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Question of the Month
How Should I Live?
The following readers’ answers to this central human question each win a book.
If I am to live a considered life, I cannot but reflect that I am not alone. From my birth through my upbringing, my existence has been shaped, not just by my own experiences and thinking, but by my interaction with the lives of others. Most closely, with family, where one is constantly reminded of the continuum of a network of relationships. My sense of myself and my own place in the world is tempered by my awareness of others, of the lives they lead, their thoughts and feelings. My concern to lead a good life is, therefore, not solely about myself, but embedded in my concern for others.
In the process of trial and error which characterises our existence, I seek to learn, to develop my understanding, but I do so in a continuous dialogue, refining beliefs and attitudes, being assertive when required, attentive to alternatives, tolerant of misunderstandings, and changing when necessary. As I explore the richness of human life, I travel hopefully, with the expectation that a sensitive, thoughtful and peaceable approach brings abundant rewards.
My ambition for a full and complete life lies not in the accumulation of material wealth, much as I can enjoy the comforts of civilisation, but rather in the quality of experiences and relationships that arrive, in friendship and in love. If I can live more in line with my needs, as against indulging my wants, and if my style of living is more attuned to a sustainable environment, then I can better resist the temptations of greed and selfishness which threaten human civilisation. As I work to live as simply as I can in a complex world, I can sit more lightly on the earth, and influence others to do the same. If I mix optimism with realism, I can do good in small measures – modest but worthwhile.
David Howard, Church Stretton, Shropshire
Eight years into my eighth decade of crafting this pursuit of living, I have some perspective on both faith and reason. Fifty years and more of ordained acting out the faith I have reason to claim, make me adamant about heartfelt adherence to love and undaunted faithfulness to rational discipleship. And current adjunct activity for my Methodist alma mater in classes that confront undergraduates with life questions introduced by Philosophy 101, convinces me the more that I should use my head and live from my heart. So with intention I would live a reasonably faithful life formed and informed by a faithfully reasonable self-understanding.
Donald L. Slover, Farmington, Missouri
How I should live and how I do live are not necessarily the same; but having aspirations and trying to live up to them is a good starting point. So the following is how I aspire to live.
The most important point is that no one lives in isolation. From our earliest experiences we interact with others, and the quality of our lives is largely dependent on that interaction. Beyond this, everyone seeks happiness, and in modern Western societies this universal goal is taken for granted. However, Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” A thoughtful analysis of that coda, when applied to one’s own life, reveals that we usually only examine our lives when we fail. The corollary to this is therefore that a life without failure is a life not worth living. And this is how wisdom evolves over a life’s experiences: not through success or study, but through dealing with life’s trials and tribulations. This is reflected in virtually every story told: how the protagonist deals with adversity, be it physical or psychological or both. And this is why storytelling is universally appealing. So I should live my life by realising that every interaction in my life is an opportunity to make my life more rewarding by making someone else’s life more rewarding. In any relationship, familial, work-related, contractual or whatever, either both parties are satisfied or both are dissatisfied. It is very rare that someone achieves happiness at someone else’s expense, unless they are competing in a sporting event or partaking in a reality TV show. There is an old Chinese saying, possibly Confucian in origin: If you want to know the true worth of a person, observe the effects they have on other people’s lives. A true leader knows that their leadership is not about their achievements: it’s about enabling others to realise their own achievements.
Paul Mealing, Ivanhoe, Australia
I would broaden the question to ‘How should each of us live?’, for although each of us is unique, I believe we have a common human nature, with common wants and needs. I believe each of us seeks happiness, by which I mean a more or less persistent state of general physical, mental, and emotional well-being, characterized by enjoyment of life. We should enjoy living. But happiness is attained not by pursuing it directly, but through activities that bring it about. These activities differ from person to person. One requirement then for happiness is ‘Know thyself’.
Happiness is had by individuals, but we are social animals, and so we can achieve it only within society. This means being moral: we must behave in ways acceptable to others. The first requirement here is to do no harm. Others will not accept harm to themselves, and will harm you back. Next, we should always try to be just to everyone, for we want justice for ourselves. ‘Do no harm’ and ‘Be just’ are both subsumed in the maxim “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” These sort of maxims of duty are fundamental for a society of cooperative people, which is required for happiness. We can always avoid unnecessary deliberate harm to all others, and we can always act with the intention of justice to everyone, if we understand what justice requires.
Beyond duty is love. Love is wanting another to be happy. It naturally motivates our doing good for others. We can fulfill our duties to everyone; but we cannot love, that is, help, everyone. We don’t have the resources or the capacity.
So how should we live? Be happy. Do no harm. Be just to everyone. Love and help others as I can. The broad outline is clear. The devil is in the details.
John Talley, Rutherfordton, North Carolina
Humanity should live in a way that helps everyone achieve the goal of happiness. The avoidance of pain needs to be taken into account when pursuing happiness, as achieving one’s happiness may have the consequence of causing suffering for another human being. To help people make informed decisions in life, Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham invented the ‘Hedonistic Calculus’, whereby one evaluates a choice by calculating the degree to which any given action will increase the overall sum of happiness. One of the factors that the Calculus takes into account is the duration of the happiness that an action will produce; it also acknowledges the pain that may result from it. However, living a happy life does not mean a life of over-indulgence, any more than it means the other extreme, of abstaining from actions that promote happiness. To seek happiness in a balanced way would fulfil our basic function as human beings, as argued by Aristotle, which is to act in accordance with virtue and reason. Aristotle called this desirable middle way the ‘Golden Mean’, and it is comparable with the ‘Middle Way’ in Buddhism. To find balance between our various emotions, behaviours and attitudes is how we should live, then: acting in accordance with the Golden Mean. This way of living involves balancing our deficiencies, for example shyness, with the over excess of their opposites, in this case vanity. The mean of these two vices is proper pride, and therefore to Aristotle, proper pride is a virtue. With these ideas in mind, it is possible to make informed and suitable decisions that promote joy not only in our own lives, but in others’ lives too. And that is how I ought to live.
Harriet Strachan, Zurich
Most of us want to live well, but we are often mistaken about how to do so. For example, the drug addict who believes he is “as happy as can be” is mistaken, and will later acknowledge his mistake if he cleans up. And the neurotic who constantly worries about things outside of his control is not living well even if he believes he is. However, we have a nature that defines the real parameters for a flourishing life: happiness and goodness are not the result of arbitrary choices, rather they arise when we actualize our natures. The drug addict is not living as well or happily as he could, nor can he choose to do so until he adopts a lifestyle that actualizes his human nature.
So, how should we live? To live well, we should listen to former drug addicts, former neurotics, and wise elders. That is, to live well we should love wisdom (philo sophia in Greek). From the Stoics, we can learn to distinguish between what is in our control and what is not, and to avoid investing our hopes in what is not in our control. This can free us from many neurotic behaviors. From some religions, such as Buddhism, we can learn stillness, and realize the interconnectedness of all things. We can learn ‘the way of being instead of having’ (Erich Fromm). Empathy and community grow from these insights, which in turn nourish some of the deepest forms of happiness and human actualization. From Epicurus, we learn how to avoid vain desires, and to not give in to the advertisers and emotions that create them. So we learn to live a simple and deeply meaningful life built around relationships, clean living, and reflection. From Socrates and Plato, we learn to use the Socratic Method of persistent enquiry, which leads to humility, wisdom, and provides ways to cultivate health and virtue, where health is the harmony of the body, and virtue is the harmony of the soul or mind. From Aristotle, we learn moderation and how to cultivate virtuous habits. These examples are a taste for the wisdom found in philosophy. So, we should live well; and this means we should study philosophy.
Paul Stearns, Texas
As a postgraduate studying philosophy, I was enamoured with Kantian ethics. I loved his idea of moral rules discernible through rational thought. Perhaps it was the appeal of some sort of objective right and wrong, or perhaps the exciting idea that morality was mine to discover intellectually. Who can ignore the rational tug of universalization of morals, or deny the beauty of Kant’s ‘Kingdom of Ends’?
Over the years I have come to see that Kant’s moral thinking does not show the way to live. How could I treat everyone as an end-in-themselves? As I experienced more of the world, doing different jobs, getting married and having children, I came to realise the world was too vast for my brain to comprehend: in our globally-interconnected world I am aware of only a fraction of the people involved in my life; the rest go unseen as means in my life, and I too am a means in theirs.
John Gray talks about modus vivendi [‘way of living’] as a way forward. That is value-pluralism: the acceptance that there might be more than one good way to human flourishing, the values of which ways cannot be compared. This is not a lapse into cultural relativism. I think there are universal wrong ways to live, even if there are no universally-applicable good ways.
To live in this pluralistic way requires empathy. So I try to know as much as I can to help me empathise. I watch the news and read the papers. I do not shy away from the unpleasant or complicated things in life. Martha Nussbaum says empathy can lead to compassion, which is a painful awareness of another’s undeserved misfortune. There is strong evolutionary evidence of compassion’s role in group selection. Sober & Wilson talk about this in Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior.
So that is how I try to live. Facing the world with my emotions and an open mind, hoping this helps me to make the best decisions I can make, and knowing that just because someone see the world differently to me does not mean they are not aiming for the good life too. Also, living in this empathic pluralistic way allows me to tell my daughter that Santa is real – something that Kant would have had none of.
David Byron, Bristol
Implicit in the question is a more specific question: How should I answer? I often think the finest truths and guidance are succinct. Below are only four of my attempts at answering this most vital of questions, tempered by the restrictions of haiku:
How Should I Live?
First to stop chasing
Shining baubles of success
To allow reason
Writ fixed on one’s soul
Divine expectations, met…
Through freely choosing
The moral brook flows
Between: “thou shouldst” and “shouldst thou?”
Babbling its own way
And learn how to die
Tom Morgan, Leigh-On-Sea, Essex
I should live in such a way that I minimise possible future regret. The image is common enough to be almost a cliché – the elderly man on his deathbed lamenting the missed opportunities of his youth. However, I still think that when put into meaningful practice rather than just talked about, this provides a method for decision-making that is relevant in many areas of life. For example, it can help me to live more meaningfully according to my own goals and desires. When facing the choice of sitting with a pizza in front of the TV or putting pen to paper and working on my novel, it is easy to see which is the most immediately rewarding. However consideration of which choice will provide me with the least future regret will help me gather my willpower for the more fulfilling writing work – although sometimes I may believe that losing a lazy Sunday afternoon to work would be the more regrettable choice! It is also a way of motivating moral choices. I, like most people, have a strong conscience and sense of empathy, so I am more likely to regret failing to assist others than the small losses of my own time or resources in doing so. It is easy to make excuses at the time as to why particular moral acts may be inconvenient, but when taking the perspective of my future self, these excuses slip into insignificance. Of course, this method will be flawed, as I cannot perfectly know the attitudes of my future self: perhaps all I will regret will be the pizzas left unconsumed. However, if I assume that I will continue to possess, at least broadly, the same set of values as I currently hold, minimisation of regret seems the most useful way of making decisions on how to live.
Heather Browning, Kaleen, Australia
Be happy, be kind to others, make a difference; all admirable aspirations and undoubtedly on the top of most people’s list. But in our day-to-day living are these the things on our minds when making decisions and interacting with others? Probably not. Yet they don’t stop us reaching where we want to be… When I saw this question I instantly thought of misery guts himself, Niccolò Machiavelli, my favourite philosopher and downright bad ass: “How we live is so different from how we ought to live that he who studies what ought to be done rather than what is done will learn the way to his downfall rather than to his preservation.” Step off the fluffy cloud of ideological attitudes, and you’re left with millions of similar people with similar hopes and dreams, but with limited availability of fulfilment. It’s dog eat dog, it’s survival of the fittest, and most importantly, it’s one big game, and you need to play it really, really well.
Going around giving all your possessions to the homeless and eating ice cream with cherries on top because That’s What Makes You Happy will leave you with nothing much of anything at all. Of course, everyone has goals, and achieving these will eventually make you very happy, but you need to do a hell of a lot of really boring stuff in order to get there in the first place. Live with tenacity, selfishness and deception, and you’re on the road to where you want to be. But always remember to play the game: your tactics are secret and your intentions are hidden: “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.” (Machiavelli, The Prince).
Sarah Hogg, Corbridge, Northumberland
Next Question of the Month
Let’s widen the issue out a bit. The next question is, How Should Society Be Organised? Please give and justify your social/political advice in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines or envelopes should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 29th Sept. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. Submission implies permission to reproduce your answer physically and electronically. Thank you.