Like so many writers, I’ve had a strange “on-again-off-again” relationship with the blogosphere. As nearly as I can recall, this is the fourth iteration of this blog since I’ve owned the domain name. I’ve taken a four year break from the world of narcissism that is weblogging, and I’m reluctantly returning to the practice for several reasons. I make no promises that I will sustain this effort, but lately I’ve found myself motivated to begin expressing my ideas here for your perusal.
So what’s motivated my renewed commitment to what is often a cacophanous wind tunnel of egoistic communication? Why would anyone who has (as I have) had a taste of publication in “legitimate” venues return to a sphere of writing that lacks the rigor and oversight of traditional publication formats? Wouldn’t my time be best spent pursuing those venues to express my ideas? In justifying my return to blogging to myself, I’ve settled upon a number of reasons I think it important that this blog (in its current manifestation) exists. Here are a few that come to mind:
1.Building a “positive philosophy.” In the introduction to perhaps his most significant “philosophical” work Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton admits that critique others points of view is much easier than actually attempting to coherently frame one’s own worldview. Though I am by no means in Chesterton’s intellectual or rhetorical league, of late I have discovered the wisdom of his words. I’ve found myself caught up in the “social media debates,” and I’ve found it far less difficult to critique the evils of western liberalism, atheism, capitalism, etc., than to actually construct a meaningful substitute for such approaches to the world. I am a philosopher by training, and while Socratic critique is certainly a noble enterprise, I am very interested in making a positive contribution to the current state of affairs in my world. I hope that this blog becomes a force, not only for critique, but for “positive philosophy” as well, a philosophy of alternatives. I’m not sure where this positive philosophy will actually lead, and it may be, as Chesterton remarked of his own intellectual journey, “when I put the last touches on it, I discovered it was orthodoxy.”
2.Dialogue. As one with intense interest in the moral and political spheres of our lives, I have found that I need a space to hash out my ideas on such topics with a group of my peers. In my professional life, my research interests lie primarily outside these realms of human life, and I recognize that many of my opinions about American politics and the good life are likely ill-informed and poorly thought out. I am interested in believing what is true and behaving in proper relation to truth, and it is important for me to have push-back against my convictions and preferences in the interest of that goal. Much of that push-back comes in the form of dialogue with people who hold opposing view-points, but (like most people, I think) I find myself surrounded by mostly like-minded people with respect to questions of how we should live best. Through the internet, we have the opportunity to dialogue with people from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of positions on all sorts of issues, and I hope that this dialogue will help me and my readership (however small that might be) modify our own beliefs with regularity and precision. I hope that this blog can help me to think more critically, because through dialogue, I can come to understand my world and the world of others with more clarity.
3.Clarity. As I will explain below, this blog is dedicated to discussions of the good life, but in order to explore this topic, we must interrogate exactly what we mean when we refer to the “Good Life.” It does seem that many of us operate upon differing conceptions of what counts as human flourishing, and it is important to me that I have a robust idea of what makes my life worth living. I have found that when I attempt to communicate my ideas in a written format, I am forced to make what is abstract understandable to an audience,. Again, I want to believe and behave based upon a coherent appraisal of the world, and writing helps me to clarify that understanding. In the writing process, I can clearly see what ideas I have that are nonsense or poorly developed, and the editing process is not merely a grammatical exercise; when I edit, often I am meaningfully honing my ideas, as I see that they are irrational or unbelievable. Blogging is a nice way to achieve such clarity without the pressure of writing for a more traditional journalistic publication, because if I get something wrong, chances are, my wrongness won’t lead to a libel suit!
4.Activism. I’ll be direct here; I hope this blog becomes a tool for social change. I intend to write about important issues, and I don’t do this as a mere academic exercise. I am a university professor, and I believe that it is not merely my job to prepare my students for the job market; instead, I believe it is my job to prepare my students for civic life. I want to write about what will make a better world, and (in my wildest dreams!) I hope that this blog contribute–at least in part–to that goal. I hope that I can call you, the reader, to action, even if that action is in opposition to a claim that I have made here. Don’t mistake me for one who is allied with a particular American political party, although I think that you’ll find that I do have certain political loyalties and preferences. People often complain that American politics is broken, but I happen to think that a lot of good can come from the much-maligned “two-party” system currently at work in the United States, and generally, I don’t plan to propose radical re-organizations of American government. That said, I believe in political solutions to difficult problems, and I hope to make meaningful policy suggestions in this space. Whether or not those suggestions are taken seriously is another matter entirely.
A Life Worth Living
Up to now, the best ways I’ve known to describe the topics to which this blog is devoted have involved political terms, however the subject matter I’ll be exploring here will be much more far-reaching than what we typically think of as “political life.” I think that we can all agree that each of us hopes to live a good life, a life of richness and happiness, and we don’t want to “come to die and find out we have not lived,” to borrow from Thoreau. Additionally, I think that we can all agree that most of us don’t find ourselves living such a life. We are burdened by finances, disability, illness, and a thousand other pressures that contribute to a feeling that we are not living to our potential.
The ancient Greeks had a term that connotes the idea of a life well-lived: eudaimonia. Often, this word is translated as “happiness,” so contemporary readers often miss the force of the term, as for the ancient Greek, this term referred to a life of purpose and meaning instead of a life full of mere pleasure. In the Aristotelean tradition, a flourishing life is a life in which a person is able to best embody virtue, to put it in more contemporary terms (though not exactly correct) to “live up to her potential.” When I refer to the good life on this blog, I will be referring to this sense of eudaimonia. This will resonate, I imagine, particularly with religious readers, as they tend to hold that each of us are created for a purpose, though I believe that non-religious readers can sense the force of this description of the good life as well. In future posts, I intend to defend this idea of a contemporary eudaimonia more robustly, but feel free to interrogate this conception in the comments below.
Because I take this conception of the good life seriously, and I wish this sort of life for my children and their community, I think that certain political positions ought to be taken seriously. Here, i find my politics heavily influenced by Martha Nussbaum’s “capabilities approach” to political arrangements. Nussbaum defends a kind of “Aristotelean essentialism,” in summary, Nussbaum argues that there are certain universal capabilities human beings possess that ought to be defended and supported in a just society. Though she admits that this list is subject to change, Nussbaum argues that human there are roughly ten basic human capabilities that contribute to our conception of the good life. This blog will be divided into these ten categories, and I intend to focus individual posts on each of the following capabilities:
- Life-a flourishing human life is not one that is prematurely snuffed out, nor prolonged to the extent that this life is not worth living.
- Bodily Health-a good life is one of good health, nourishment, and shelter.
- Bodily Integrity-the life we seem to regard as flourishing is one where we can move about freely under no threat of physical (including sexual) bodily violation.
- Senses, Imagination, and Thought-Each of us hopes to live a life where our sensible faculties are stimulated, educated, and excited by the world.
- Emotions-A good life is a life where we need not repress our emotional responses to the world.
- Practical Reason-the flourishing life consists of the mental and physical freedom to make up our own minds about the way the world works and how we ought to navigate that world.
- Affiliation-In the best version of living, humans have the opportunity to politically and socially surround themselves with others. A self-respecting life is not one lived (either voluntarily or involuntarily) as a hermit.
- Other species-humans ought to be able to live with concern and relation to the natural world.
- Play-the best life is not free of recreation.
- Control over one’s Environment-the life worth living involves being free to make political decisions that affect the trajectory of one’s own life as well the opportunity to own property.
If one accepts that this list (or something roughly resembling it) represents the features that make up the good life, the political and moral implications are clear. When faced with a moral/political dilemma, one asks herself, “what choice best maximizes my capabilities so that I (and those around me) might live the best human life?” At present, this is the framework through which I try to make moral choices, as I believe that this is a fairly reliable way to determine both my private good as well as the public good.
This blog is devoted to the above conception of the good life, and I look forward to examining American culture through this lens with each of you. Feel free to give me feedback (and pushback) in the comments below, and I hope that we can help one another think more critically about the best ways to go about making the world a bit better for all of us.