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How do you think about how you should live?

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Lately I’ve been thinking about the yardstick problem in regards to how to live a good life. The problem is basically, how do you measure what good is? What’s the standard you use to compare one way of living life to another way of living life?

At some level, it’s pretty obvious that if you have to ask the question, you’re thinking about it the wrong way. I don’t know all that much about the true nature of happiness, but I’m pretty sure that any frame of mind where you’re rating one life against another is not conducive to it — that kind of comparison, weigh-and-evaluate mindset is pretty radically disconnected from the things I associate with wisdom and happiness, such as living in the moment, acceptance, spontaneity, and the like.

But there’s a practical problem with ignoring the question, which is that pretty much anything you choose as the direction to go in requires some commitment and effort, at least if you’re talking about living a life that’s more than just being a coach potato. You can arbitrarily pick something, I suppose, but I find that at least for me I have to have some amount of conviction that my direction is “right” or else I find myself wavering and reversing. I’m not talking about the difference between, say, deciding to help people by becoming an environmental activist versus becoming a doctor, which I think is just a matter of finding the best alignment between your talents, interests, and opportunities; I’m talking about the foundational view of reality that makes “deciding to help people” a worthwhile or worthless path to pursue.

The way I see it, there are a few different competing frameworks for how to even think about what makes for a good life, all of which are compelling and hard to reconcile. (There are also some more-or-less obviously shitty ones, such as trying to acquire as much money / fame / power as you can, drugging yourself via mindless entertainment and idling the years away til you die, etc.) I won’t try to give a fantastic taxonomy, but to give you the flavor of what I’m thinking about, here are some that come to mind:

-The heroic. Good = good; the fulfilling life is adopting a righteous cause, and then taking some names and kicking some ass. There are a lot of variations on this, depending on what you think makes a good cause, and depending on whether your view of a hero looks more like Martin Luther King, Jr. or like Jack Bauer. But the commonalities are that fulfillment comes from being on the side of the angels, and success is measured in outcomes (number of [people/species] [helped/saved/converted/liberated]). I think this context has a lot of deep-rooted psychological power… e.g., Joseph Campbell’s ideas in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

-The artistic. Good = creation, expression, authenticity, beauty. The fullest expression of your humanity is to bring things into being, to create new patterns and forms never before seen, to rise beyond the mundane by creating meaning. I think one of the best expressions of this I’ve encountered is in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

-The spiritual. Good = transcendence, oneness, bliss, seeing the interconnectedness of all things. Peace, meditation, insight, and wisdom.

-The evolutionary. Good = growth, self-improvement, achieving your desires and by doing so helping creation expand. Life is a series of outcomes, which are neither good nor bad intrinsically; joy is learning the patterns behind the outcomes and adapting your behavior to get more and more efficacious as you grow in intelligence, power, and wisdom. This is one of the most compelling contexts for me, and a lot of my thinking about the yardstick question comes from seeing myself over the last two years adopt this more and more, and wrestling with the incongruities between this context and my old patterns of belief. A lot of my thinking around this context has been shaped by, as well as by my current employer.

-The rational. Good = knowledge, wisdom, understanding. Related to the artistic, in that the primary good is the output of your mind, not the way you live your life. It’s the philosopher versus the painter, or the scientist versus the novelist.

I’m sure there are others, but those are the main ones that I personally find compelling. They’re also damn hard to compare, both in terms of framing up the contrast and in terms of the actual decision. How do you stack writing the great american novel up against curing cancer? Is the life of mind what’s important, or the life you lead every day? You can sometimes evaluate the achievements of one context in the currency of another, as in when art is defended in terms of its political or human impact, but that always feels like it’s at least somewhat missing the point.

Of course, they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, which to me actually makes it even messier: you could — I guess — evolve and grow more powerful via art, or do good via a spiritually practice. There are also values that cut across the different contexts, interacting with each of them in different ways: freedom, rising beyond the mundane, fitness-for-a-purpose, and finding universal principles, to give some examples. At the end of the day, though, my experience is that I find the different contexts mutually undermining. When I’m in an evolutionary mindset, I feel like I’m giving something up in terms of the heroic and the artistic; if I’m studying and writing philosophy, I wonder if it’s worth anything if it doesn’t make my day-to-day life better.

Moreover, all of the perspective seem vulnerable to the “so what?” question. The heroic falls apart pretty quickly: okay, so you saved two people’s lives, but in eighty years they would be dead anyway. Likewise, you created a great piece of art, but at the end of the day, it will be forgotten. Evolution, whether you’re thinking on the personal or species level, has its own encounter with entropy. Spirituality doesn’t hit the all-things-will-end wall as obviously, but there seems something sterile about deriving value from an experience that from the outside is indistinguishable from someone in a coma.

Or anyway, that’s the cynical perspective. I’m not saying it’s right, but what it does show is that there are certain premises you have to take for granted to make any of the contexts stand up. That isn’t surprising to me, since one thing I think I believe is that all “truths” about existence and the meaning of life are created by people in conjunction with reality, not derived from reality without one’s active participation. But it does beg the question, okay, so on what basis would you choose to believe one or more of those premises? Why choose to have faith in any of them?

The answer I’ve assumed since I first started thinking about it — and this is the heart of the matter — is that you want to have faith in premises about reality because that’s the path that leads to happiness. It’s a natural conclusion to reach, because the way I think most people get here is that they notice they are unhappy, ask themselves why, start thinking about the meaning of life, realize that you can’t just logically deduce it, and conclude that you need to take on faith some empowering, happiness-giving, view of reality because otherwise you’re going to spend your life as an existential wreck. So then, when you think about which premises and which context you want to adopt for yourself, it becomes a question of picking whichever one makes you happiest.

That sounds pretty logical, and I don’t doubt some people do fine by it, but in practice it just hasn’t been clicking for me. The problem with it is that happiness, which is the meta-context I’ve been using to evaluate the various premises, actually really sucks as a basic thing-to-want-out-of-life. Now to be clear, “happiness” can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but I’m using it in the most generic, inclusive sense: that of everyday experience having some kind of a positive quality to it, whatever exactly that positive quality really is. This kind of happiness, is bad as a meta-goal because asking “what will make me the most happy?” is pretty much guaranteed to make you unhappy at the end of the day. By making the primary criterion the quality of your experience, you’re assuming a solipsistic reality: “your experience” narrows the universe to the contents of your own head. Although I’m not making an ethical claim that solipsism is bad (because ethics comes much further down in the figuring-out-the-meaning-of-life stack than the level we’re talking at right now), I think it’s a fundamentally sterile perspective. Without a sense of “other”, happiness is boring — there’s no appeal to me thinking in terms of just my own experience. Also, happiness is finite: you only have so many instants of experience in your life, and as soon as each one is gone, it’s gone for good. You can remember it, but all memory is is just another instant. There’s no flavor of the infinite, no transcendence when you think in terms of happiness, and when you narrow yourself to the limited range of human experience over a finite time span, that too induces, at least in me, the feeling of sterility.

So happiness doesn’t help me sort out what context I want to adopt, although it certainly motivates thinking about the question. At the end of the day, I think any of the contexts above can make someone genuinely “happy”, however you want to define happiness, if they’re adopted sincerely. The thing I’m looking for, though, is something to help me think that one of the contexts is right, because as long as I can ask the question “why is this right?” and not come up with a good answer, it undermines my sincerity when I try to adopt one. Right doesn’t have to be an absolute truth, to be clear. A “practical” right is fine with me too, and there’s nothing structurally unsound in saying that one is right because it makes me happy… the problem I have with that argument is simply that “happiness” isn’t a criterion that moves me strongly enough.

I was thinking about all of this yesterday, and the answer that popped into my head was “gift”: rather than seeing the meta-goal of life as happiness, see the meta-goal of life as “giving”. I’m not sure I can completely intellectually defend that as answer, but when it came to me it felt very right, so I want to play with it for a bit and see where it gets me.

Immediately, thinking in terms of giving breaks me out of the sterility of happiness. A “giving” universe is not solipsistic, nor is it blandly monist. Rather, there is an I and a thou, a giver and a receiver. Moreover, it’s not just a duality (always an intellectually suspect condition): the giver can be the gift, the receiver can be oneself: identity can ebb and flow, merge and separate. The essence of giving is a dynamic, a motion, an aliveness. Along the time dimension, giving is a verb, whereas happiness is a state. The duration of a gift can be instantaneous or infinite, finite or unbounded. So as a basic thing-to-want-out-of-life, the notion of giving immediately feels more right to me than happiness, even though functionally there is overlap (since “to give is to receive”).

The next question is how “giving” relates to the original contexts that I’ve been trying to decide between. At first blush, it seems more fundamental, which is what you’d want. You can ask “Why create art?” and answer “to give of yourself to creation.” You can also ask, “why evolve, why strive to improve yourself?” and again answer “to give of yourself to creation.” Same goes for the heroic and the rational modes, and as for the spiritual, I think “giving” is really a certain way of cashing out what spiritually really means, a way that happens to be, in my opinion, a really good one.

Does it favor one over the other? Not really, but I’m okay with that: I wasn’t hoping for a knock down victory of one context over the other. I’m satisfied with a basic meta-context in which the varied modes can be justified, played off against each other, merged and recombined. It makes an impossible problem to solve into a merely difficult one, one that I think can be resolved on the level of day-to-day choices about where you spend your time. Getting to that point — the point where the big questions in life are best solved by just living — is great victory. I suppose you can get there by not asking the questions to begin with, but asking and answering and then being able to move forward for a time without their burden is really worth something, at least as far as I’m concerned.

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Written by jphaas

July 26th, 2009 at 11:55 pm

Posted in philosophy