Mark’s posts on Frithjof Bergmann help lay the groundwork for the upcoming episode on Montaigne and what constitutes the “good life.” Coincidentally, there’s a similarly-themed article by Ronald Dworkin in this month’s New York Review of Books. I may disagree with Mark’s conclusions, and maybe even some of his premises. But I better appreciate Mark’s approach after reading Dworkin’s essay. Nowhere in Dworkin’s piece does he acknowledge that the “good life” might be unattainable for most people through no fault of their own, because the circumstances into which they are born too often frustrate the search. Perhaps I’m being unfair to Dworkin. But he seems to place the sole responsibility of living a “good life” solely upon the person living it:
We are charged to live well by the bare fact of our existence as self-conscious creatures with lives to lead. We are charged in the way we are charged by the value of anything entrusted to our care. It is important that we live well; not important just to us or to anyone else, but just important.
We have a responsibility to live well, and the importance of living well accounts for the value of having a critically good life. These are no doubt controversial ethical judgments. I also make controversial ethical judgments in any view I take about which lives are good or well-lived. In my own view, someone who leads a boring, conventional life without close friendships or challenges or achievements, marking time to his grave, has not had a good life, even if he thinks he has and even if he has thoroughly enjoyed the life he has had. If you agree, we cannot explain why he should regret this simply by calling attention to pleasures missed: there may have been no pleasures missed, and in any case there is nothing to miss now. We must suppose that he has failed at something: failed in his responsibilities for living.
No, I don’t agree. Dworkin’s concept of a “good life” feels like one only a comfortably tenured professor would concoct. Anyone who manages to “thoroughly enjoy” the life they have had, under any circumstances, has already accomplished something significant and rare. A great many people (say, your average Iraqi) would consider themselves lucky to be able to lead a “boring, conventional life.” I’m not terribly familiar with Dworkin’s work, so maybe there’s a context I’m missing. But his ethical judgments strike me as unpersuasive and a little obnoxious. Insofar as Mark is trying to discuss how we can achieve the good life (or at least the better life) by attacking its material obstacles, I’m certainly more sympathetic to that agenda.