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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Spice For the Good Life

Brad Wilburn

Finding the good life requires tolerance of human variety.

In his great treatise on how to achieve happiness, the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle compares our attempts to live good lives to an archer's attempt to aim an arrow properly. The archer is more likely to hit the right mark if he has a target to aim at, and, similarly, we are more likely to live a good life if we have knowledge about what makes a human life good.

Lives are much more complex than archery targets, however, so this metaphor inevitably raises certain questions. Should everybody be aiming at the same target? Are there really any general claims we can make about the common features of a good life? Is our target fixed, or is it moving? Doesn't our understanding of the good life continually change as we pursue it? Do we really pick out a target life that we try to live? Perhaps we just shoot our arrows and then draw our bulls-eyes wherever the arrows happen to hit. Perhaps we just live our lives on the fly and then tell various stories and commit ourselves to various values in a retrospective process of giving our lives meaning.

These questions are all connected to the wide variety of lives humans actually live. Out in the world, we see butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. We see impulsive and contemplative types, competitive and conciliatory types. We see people from different neighborhoods, different parts of the country, different cultures.

Any attempt to define the good life must accommodate such variety. Indeed, the project of trying to figure out what makes a human life good has implications for how we should treat those whose lives are different from our own. More specifically, if we engage in this ongoing project, we will discover some very good reasons for approaching difference with a tolerant attitude.

The Quest for Human Value

To begin, we need to see our accounts of the good life as provisional, as works in progress. In his book After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre claims that a good human life is a life spent seeking the good human life. He describes this seeking in terms of a quest. We tell a story with our lives, he claims, and the sort of story we should tell is a quest for human value.

How does one engage in a marriage in a way that enriches oneself and one's spouse? How does one raise children in a way that allows them to live fulfilling lives? How does one pursue a satisfying career that develops one's potentials and contributes to one's community at the same time? Facing daily decisions with these larger questions in mind, rather than just looking at these decisions as isolated problems to be solved, is a crucial part of what makes human lives good.

One feature of a quest, according to MacIntyre, is that its object is not fully understood when one begins the search. It's not like Where's Waldo? where you know exactly what Waldo looks like and you just need to find him amid all the details of the drawing.

As one strives to live a good life, one's understanding of the good life deepens through that very striving. One starts out with a rough conception of what it means to live well, which gets filled in through the process of living.

Trying to understand what makes a life good must be an ongoing project because the subject matter is so complex. The value of human lives is linked to human potential, and our potential is surprisingly vast. We are involved in all sorts of valuable activities, which give our lives meaning.

In addition, our understanding of these activities is always developing. We engage in continuing conversations about what it means to be a good artist, a good parent, a good executive. These conversations are personal, as we ourselves struggle to become good; and they are cultural, as society reassesses the expectations and demands that we place on these various roles.

Because human potentialities are unfolding, we have an ongoing need to engage in moral reflection. New technology opens new doors, but it also raises new questions. New ways of thinking can be liberating and inspiring, but they need to be melded with previous insights. Continual change forces us to engage in continual evaluation and re-evaluation.

Navigating the Sea of Human Potential

Fortunately, we are not set adrift on this sea of human potential without boat or sail or rudder. We can be highly confident of certain conclusions about living well. Some of Aristotle's basic ideas provide reliable guidance. Any good human life should include opportunities to make use of and develop our capacities to think, to deliberate, to reason. Relationships of love and friendship are also crucial components. These insights are deep and unassailable.

The problem is that they do not complete the task of telling us what a good life looks like. They point us in the right direction, they rule out certain sorts of life, but they don't answer all our questions. How do we balance our commitments to family with our commitments to friends or to broader communities? What are the right sorts of rational activities in which to take part? No matter what insight we rely on, important issues always remain and important details need to be filled in.

One way to acknowledge the complexity of the good life is to insist that our account of it should be suitably disjunctive; that means, it should explicitly accommodate optional ways of achieving this purpose. We may point to general features of good lives, but we must also point to different ways of making these general features concrete.

For example, we may insist that a good human life should include opportunities to express and develop our distinctively human mental capacities, but we should also insist that these capacities can be expressed and developed by a blues singer, a carpenter, a mathematician, or people engaged in a host of other human occupations.

The Value of Variety

A disjunctive account of the good life captures the value of variety in achieving many human purposes. By matching different tasks with people of different skills and by allowing people to develop their skills in different directions, we as a society can meet our needs more effectively. By encouraging people to develop different perspectives and ways of thinking, we increase the intellectual tools at our disposal when we face new and different challenges.

Variety, as the spice of life, has an intrinsic value, as well. We enjoy the original, the unexplored, the rare. We enjoy breaks from our routines. We enjoy our human capacity for broadening our own experience by sharing experiences with others.

This is not to say we accept all versions of the good life. If we return to Aristotle's archery metaphor, a disjunctive account would fall between one that sets up a single target at which everyone should aim and one that says anything goes. We can insist on numerous options while also insisting that important concerns limit what options are appropriate.

The challenge of fleshing out such an account is to figure out how to evaluate different lives. What features of our lives are we proudest of, and what features of the lives of others do we most admire? What features contribute to fulfillment but could be improved? And what features are genuine obstacles to our flourishing?

Tolerance can help us answer those questions. Often, we think of tolerance simply as a way of protecting others from our mistreatment, but there is more to it than that. Tolerance is also an important virtue because it is better for us.

Virtues as Correctives

One way of thinking about virtues, following a suggestion by philosopher Philippa Foot, is that they are corrective: They come into play when "there is some temptation to be resisted or deficiency of motivation to be made good."

The tendency that tolerance helps us correct is the temptation to become overly embedded in our own ways of life. Of course, we are all products of our own particular culture. The existence of culture is one of the ways humans survive: We pass along the wisdom we accumulate through experience from generation to generation. But if we assume that our cultural practices define the only acceptable human option, we can more easily justify the mistreatment of others. Further, we cut ourselves off from the possibility of learning from those others.

Tolerance involves viewing others charitably—that is, giving them the benefit of the doubt. A tolerant person goes into his or her encounters assuming that others are trying to figure out what it means to live well and that they have some insights to offer.

In this way, tolerance keeps us open to the possibility of adding options to our account of living well. We may believe, and rightfully so, that our way of life is a good one, but open-minded encounters with others may convince us that other ways of living are just as appropriate.

Also, charity keeps us open to our own errors. Viewed with tolerance, the lives of others can provide not only alternative examples, but also better examples. They can provide challenges to assumptions we didn't even know we were making.

The Benefit of the Doubt

Arguing for this principle of charity does not imply that any way of life must be embraced without criticism. Charity may not move us very far toward acceptance when we are considering Joseph Stalin or Simon Legree.

But even in cases in which we maintain our disagreement with the life in question, trying to understand the perspective of someone living that life can be valuable. First, the more fine-grained our understanding, the more trenchant our criticism can be. Second, criticism is more likely to be taken seriously by those we are criticizing if it springs from a deeper understanding of them.

Finally, trying to understand why someone engages in practices we consider to be wrong can help us figure out the real human temptations that lead to these practices. Viewing these people as inhuman monsters might make it too easy to dismiss the temptations involved as not applying to us, making it easier for us to fall into similar errors.

In short, tolerance involves viewing all humans as engaged in the common project of trying to determine what makes a good life, or, in Aristotle's terms, what target we should be aiming at. Because tolerance encourages us to see other alternatives with charity, it opens us, as we struggle toward that good life, to the vast resources of human diversity. Tolerance also has us keep in mind that, even in the light of this vast diversity-perhaps even because of it-this common project connects us with others in a very deep sense.

Brad Wilburn is a lecturer in the Santa Clara University Philosophy Department. This article was adapted from a paper that came out of his participation in the Markkula Seminar on Civic Virtue. He is one of the coordinators of the 1998-99 Markkula Seminar on Cultural Relativism and Ethics.

This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 10, N. 1 Spring 1999.


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Terence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1985.

Foot, Philippa. "Virtues and Vices." Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue, 2nd edition. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.

Nov 12, 2015