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle argues that friendship is a necessary component of the excellent life. Aristotle writes, "[friendship] is most necessary for our life. For no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all other goods (NE 1155a). The "complete friend" (as opposed to the friend of pleasure or utility) is a reflection of our own self, one who lives with us and allows us to become more virtuous.

Many in the class shared Aristotle's view that friendship is necessary for their own good life. But is friendship enough? Given our writing responses on this question it would seem not. Components of the good life for the class include the following: education, love, family, helping others, having a positive attitude, being comfortable, religion and faith, having no fear, having self-respect, financial stability. Quite a diverse list! So, how do we decide what the good life is?

This week we have been reading Plato's Apology. Here we find even more components of the good life. During his trial Socrates argues that a good life requires self-examination (indeed, Socrates argues that the unexamined life is not even worth living) and virtue of the soul. He dismisses material possessions and wealth as having anything to do with living well.

Do Socrates' considerations help us in our discussion? Do you agree with Socrates' characterization of the good life? Perhaps most importantly, can we ever arrive at any solid conclusions on what, exactly, a good life actually is?