the importance of the inner life to moral philosophy

It can be seen that there a huge gap, at present unfillable as far as we are concerned, which needs to be filled by an account of human nature, human action, the type of characteristic a virtue is, and above all of human ‘flourishing.’

— Elizabeth Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” 1958

The dominant question in modern moral philosophy is “How should we get along?” I am increasingly interested in a different question: “What is a good (enough) life?”

I wrote, “How should we get along?” a little flippantly, but it is actually a very serious question that provokes huge follow-up questions, such as “What kind of government should we have?” “Who deserves what?” and “May I, under any circumstances, lie/break a promise/harm another?” These examples merely hint at a long agenda.

But the agenda isn’t long enough unless it also addresses the question of how we should live our own lives, including our inner lives of thought and emotion. One can see this by observing the limits of the main philosophical schools:

Utilitarianism teaches that we must maximize the happiness, welfare, or satisfaction of all people (including ourselves; but each of us is outnumbered about 7 billion-to-one by the rest of the species and therefore hardly counts). Anscombe said, “it is a bit much to swallow that that a man in pain and hunger and poor and friendless is ‘flourishing.'” True, and plenty of people are needlessly in such condition because of my sins of omission and commission. So I ought to do or give much more. But the links that connect my potential acts of welfare, other people’s material conditions, and other people’s flourishing are hardly certain or straightforward. Some people who know no physical pain and have plenty of money and friends are nevertheless miserable to the point of suicide; others are stupidly happy but not are living worthy lives. Material welfare may be a necessary condition of a good life, but it is not a sufficient condition. If the question is whether we are living well, then how we get along (our duties and rights vis-a-vis others) is only part of the story. We could make the distribution of rights and goods perfectly just and yet all fail miserably as human beings.

Kantianism teaches that we must develop our own rational autonomy and that of others. Everyone must live his or her own life, but we have a duty to enhance other people’s ability to do so. The emphasis now is more on freedom than on welfare, but I can’t just stand by while 3.5 billion people live on less than $2/day, because destitution and illiteracy interfere with living autonomous lives governed by choice and reflection. I mention the problem of global poverty for a second time not only because it is hugely important, but also because I want to explore the same problem in relation to both Kantianism and to utilitarianism. The practical conclusions of the two theories are not necessarily different even though the premises are. In any event, the limits of the two theories are similar. It’s all very well to say that I must honor and defend other people’s rights to live autonomously and support them in doing so. But what is the point of an autonomous life–for them or for me? Or (if we take autonomy to be self-evidently good), then what makes a life autonomous? Unless we can say something about the content of an autonomous life–what the autonomous person thinks, feels, and does–the theory is radically incomplete.

Virtue ethics, which Anscombe helped to revive in the essay quoted above, might offer a much richer account of the good life. A good life could be one in which certain desirable traits are habitual, becoming virtues. However, despite Anscombe’s hopes, my sense is that actual virtue ethics is mostly concerned with “How should we get along?” The virtues of greatest interest involve our relations with other people and are understood in terms of effects on them. Besides, even though virtue ethics may have value for illuminating the good life, it doesn’t seem obvious that a good life just is a virtuous one.

Perfectionism” is a word for any ethical theory that is primarily concerned with what make a life good. It seems to me a somewhat unfortunate title, evoking competitive striving, super-human standards, “achievement of human excellence in art, science and culture” (Rawls), or even disdain for other people. Perhaps a good inner life is primarily oriented to promoting the welfare and/or autonomy or others. Perhaps a good inner life requires modesty: acceptance or even embrace of limits. Conceivably, not being a “perfectionist” (in the ordinary sense of that word) is a necessary condition of being a fully good person. Leaving aside the unfortunate terminology, I think we need to ask “How should a person live?” and “What duties to we have to ourselves?” if we want to know how people should get along.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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