February 3, 2022
Self-development
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The Good Life Method by Meghan Sullivan & Paul Blaschko - Summary & Quotes

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Three Takeaways

1. Cultivating the right intentions leads moral improvement, moral improvement leads to human flourishing.

Sometimes we make horrible decisions that, luckily, don’t result in disaster. Sometimes we try to do heroic, loving, or generous deeds but don’t make any difference in the world. Moral improvement is a matter of improving your intentions, developing your character, and better understanding why you are aiming at particular morally important goals. And the good life is one that can be captured in a certain kind of story, one that depicts your own moral development accurately, and incorporates other people and the ways you support them in their pursuit of the good life.

The “ultimate good” for human beings will involve satisfying our animal needs while also building up virtuous traits of character, over time and in a rational way. That is the kind of happiness Aristotle called eudaimonia. Contemporary philosophers often translate it as “flourishing”—the complete state of being a well-developed, accomplished, and happy (in the good-feeling sense) person. Those who achieve this goal will feel and act in ways that represent the best parts of our nature. They will acquire all the virtues—like courage, generosity, and wisdom—and will integrate them seamlessly in an intentional and purposefully lived life.

2. Asking yourself the right questions, followed by deep contemplation is one way to nurture your virtues.

Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome in the second century AD. He had been trained in all four of the major virtue ethics traditions of his day—Plato’s Academic school, Aristotle’s Peripatetic school, Epicureanism, and Stoicism.

The key to weathering any hardship or difficulty is to continually remind ourselves that what matters is not what happens to us but how we respond to it. Can you respond with kindness to those who offend you, or are you stricken with inner rage? Are you able to appreciate the ways in which those who aim to hurt you are themselves hurting, or do you simply seek vengeance? The Stoics believed that once we realize that the only thing that really matters is the state of our soul (or character), we can respond to any external obstacles in life by summoning this truth.

It is tempting to read the Stoics and conclude that this is a fine view until you must actually face down adversity. But Stoicism was not pure philosophical navel-gazing for Marcus Aurelius. He had one of the most demanding jobs imaginable, governing an empire and leading armies. His Rome battled its own serious plague that hit in 165. The Antonine Plague was likely a version of smallpox that traveled with Roman troops returning from Asia to the city. It killed around 10 percent of the Roman population. Death, glory, fate, empire—these were daily life for Marcus. A few years after that plague, in the midst of another European campaign, Marcus began keeping a truly remarkable journal. It documents almost nothing about his day-to-day life. Instead, he captures his Stoic reflections on nature, death, and the people he loves. He reminds himself to tend carefully to his inner life, and offers himself advice on what is worth caring about and reminders of his deepest philosophical principles.

So what does Marcus contemplate during these miniature mental retreats? He lingers on three frequent topics.

First, he gives himself advice on virtue and reflects on what he has discovered about the good life in his own adventures. The journal reads most of the time like a strange coaching manual, in which Marcus is having a one-sided pump-up talk with himself. A persistent theme is his desire to try harder to live up to his Stoic ideals. “What sort of soul do I have after all?” So one of the most obvious topics of contemplation for the good life is . . . your life itself. And more specifically, during periods of contemplation, you can offer advice to your active self about your ideals.

Second, Marcus reflects on nature, change, death—not just for himself but for everything in the universe. When he has a question about reality, he writes that down as well. Could we all be atoms in a meaningless void? For Stoics like Marcus, the world is a unified material cosmos in a state of constant change and regeneration—“a conflagration.” God is the reason governing this cosmos. In the midst of this fiery, chaotic cosmos, Stoics like Marcus thought the good life required focusing your desires on virtue alone and realizing that happiness is just doing your best to live virtuously and avoiding concern for everything else. This latter principle is where we get the image of Stoics as coldhearted and indifferent. (Indeed, they called goods like health, money, and power “indifferents,” since none of these goods necessarily increases virtue.)

Finally, he reflects on the meaning of others’ lives in relation to his own—what he has learned from them and why specifically their lives have been good. In the beautiful opening chapter of his journal, he lists the people he loves by name and reflects on what aspects of his own character they have shaped: “From Apollonius: to always be the same man, unchanged in sudden pain, in the loss of a child, in lingering sickness; to see clearly in his living example that a man can combine intensity and relaxation.” One of his principles, to which he constantly returns, is that “men are born for the sake of each other.” The contemplative life might be solitary in its execution, but Marcus thought that other people, especially those we love, are a key subject of our thinking.

3. The stories we tell ourselves shape our lives, the truth of these stories decide to what extent we live in reality.

Ethics is all about intentionality, and the way to be more intentional (and in the right sort of way) is to make sure that you’re checking in on the stories that you’re telling about yourself, your actions, and your life as a whole. When you told your friend that you arrived late because of traffic, was that true? Why do you plan to make a donation in public rather than anonymously? Is it because you’re really more interested in the reputational boost than you are about the charitable work being done?

Virtue ethicists, from Aristotle to Anscombe, realize that learning to tell the truth (the true stories) of your decisions is often easier said than done. Storytelling is a skill that requires careful attention to the details of life. It requires developing a “morally thick” vocabulary that brings out the nuance in our intentions. Instead of thinking about our decisions in simple terms like “right,” “permissible,” or “inexcusable,” we need more expressive language to capture our situations and our responses to them. We’re sometimes “cowardly” even when we do the right thing. We can be “selfishly motivated,” or “generous.” Virtue ethicists think an important part of the moral life is encountering such “morally thick” stories, and then learning to tell them about our own lives.

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The Good Life Method: Highlights by Chapter

Introduction

According to survey data gathered by the American College Health Association in 2019, 57.5 percent of college students reported feeling that “things were hopeless” in the last year, 67.4 percent reported feeling very lonely, 66.4 percent reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety,” and 14.5 percent reported having “seriously considered suicide.” Suicides have increased in the United States in the last decade, especially among young people.

More than 80 percent of college freshmen in the 1970s said that one of their important goals in life was to find meaning and purpose. By 2018, that number was down to 42 percent. What are they aiming at now? More than 80 percent of them said that one of their primary goals was to become rich. Young Americans now report historically low levels of feelings of personal accomplishment—they have changed their goals but feel no closer to achieving them. Third, psychologists observe plummeting levels of social trust among young people—they have less satisfying goals, less capacity to accomplish them, and believe nobody is going to help them.

Desire the Truth

Plato’s Cave Analogy

In the Republic, Plato wants to emphasize how hard it is to live with the truth as a goal. So he has Socrates offer a parable. There once were some men living in a cave. Their legs and necks were fettered from childhood so they always remained in the same spot and could never move. Their captors would put on shadow puppet shows for the men—shadow trees, shadow animals, shadow sun: “Such prisoners would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts.” What would it be like to escape from such a situation? Plato thinks initially the realization would be awful, but then become sublime. Imagine you are one of the men and you break free. You climb up out of your cave. At first you are blinded by the real (bright!) light outside. It is excruciating. Then your eyes start to adjust. You see . . . real trees! Real animals! Eventually you see the real sun, a kind of light you just had no clue was possible before. The sun is Plato’s metaphor for the truth. Think about walking from a very dark room into a brightly lit one. You don’t immediately see more—you probably see less. Your pupils have to contract. Your brain has to process very different information. For Plato, this everyday visual experience is a guide to the more serious difficulty we face when we try to learn. The hard question for Plato is how we can move ourselves to see and love what’s real. Do we want the sun or the puppet show? This is the core drama of any great education.

Live Generously

Effective Altruism

Effective altruism is a philosophical movement dedicated to giving people extremely specific advice about how money should factor into living an ethical life.

The effective altruism movement, an ethical system guided by three connected assumptions about the role that money plays in the morally good life.

First, many effective altruists think that our primary moral obligation is to reduce suffering and promote happiness, and that we can measure the moral worth of our decisions based on how effective those decisions are at improving net happiness. Historically, this is sometimes called the Greatest Happiness Principle. It was fiercely advocated by a group of philosophers in Industrial Revolution England who are known as the “utilitarians.” In 1789, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham introduced his “felicific calculus,” a method for estimating the moral impact of your actions. For Bentham, the key to moral progress consisted in encouraging people to calculate the pain and pleasure for everyone potentially affected by a choice and pursue the options most likely to maximize pleasure.

A second feature of effective altruism is its intense focus on money’s role in our moral lives. Earn as much as you can. Then dedicate as much of your money as possible to the most effective causes for reducing suffering and promoting happiness. The effective altruists’ slogan is the secular version of John Wesley’s dictum: Earn to Give.

Third, the effective altruists think that we should make decisions about who to help and how by using data about which interventions are most effective at promoting happiness and reducing suffering. We should not make important moral decisions in ways that are primarily guided by emotions, history, or personal commitments. Everyone’s needs are relevant—and morality requires us to consider the needs of strangers, of people who are very different from us, even of some nonhuman animals. The effective altruists vigorously warn against the availability bias, our tendency to focus on options that are most psychologically immediate.

In the popular 2000s video game The Sims, you have the chance to create and manipulate digital people. Each person you add to your game comes with a thermometer above his head. If you treat your Sims well, the happiness thermometer fills up. If you lock your Sims in the house without any food, the thermometer gets dangerously low. This is not a bad metaphor for the way effective altruists frame your moral obligations. Other people (actual or potential) are vessels for happiness. Our moral goal is to get as much of that happiness into the game as possible. One way to do this might be to try to make some fixed number of people as happy as possible. But another equally mathematically valid way is to just create many, many more people with barely happy lives. If we look at morality as a maximizing calculus, there is no significant difference between a lot of happiness poured into a few thermometers or a lot of happiness spread out in increments over many, many thermometers. We care about the amount of happiness, not the vessels.

Virtual Ethics

Virtue ethicists are sometimes accused of advocating a self-centered morality, one that overemphasizes how your spending and giving affect you, the giver, and your pursuit of eudaimonia. Shouldn’t morality be about other people—about selflessness? But the effective altruists are selfless in a way that few of us can stomach. Their approach makes it very hard to see where there is any room to grow as a person with moral accomplishments and commitments.

Virtue ethics is a self-centered philosophy, in the sense that your moral goal is to develop moral virtues like generosity within yourself, not to use yourself as a mechanism for promoting some selfless external moral objective. And the ultimate sources of value in the world are selves—lives—that are integrated and purposeful. But that doesn’t get you off the hook for thinking seriously about how and why you give. If anything, it should make us even more anxious about our financial lives; these habits are shaping our souls.

Take Responsibility

In one prominent camp are the consequentialists—philosophers like the effective altruists who hold that moral credit and blame is a matter of weighing up the consequences of our decisions. Sometimes the consequences are weighed in lives made happier or made worse, sometimes in lives saved or ended. Other times the consequences are weighed in quite complex ways: Do your actions promote more widespread access to rights or enhanced human development? Crucially for consequentialists, moral improvement is a matter of trying to make yourself into the kind of person who causes the most good (however you measure good effects—consequentialism is a big tent). The morally good life is one of calculation and efficiency.

Virtue ethicists see the situation differently. Sometimes we make horrible decisions that, luckily, don’t result in disaster. Sometimes we try to do heroic, loving, or generous deeds but don’t make any difference in the world. Moral improvement is a matter of improving your intentions, developing your character, and better understanding why you are aiming at particular morally important goals. And the good life is one that can be captured in a certain kind of story, one that depicts your own moral development accurately, and incorporates other people and the ways you support them in their pursuit of the good life.

The Trolley Problem

A trolley is careening out of control down some tracks, on a heading to strike and kill five workers. But you can pull a lever, redirecting the trolley to a different route. On the new route there is a single worker who will be struck and killed. Do you pull the lever to redirect the train? If it is okay to pull the lever, would it also be okay to push one bystander onto some train tracks to stop the trolley from hitting the five workers (killing him in the process)? In another version you’re asked if it’s okay to pull a lever that would lower the bystander onto the tracks; in yet another you can use a remote to open a trapdoor and drop him from afar. The philosophical assumption that Greene and his team are operating under is that these small causal differences can’t possibly make a moral difference as to what the subject should do in the case. If one person dies in every scenario, why should it matter that she was pulled rather than pushed, killed by moving a lever versus falling through a trapdoor? The surprising discovery is that subjects do have different reactions to these variations. The more “person-to-person” the trolley problem is, the more reluctant someone was to act. So people are more likely to pull a lever to change the tracks, much less likely to push another person to their death.

Greene’s subjects are drawn toward the consequentialist reasoning when considering the case abstractly: Are five deaths worse than one from the standpoint of the moral universe? Judgments change when you ask subjects to locate themselves in the situation. Imagine pushing with your own two hands. What if that were your brother, or your mother, on the train tracks? What if one of the workers had just brought his newborn home? Emotions are now involved, which makes the decision gut-wrenching. To Greene, the variation suggests that our moral judgment is shot through with bias.

This issue of conscience is part of the core debate between consequentialism and virtue ethics. Paul Bloom, another consequentialist psychologist, argues in a similar vein that our emotions make us innumerate, and as a result we make bad decisions about how to help others: “{Empathy} does poorly in a world where there are many people in need and where the effects of one’s actions are diffuse, often delayed, and difficult to compute.” Bloom, like Greene, thinks psychological de-biasing can help us improve morally by muting these empathetic instincts. He even titled his book Against Empathy.

Consequentialists are certainly right that we feel a great deal more emotional involvement when it comes to friends and family members. It is hard to feel as much about a statistic like twenty-four anonymous malaria patients as you do about individuals with names and stories that you understand. And whether you happen to know or like someone is no deep reason to upgrade the value of their lives and downgrade the worth of strangers. The question is whether this concern for reason should cause us to be suspicious of our moral emotions.

Virtue ethicists take a different view—we think we should be skeptical of any moral advice that is incapable of appropriately connecting to our emotional lives. Virtue ethicists have long held that cultivating appropriate emotional attitudes is a key part of learning to live well and act virtuously. Here again is Aristotle: “{Emotions and pleasure} may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue.”

Elizabeth Anscombe on Intention

MV: Elizabeth Anscombe was a British analytic philosopher who studied at both Oxford and Cambridge University. Her writings cover a wide range of topics, including philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, philosophical logic, philosophy of language, and ethics. A Good Life Method explores part of Anscombe's book, Intention, written in response to her opinion on Harry Truman's actions as president of the United States during World War II.

Anscombe considered Truman a war criminal for ordering two atomic bombs to be dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She defined murder as the intentional killing of civilians and therefore considered Harry Truman to be a mass murderer.

Here is an analysis from A Good Life Method on Anscombe’s logic:

For Anscombe, the first important ethical question to ask about Harry Truman was: What was Truman (the man, the character, the “doer”) aiming at? Here are a few hypotheses. In directly ordering that bombs be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Truman was trying to bring a world war to an end; establishing decisive military victory for the United States and Allied troops; bringing about unconditional surrender on the part of the Japanese; and killing innocent civilians in order to accomplish these military goals.

Because consequentialists are so focused on the consequences of an action, and not on its intentional nature, they are free to pick and choose which of these descriptions they want to emphasize. Anscombe’s point is that we don’t get to pick and choose, and that the consequences an action has are only part of the story. For Anscombe, any true story told about Truman’s action has to include what it looked like from the inside. And, it matters in this case that there’s no way of telling the true story of how Truman ended the war that doesn’t include his intending to kill innocent civilians in order to accomplish military goals. To Anscombe, who defines murder as “the intentional killing of innocents,” this meant that Truman could not escape being a mass murderer, and the conclusion that he ought not to be awarded an honorary degree quickly followed.

Intention starts with a surprisingly simple observation. What we do can be described in all sorts of ways, but some of these descriptions are more important than others. Suppose that a man is pumping water into a house from a well a short distance away. And suppose that the following descriptions are all, at some level, true of this man and his action: The man is moving his arm up and down. The handle of the well is tapping out a recognizable rhythm. The house, into which he is pumping the water, is filled with commanders of an occupying force. The water that the man is pumping is actually poisoned, and the gradual effect of this poison will be to kill these commanders.

If we ask right now whether what the man is doing is flat-out right or wrong, Anscombe thinks we are making a mistake. This is because we haven’t yet figured out the story of what’s happening. Who is this man? Is he a fascist sympathizer or a member of the resistance? And what’s the broader context of his life, his relationship to these officers, their cause, and the community he lives in? Without these narrative details, we don’t know enough about the man, what he knows, and what his motivations are, to evaluate what he’s doing. Consider the difference between the following two stories:

Story #1: This man’s house has been recently taken over by commanders of an occupying force who are intent on genocide. The man has been ordered, by these commanders, to cooperate with their efforts by pumping water into the house so that they can drink. The man pretends to submit to their request, but laces the well with an undetectable chemical compound. He knows that, if he’s caught, he’ll be killed, but he cannot allow these soldiers to kill his friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens.

Story #2: When this man noticed commanders of an occupying force making their way through his city, he invited them into his house and asked them to use it as their base. He has long sympathized with their genocidal efforts, and wants to help their cause in any way that he can. While they are working, he notices that they’re thirsty and so offers to pump water into the house in order to keep them well hydrated. Unbeknownst to him, a toxic chemical has seeped into the water supply, and he is contributing to the downfall of this occupying force by providing them with the poisoned water.

The key events in each story are the same, as are the actions that the man literally takes and their consequences. What matters is that the stories bring out radically different descriptions of the man and his actions. Whether the man’s actions are heroic or despicable, virtuous or vicious, morally good or reprehensible, depends on which of these stories is true.

Contemplation is Pointless, And That Is The Point

Setiya diagnoses his crisis as one of too much action. He draws a distinction between goal-directed (or telic) activities and activities that are “goalless” (or atelic). Whereas goal-directed activities get their value from culminating in an achievement—crossing the finish line makes the painful marathon worth running—goalless activities have value apart from how they end. Goalless activities are valuable just because you’re doing them, and they continue to be valuable as long as you do them and aren’t diminished in value because they don’t culminate in some big accomplishment. In this category, we can put things like sitting on a quiet dock to watch the waves come in or playing with our kids until we lose track of time.

Contemplation, unlike goal-directed action, is complete on its own terms. Following the ancient philosophers, we can break down this completeness into two more distinct features. Contemplation is continuous—it doesn’t have a clear beginning or end. If you are absorbed in a thought or a moment, there is no definite point when you have to turn away. And contemplation is leisurely—there is no set pace you should strive to do it at and no such thing as being an “efficient” contemplative. Contemplative activities don’t have bittersweet endings, because they don’t really have endings at all. For Setiya, the antidote to the problems caused by excessive attachment to goals and action was to push himself to appreciate goalless activities. In his case, the midlife crisis ended by taking up a serious daily meditation practice (and then, hypocritically perhaps, writing a book about it).

Best Quotes from Others

Principles that are mistakenly high and strict are a trap; they may easily lead in the end directly or indirectly to the justification of monstrous things. — Elizabeth Anscombe, War and Murder
Are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honours as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth or the best possible state of your soul? — Socrates, in Plato’s Apology
The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. — William Shakespeare, King Lear

Best Quotes from the Authors

To flourish in life we need meaningful work that doesn’t alienate us. At minimum, this will mean that any work that objectifies and dehumanizes you in ways deeply at odds with your values is out.
Philosophy is care for our souls.
If you don’t deeply understand why you are giving, I would argue that it isn’t generosity.
Like any investments, good life investments will also carry some significant risks. They will require the kinds of virtues that help us take responsibility for our moral lives, determine who to care about, and determine how to manage uncertainty.
Our work should have real, recognizable impact on the good lives of the people it serves.
Self-disclosure and self-expansion are the first steps in establishing feelings of intimacy. Sharing our “inner worlds”—not just acting—is a crucial building block of love.
We’re convinced that if you can prove a belief to be false, you should give that belief up. Refusing to do so, engaging in wishful thinking, is a recipe for frustration and unhappiness.
You need a meditation app to remind you to meditate because if you don’t meditate, you will be too stressed to work.
But perhaps the best road into this is to let the life of action you’ve already lived give you some materials for contemplation. Not telling the story but extracting the meaning.

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Note: All the text in this summary are highlights from the book. Passages marked 'MV' are my comments for context, clarity, or readability.

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