Markkula Center for Applied Ethics - Better Choices

All About Ethics Blog

Contributing to the Good Life

Contributing to the Good Life

Contributing to the Good Life

 SCU Associate Professor of Philosophy Shannon Vallor is the author of a recently revised module on Software Engineering Ethics, which helps engineering students think through the ethical issues in their field.  The module's discussion of how we contribute to the good life for others has implications for every professional.

Ethics in the broadest sense refers to the concern that humans have always had for figuring out how best to live. The philosopher Socrates is quoted as saying in 399 B.C., “the most important thing is not life, but the good life.” We would all like to avoid a life that is shameful and sad, wholly lacking in achievement, love, kindness, beauty, pleasure or grace. Yet what is the best way to achieve the opposite of this – a life that is not only acceptable, but even excellent and worthy of admiration? This is the question that the study of ethics attempts to answer.

Doing good is not something that matters only to missionaries, social workers and philanthropists. To live a "good life" is to make a positive contribution to the world through your existence, to be able to say at the end of your life that in your short time here, you made the world at least somewhat better than it would have been without you in it.

This is also how we think about the lives of those who have left us: when we mourn our friends and loved ones, we comfort ourselves by remembering the unique comforts and joys they brought to our lives, and the lives of others; we remember the creative work they left behind, the problems they helped us solve, and the beautiful acts they performed, great and small. Could a life about which these things could not be said still be a good life?

If the good life requires making a positive contribution to the world in which others live, then it would be perverse if we accomplished none of that in our professional lives, where we spend many or most of our waking hours, and to which we devote a large proportion of our intellectual and creative energies. Excellent doctors contribute health and vitality to their patients and medical knowledge to their interns and colleagues; excellent professors cultivate knowledge, insight, skill and confidence in their students and contribute the benefits of their research to the wider community; excellent lawyers contribute balance, fairness and intellectual vigor to a larger system of justice.

What sorts of things can you contribute to the good life for others?


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