There was an error in this gadget

Monday, July 12, 2010

Living "a really good life"

In the post below Max Weismann asked what the greatest impediment is to "a really good life" and I responded in the comments that the culprit is mankind's "radical depravity". This is a theological term that means, essentially, that man's sinfulness runs - sometimes like a thread and other times like a raging river in flood - through every single thing man does. (As an HR professional let me add I don't use the term "man" in a gender-specific way. All chicks are radically depraved as well.) We are all sinners.

Max came back with something interesting enough that I figure it's worth its own post. He wrote:
I ... restrict my discussions of the problems of the good life and the good society to the temporal life and to that life on its secular plane. Those who are religious persons and distinguish between the secular and the religious activities they engage in, as well as between their worldly and their religious aspirations, will be able to affix appropriate qualifications, additions, and even dissents to various things I will say "without regard to religion."
I have a problem with this. There are really only two types of answers to the question, "what is a good life"? One type of answer includes a moral component (the '"good life" includes doing the right things) and the other type of answer does not include a moral component (the "good life" is based strictly on stuff and/or feelings you get for yourself). The second type of answer is generally frowned upon by the philosopher crowd so there is almost always a moral component or "right" behavior required when philosopher types talk about a "good life". See, for instance, the comments thread where Max asked this same question at the Center for the Study of Great Ideas.

So, if living a "good life" involves moral behavior (and most philosophers agree it does) and most religious people get moral guidance from their religions (and they do) and most people are in fact to some extent religious (and they are) why do modern philosophers insist that discussion of morals must be so "secular" or "temporal" that such discussions must specifically exclude religion?

Rather than ask the religious to somehow "affix appropriate (religious)qualifications, additions, and even dissents" to discussions of morals, how about asking the non-religious to remove - if they can - the religious aspects of morality that they don't care for? If a "really good life" is defined as strictly material it would make sense to exclude religion in discussions about it. But since in reality discussions of the "good life" just about always include concepts such as morality, virtue, and "right behavior" this no-religion rule seems to me not just strange but a bizarrely self-inflicted handicap.


Jay Gold said...


While at one time I would strongly have supported Max's position on this, I've engaged in extensive study of world religions over the past few years, and I'm now more inclined to your point of view.

I think Max is influenced by Aquinas's distinction between natural (philosophical) and revealed (dogmatic) theology. But even theological dogma can be critiqued on the basis of logic and its truth to experience. Every scripture in the world has its internal contradictions and statements that cannot be taken literally with any plausibility, and we deal with these in very similar ways to the ways we deal with philosophical assertions that are contradictory or implausible.

For example, take your "radical depravity". I'm not Christian, and I don't accept this notion as any sort of revelation. However, in two months I turn 60, and it seems to me that anybody who's lived as long as I have and who's paid attention has to accept the notion of original sin in some form as a purely empirical matter. Anybody who wants to disagree with that needs to adduce evidence and argument, as I would have to in response (unless my adversary convinces me, which could well happen).

In other words, I think radical depravity is a perfectly legitimate response to Max's question - so long, of course, as you're prepared to back it up with something other than reference to special revelation.

Agim Zabeli said...


Thanks for the response. I feel pretty strongly about my position, and when I stated it I meant that radical depravity - man's sinful nature - is exactly the answer to the question of why we don't live a good life on this earth. That is, the human's consistent knack for being his own worst enemy - radical depravity, a built-in perversity in our very DNA, in our souls - is what stops us all from developing and displaying the virtues we should or developing the wisdom we need. You remind me though that I may have done a disservice to the company by the "drive-by" nature of my comments. As you rightly point out, I should have "back(ed) it up with something other than reference to special revelation." I didn't do that. I simply stated the doctrine - radical depravity - and then asserted what I believe to be step one in addressing the problem: fearing the Lord. I should have, for lack of a better term, secularized my position. Let me try to do so below.

Radical depravity: I think most people of age and experience make the same observation you and I do: there is a ribbon of wickedness that runs through all of us, resisting ideologies, training, religious conviction, level of learning, and even the will to improve ourselves. This, I submit, is the temporal manifestation of radical depravity. Even an atheist can readily see that Augustine had a point when he wrote - I quote from memory - sometimes you just want to f*ck something up. We all have that in us.

Fear of the Lord: If one is an atheist one doesn't believe in "the Lord" but virtually everyone believes in right and wrong. As a Christian I don't fear the Lord like I fear the boogieman; I fear His wrath when I do wrong. I fear my disconnect from Him when I knowingly avoid doing right. To "fear the Lord" is to fear to do evil; and to desperately (with all your heart, and strength, and mind) want to do right. All self-improvement follows from this drive to avoid evil and seek good.

Again, thanks for the feedback, and for helping me to better organize my thoughts.

Agim Zabeli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay Gold said...

I tend to think of moral error as due to ignorance (like Socrates) or bad habits (like Aristotle). "A ribbon of wickedness" seems to reify the problem. Also, as an atheist, I myself would have made the point without the God-language. But I think it would have been (roughly) the same point.

Agim Zabeli said...


I don't know that my metaphorical ribbon should count as reification. I don't mean to imply one can isolate the chromosomes for wickedness. I think we may also diverge some on the main point. I believe the issue is NOT simply bad habits or ignorance. I think people sometimes choose to do wrong knowing full well what the right choice is, and having long trained themselves to do right. Even people that habitually choose right are often tempted to choose wrong, and they sometimes give in.

I don't disagree one can train oneself, and do so fairly successfully. But I do assert the pull to do wrong (a pull exerted by my immaterial but nonetheless powerful ribbon) still exists. Why should this be? How is it that after all the training in the world, and all the education possible, such a pull should still exist?

Jay Gold said...

I agree there's a point where we diverge, Agim. While I agree that people choose to do wrong even when they know what's right, I think that this is not due to some "pull" of what's wrong, but rather to our believing on some level that there's something that will be better for us (money, reputation, power, sex, etc.) than doing what's right.

Perhaps some of this has to do with introspection. The only soul we can peer into is our own, and at some point we can't avoid judging others by ourselves. When I've done something wrong even when I knew what was right, it was because I was concerned about one of those other things I mentioned above. I don't see in myself the desire to f*ck things up, as you say. Perhaps you do see that desire when you look into yourself. Not that there's anything especially deplorable about that - perhaps we're all sinners in our own ways, and we can't be responsible for what we feel, only what we do.

Max Weismann said...

Jay: While I agree that people choose to do wrong even when they know what's right, I think that this is not due to some "pull" of what's wrong, but rather to our believing on some level that there's something that will be better for us (money, reputation, power, sex, etc.) than doing what's right.

Precisely Socrates' point!

Max Weismann said...


Why are e-mails of posts, not delivered from this blog?

Max Weismann said...

An excerpt from Plato's dialogue "Meno".


[Soc.] Then are there some who desire the evil and others who desire the good? Do not all men, my dear sir, desire good?

[Meno] I think not.

[Soc.] There are some who desire evil?

[Meno] Yes.

[Soc.] Do you mean that they think the evils which they desire, to be good; or do they know that they are evil and yet desire them?

[Meno] Both, I think.

[Soc.] And do you really imagine, Meno, that a man knows evils to be evils and desires them notwithstanding?

[Meno] Certainly I do.

[Soc.] And desire is of possession?

[Meno] Yes, of possession.

[Soc.] And does he think that the evils will do good to him who possesses them, or does he know that they will do him harm?

[Meno] There are some who think that the evils will do them good, and others who know that they will do them harm.

[Soc.] And, in your opinion, do those who think that they will do them good know that they are evils?

[Meno] Certainly not.

[Soc.] Is it not obvious that those who are ignorant of their nature do not desire them; but they desire what they suppose to be goods although they are really evils; and if they are mistaken and suppose the evils to be good they really desire goods?

[Meno] Yes, in that case.

[Soc.] Well, and do those who, as you say, desire evils, and think that evils are hurtful to the possessor of them, know that they will be hurt by them?

[Meno] They must know it.

[Soc.] And must they not suppose that those who are hurt are miserable in proportion to the hurt which is inflicted upon them?

[Meno] How can it be otherwise?

[Soc.] But are not the miserable ill-fated?

[Meno] Yes, indeed.

[Soc.] And does any one desire to be miserable and ill-fated?

[Meno] I should say not, Socrates.

[Soc.] But if there is no one who desires to be miserable, there is no one, Meno, who desires evil; for what is misery but the desire and possession of evil?

[Meno] That appears to be the truth, Socrates, and I admit that nobody desires evil.

[Soc.] And yet, were you not saying just now that virtue is the desire and power of attaining good?

[Meno] Yes, I did say so.

[Soc.] But if this be affirmed, then the desire of good is common to all, and one man is no better than another in that respect?

[Meno] True.

[Soc.] And if one man is not better than another in desiring good, he must be better in the power of attaining it?

[Meno] Exactly.

[Soc.] Then, according to your definition, virtue would appear to be the power of attaining good?

[Meno] I entirely approve, Socrates, of the manner in which you now view this matter.