How a Human Ought to Live
It is common for humans to wonder how best they can lead their life. Another issue that raises curiosity is the nature of human existence. The two issues keep a lot of people with questions on how human life ought to be. What constitutes a good or a bad life? The nature of ethics and morals that govern human life are imparted to us in various ways. Some receive the values from the elderly such as their parents, others learn morals in school while a large chunk of the human population receives these values from their environment. Apart from morals and ethics are questions about a happy and fulfilling life. Humans cannot quite agree on what constitutes a happy or sad life as well and what constitutes a bad and good life. This is an issue that does not just concern the common man but has been an issue of struggle even among the noble philosophers such as Plato, Mills, Kant, Aristotle, and Socrates. All these philosophers have their view about how a human ought to live his or her life.
Plato or Socrates’ View
The perspective of life by Plato will take the first stage in the exegesis of the philosopher’s views on the life a human ought to live. Many philosophers and students of philosophy subscribe to the adage that “all philosophy is but a footnote to Plato.” Plato was one of the most powerful and influential thinkers in the story of Western civilization (Hackett, 1992). As a student of Socrates, Plato dissected the issue of life with words of Wisdom from his teacher and mentor. Plato among the many topics described how best we can organize our society because that is where we live. In his argument, he claims that humans can live a good life when their society is well organized. In describing the organization of a good society, Plato explains the role of his morality and ethics in all these.
Plato organizes the perspectives of moral philosophy in a dialogue manner (Hackett, 1992). In the play is the wise Socrates who is also the first to appear. According to Socrates, one ought to live his or her life in society like a gadfly and also like a midwife. Like a gadfly that stings and challenges others and like a midwife ready to deliver a newborn, humans should not let the society have peace until morality, justice, and ethics run down like water. Socrates is known for his common phrase that a non-examined examined life is not worth living. In these words of wisdom, people should seek to understand with genuine clarity, understanding, and knowledge about those things that matter in life. Philosophically, one of the issues that are brought out in Justice. According to the argumentations, Justice is not a craft or a skill like any other that one can choose to learn or leave. In his reasoning, justice is mandatory for an organized society and is a prerequisite for a good life. Socrates concludes that it is better to be just than unjust. Socrates explains justice as the right to conduct during interpersonal interactions. It finally turns that a good life should possess four qualities and these are wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice.
One of the students of Plato is Aristotle who also had his philosophical view of how one ought to live his life. Aristotle wrote on several topics among them biology, physics, psychology, reproduction, memory, dreams, emotions, the structure of the soul, etc. In this book the Nicomachean Ethics, which he wrote during his late 50s while serving as the head of Lyceum School in Athens, also provides a wonderful view on human ethics which according to him is a science. According to him ethics as science is practical and not theoretical. One thing that stands out in his view of human life is the assertion that in our lives we ought to pursue knowledge not to just know what virtue is but to become good. The subject matter of ethics is a good life for a human being. It is clear his books that Aristotle is asking a central ethical question “How should I live my life?” In his answer Aristotle that human beings should live their lives to make it good and excellent (Hackett, 1992). Therefore, he defines ethical studies as a form of life and style of the good life and the activities in which it consists and it is the road map to a good life.
Key to Aristotle’s ethics and rationale on human life in his view that humans are rational beings. The fact that human beings possess reason, which other animals do not have should define how they live their lives different from others. If men are rational beings then men ought to live their lives rationally. In Aristotle’s synthesis of the question, “how should I live my life?” he presents that questions that are central to his reasoning. These questions are: ‘’how should I act”? What kind of person should I be?” “What should I value and how should I value it?” Aristotle begins with the claim that all human activity seek the greater good. He goes ahead to identify good as the ends, goals, purposes or the results of action and these goals should define how one ought to live his or her life (Hackett, 1992). The nature of his ethics and view of life has popularly been known as teleological theory.
A German philosopher Immanuel Kant who lived from 1724-1824 also dissects the issue of how humans ought to live their lives. Coming much later after Plato and Aristotle, many lovers of philosophy believe that modern thoughts begin with Kant. In his masterpiece, Groundwork of the Metaphysics f Morals, Kant begins by saying that “there is nothing more useful to live for than to seek out and establish the supreme principle of morality.” Kant asserts that good life, therefore, should be a companied by morals. He goes ahead to define “good” as the goal of every human life though he adds that a good life should be followed by good intentions of goodwill. Regarding how a man ought to live, Kant strongly believes that no man should imagine a life in the world or beyond the world that should qualify to be considered good without limitation except goodwill. Therefore, Kant’s moral theory in Groundwork maintains that a good action or life is distinguished from a bad life based on the maxim or the principle on which it is based Paton (Harper & Row, 2009). Humans ought to live a good life that comes from the right principle.
In the context of a larger society, Kant also delves into how men ought to live together with others and with the authorities. A morally good person in the society must not necessarily enjoy a virtuous action provided he makes a decision that respects the right principle as brought out by the society. Therefore, humans ought to live their lives while obeying the rule of law since it popularly the right principle in society. Kant adds that humans need to live a happy life as well. He defines happiness as the contentment or the desire to be happy. Using ethics as the road map to a good life, Immanuel Kant concludes that a life well lived should be guided by the right principles. I addition to all these he brings out the reason as to what should determine what is right or wrong, good or bad and should be the motivating factor to do what is good and avoid doing what is wrong in our lives Paton (Harper & Row, 2009). A human being needs to live a life that is not only reason but also justifiable.
Mills in his Book, Utilitarianism asserts begins that everything we do with our lives has consequences. Subsequently, every action we perform makes the world somehow different from the way it was before we acted. While living our lives, we can make our lives better or worse, make other peoples’ lives better or worse, then we should consider living our lives morally. In his definition of moral life, he claims that it should be the life that has the best consequences to all humans and the world in general. This is the basis for his theory or life approach commonly called consequentialism (Hackett, 2001). It the consequence of acts that make them wrong. It is the story of the end justifying the means in other words the results make right the action in life.
Comparative Evaluation of the Accounts
Aristotle who was the student of Plato similar and different opinions in equal measure of how humans ought to live their lives (Hackett, 1999). To begin with, Aristotle’s organization of his book Nichomachean Ethics is quite different from Plato’s Republic. Nichomachean Ethics is literary, compressed, systematic and rigorous when compared to Plato’s lecture notes or revised summaries of his lectures. Just like Plato’s assertion, the key to a good life is ethics. The two ethics also agree that, ethically, humans are rational beings. However, they both assert that, in as much as humans ought to live a rational life, not everything they do is rational (Hackett, 1992). Humans can organize their actions in life utilizing thought and decision in a way that other animals cannot.
The central question of ethics both agree to is “How should I live my life?” The questions are further subdivided into “How should I act?” What kind of person should I be?” “What should I value and how should I value it?” Nicomachean ethics by Kant emphasizes the action. Kant seems to be more interested in how one should act as compared to the other two questions. Aristotle from the very beginning gives more preference to the kind of person one ought to be as compared to the actions of the person. According to Aristotle a human should be wise and good and therefore the action becomes a function of the character and with the correct inner character, informed be wisdom, a person will live the right life. If humans are wise and that is the intellect and the characters function excellently, the right actions will automatically flow out of us. Aristotle’s theory finishes up by describing the kind of person human beings ought to be. Plato just like Aristotle agrees that there is a need for humans to study the human soul and psyche to understand the kind of life we ought to live (Hackett, 1992). In the end, he believes that the most important question to answer is not how humans ought to act but the kind of person humans ought to be.
The first point of contrast between the works of the two great scholars, Kant and Aristotle is the question about what a good life should look like. Both agree that humans ought to live a good life. Kant defines good as something that is always accompanied by “the goodwill”. According to Aristotle good is something “at which all things aim”. In his assertion, Aristotle claims that all knowledge and every choice is directed towards some good (Hackett, 1999). Kant defines good using something good, goodwill. It is therefore common to consider this a mere restatement and not a definition. Aristotle, on the other hand, defines “good” in an objective and absolute sense. In this way, he tries to bring out good in a manner that is common to everyone. The two theorists agree on the notion that a good thing should help achieve a certain goal in life. When it comes to morality then a good thing is what will steer an achievement of morality and ethics.
What defines Kant’s moral theory in Groundwork is that a good action is distinguished from a bad action is absolutely the maxim or the principle on which it is based. When one saves a drowning man because he or she believes one should not drown where and when he or she is around then that is goodwill and the action qualifies to be good. The reason why it is good is that it comes from the right principle (Harper & Row, 2009). On the other hand, if he or she saves the drowning intending to receive a reward or applause for the people watching nearby then the action is not good since it is not done out of goodwill and the principle is wrong. Aristotle, on the other hand, takes a hard stance that it does not matter provided the action is appropriate and morally right then it qualifies to be good. In an example, Aristotle claims that if he saves a life by telling a lie then telling the lie, in this case, is a morally good action. Virtuous people would want to save more, do more good. It is a story of the end justifying the means while Kant believes that the means is a prerequisite for the end. When the means are bad, according to Kant the end is bad but Aristotle believes in the true opposite. Therefore, Aristotle attaches the predicate “morally good” to objective actions of people independent of the performer and his will while Kant holds that no action is morally good apart from the will of the performer i.e. the mechanism of the motive.
In the book Groundwork, Aristotle defines happiness as physical wellbeing but not necessarily of a good life. Kant then possesses a notion of happiness as that contentment or desire of being satisfied. For long people have had arguments on what constitutes a good life and whose life is worthy to be called good. Aristotle considers a good life as objective and not subjective as presented by modern philosophers like Kant (Harper & Row, 2009). In the spirit of relativism, just in the discussion of morality, some consider a good life as being wealthy or famous while others believe that that is entirely dependent on good works. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle concluded that happiness must be attained from the premise that nature does nothing in vain. This reason is premised on the theory of final good though Kant argues that virtues in the context of morality should be pursued for their own sake. In his example, he talks of justice which is entirely good for what it is. Finally is the question of ethics, where Kant defines ethics as nothing other than the system of the morals that govern human behaviors. Aristotle then views ethics as the intelligible framework that separates the evil from good. On this issue, the two theorists agree that ethics is a roadmap to attain morality.
Just like Aristotle and Kant, Mill also talks about a happy life as the kind of life humans ought to live. Kant agrees that we should act in a way because morality demands, Aristotle asserts that we should act morally and ethically because we are rational beings but Mill takes quite a different tact. According to Mill, we need to live a moral life because our actions have consequences. When we have bad acts the consequences become bad and when we do good acts then the good acts have positive consequences. Both Mill and Kant engage in the same philosophical task of identifying a rationale criterion for determining right from wrong. Both Kant agrees that morality is essentially a rational enterprise that should guide the kind of life humans ought to lead. But the two disagree sharply on what the supreme principle is and so about what should make actions right and wrong (Harper & Row, 2009). This is similar to the argument between Aristotle and Kant. Kant holds that the results of an action are completely irrelevant to its moral rightness or wrongness but Mill says that the results are all that matters.
Theorists have fiercely disagreed on their understanding of how humans ought to live their lives. According to Aristotle, a morally good person is one who enjoys and therefore keeps doing morally good actions in his entire life. Kant on the flipside agrees with this part of the explanation by Aristotle but deviates when he asserts that a morally good person should live a life that is not necessarily enjoyable provided he respects his maxim and makes a decision to act based on the principle. Plato through the words of his teacher and mentor Socrates asserts that a non-examined life is not worth living. The vocation of reason in the way humans live is similar in all the philosophers’ accounts. It is, however, paramount that we must focus less on the technical differences between these ethical theories and focus more on how ethics should be applied in our lives.
Plato, Republic, trans. G.M.A. Grube, revised by C.D.C. Reeve (Hackett, 1992) ISBN-13: 978-0-87220-136-1
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 2nd ed., trans. Irwin (Hackett, 1999) ISBN-13: 978-0-87220-464-5
Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H.J. Paton (Harper & Row, 1964, 2009) ISBN 978-1-107-40106-8 Paperback
John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, 2nd ed., ed. Sher (Hackett, 2001) ISBN-13:9780872206052
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