Issues in Philosophy The Variety of Good Lives

The Variety of Good Lives

By Steven M. Cahn


Suppose a person I shall call Leslie cares about others, treats them with respect, and seeks to minimize their distress. Leslie has also found contentment, and does not suffer from anxiety, alienation, frustration, disappointment, or depression.

Perhaps you assume that all is well with Leslie, yet many philosophers believe that Leslie’s life might not be worthwhile. Indeed, to use terms employed by Neera K. Badhwar, Leslie’s life might be wasted, servile, pathetic, ignoble, and a failure.[1] How could such a negative assessment be justified?

Susan Wolf maintains that if Leslie is not actively engaged in projects of worth, then Leslie’s life lacks meaning.[2] Richard Kraut asserts that Leslie is not healthy unless possessing, developing, and enjoying cognitive, affective, sensory, and social powers.[3] Stephen Darwall finds that Leslie’s life lacks merit unless it focuses on things that matter, such as beauty and knowledge.[4] Neera K. Badhwar insists that Leslie’s life is worthless if not possessing wholeheartedness, i.e. “an integrated intellectual-emotional disposition to live autonomously.”[5]

Such attacks on the value of other people’s lives are seriously misguided. Would any of these philosophers, meeting Leslie, be willing to say, “I understand that others think well of you, but I’m sorry to say that your life lacks meaning.” Furthermore, “if only you had studied, for example, epistemology, thus engaging in a project of worth, developing your cognitive powers, focusing on things that matter, and thinking more independently, your life would have mattered as much as mine does.” Such arrogance would be intolerable.

Suppose Leslie is married with two children, works as a salesperson in a department store, sings in a church choir, golfs (with enthusiasm but little success), and struggles to solve the daily crossword puzzle. Would Leslie’s life nevertheless be wasted because of a failure, as Badhwar says, “to seek truth or understanding about important aspects of [his or her] own life and human life in general”?[6]

Remember whose life is dedicated to that goal—a philosopher. And recall the insight of Xenophanes, who is said to have remarked, “if oxen and horses and lions had hands, and could draw with their hands and do what man can do, horses would draw the gods in the shape of horses, and oxen in the shape of oxen, each giving the gods bodies similar to their own.”[7]

How many of us suppose that living well depends on engaging in activities that we do not enjoy or may hardly understand? Instead, we promote the value of our own endeavors.

I would urge that we acknowledge the dignity of others by recognizing the worth of their lives regardless of whether their activity is primarily intellectual or manual, whether they prefer symphonies or gospel music, whether they choose solitude or the company of others, whether they are conformists or nonconformists, and whether they admire or are bored by philosophical inquiry.

So long as people act within ethical bounds, their lives are surely of worth. And if they find satisfaction, let us not say that their lives have been a failure. The only failure is our inability to appreciate the variety of good lives.[8]


[1] Neera K. Badhwar, Well-Being: Happiness in a Worthwhile Life  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 46, 72, 80, 84, and 222.

[2] Susan Wolf, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters: The Ethics of Well-Being (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), passim.

[3] Richard Kraut, What Is Good and Why (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). passim.

[4] Stephen Darwall, Welfare and Rational Care (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[5] Badhwar, 112.

[6] Badhwar, 23.

[7] John Manley Robinson, An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968), 52.

[8] For further development of this view, see Steven M. Cahn and Christine Vitrano, Happiness and Goodness: Philosophical Reflections on Living Well (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).


Steven M. Cahn is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York. Most recently he authored Teaching Philosophy: A Guide (Routledge).


  1. You wrote, “Such attacks on the value of other people’s lives are seriously misguided.”

    I enthusiastically agree! It seems such claims arise from those with a limited breadth of life experience.

    However, this is a philosophy site after all, so I’ll attempt a counter argument.

    It can be argued that to the degree that one’s focus is within the realm of thought, as tends to rather often be the case for we of a philosophical nature, one is living not in the real world but rather in a second hand experience of the symbolic realm between our ears.

    I’m sure we’ve all had this experience. For me, it will often go something like this. I’ll find myself walking down a Florida beach on a glorious winter day with the sun on my face, wind in my hair, sand between my toes, surrounded by the song of sea birds, and then…

    After awhile I’ll realize I’ve missed out on all of the above for the last 3 miles because as I walk I’ve been living in my head, thinking thinking thinking, oblivious to the glory of creation which surrounds me.

    Which of my thoughts is as wondrous as the ocean or the sun? Uh, none of them, that’s for sure. What a poor choice I’ve made!

    What we think about reality is no where near as interesting as reality itself. It simply doesn’t matter how grand one’s thoughts are, they are still merely thoughts.

    I feel free to present this attack upon the life of the philosopher because it applies to me as much or more as any of the above.

    Beware of philosophizing too much my friends, because if you keep it up long enough just about the time you start getting good at it you will inevitably find yourself face to face with an understanding of how limited thinking really is.

    There you’ll be, 66 years old, the chair of the philosophy department, covered in authority, credibility, status and stature, respected widely as a razor sharp person of penetrating reason….

    …. and then it will dawn on you how much of your life you’ve missed while you were thinking about life. Uh oh, how very illogical!

  2. Here’s an exercise in living well.

    Find a quiet pretty place outdoors where you won’t be disturbed.
    Bring a lawn chair, food and water.
    Bring nothing else, no books, no papers, no phones, no electronic gizmos, nothing.
    Get there at sunrise, stay until sunset.
    Sweep everything else off the table, sit quietly and patiently, and watch one day of your life go by.

    Your mind will probably rebel at the lack of activity at first. If you have to, get up out of the chair and walk around a bit, as SLOWLY as possible. The slower the better. Slow, slower, slowest, gradually tapping the brakes of your mind machine.

    As you return to the chair you may still be bored. Accept the boredom and it will gradually fade. Fight the boredom and it will get worse.

    As your mind slows smaller and smaller things will become more and more interesting. Clouds blowing by, a bird landing in the field in front of you, the sound of crickets, the sun on your face. With any luck by the end of the day you’ll have the experience that simply being alive is enough.

    Our minds are so very busy busy busy most of the time reaching reaching reaching out for that something, that anything, that will bring that experience of satisfaction, of enoughness. If we sit long enough it may become clear that thinking is not the path to satisfaction, but rather the obstacle standing in the way.

    The real world beyond our minds already contains everything we need psychologically. A handful of dirt properly considered is more interesting than the best philosophy book ever written. OMG, even better than this preachy post!

    Are attacks on the value of other people’s lives seriously misguided? Well, maybe. Perhaps it’s more a matter of the spirit in which the challenge is presented. Some challengers take themselves way too seriously, while others can prod us to look beyond our own bias and experience with a wink and smile.

  3. Each life is an exclusive,personal affair with Existence. Generalising on life was Science’s obsession, inorder to reduce it to an objective activity within her learning range. Above obsession of Science now stands taken over by industry, so that there is general interests of people and common consumer demand!
    Here is an insight into what could be the moral element in human life, touching the subject matter with the WHY question:


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