Monday, March 14, 2011

What is a Good Life?

Mrs. Henry Adams, the wife of the novelist and memoirist, once said about Henry James that “he chewed more than he bit off.” The reverse might be said about Ronald Dworkin, whose essay “What is a Good Life?” taken from his book Justice for Hedgehogs, appears in the February l0th New York Review of Books. Though Camus (in The Myth of Sisyphus) famously said that the only real philosophical question was suicide, presumably even he would have given some credence to professor Dworkin’s query. Besides vaguely alluding to Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox in its title, Dworkin is really trying to deal with one overarching idea: individual happiness, which derives, according to Dworkin, from ethics (“how we ought to live ourselves”) in relation to morality (“how we ought to treat others”). The reconciliation of these two impulses also recalls Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, where socialization is bought at the price of repression. Dworkin writes: “We need, then, a statement of what we should take our personal goals to be that fits with and justifies our sense of what obligations, duties, and responsibilities we have to others. We look for a conception of living well that can guide our interpretation of moral concepts. But we want, as part of the same project, a conception of morality that can guide our interpretation of living well.” Hobbes and Hume are invoked in the course of Dworkin’s discussion of how to resolve this conundrum, as is religion. Then Dworkin gets down to specifics: “Morality may require someone to pass up a job in cigarette advertising that would rescue him from poverty.” On the other hand, he reverses himself when he talks about the “sacrifices” that morality may require, concluding, “It is hard to believe that someone who has suffered such terrible misfortunes has had a better life than he would have had if he had acted immorally and then prospered in every way, creatively, emotionally, and materially, in a long and peaceful life.” Dworkin proposes a distinction in ethics that is tantamount to the distinction between “duty” and “consequence” in dealing with morality. “We should distinguish between living well and having a good life,” he writes. Or, as someone recently asked at a New York social gathering, “I knew what pleasure was, but did I know happiness?”

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