The question of the good life and what makes life goes well is one that contemporary (political) philosophers are concerned with. The commonplace that has emerged, at least as far as I can tell, is that we, as rational beings, have the capacity to choose our own conception of the good life, and the ability to live in such a way as to enable ourselves to realise this conception. This, of course, presupposes an autonomous individual who chooses her own ends; the exact specification of the scope of this autonomy has been debated over and over, starting with the communitarian critique of Rawlsian liberalism. So in short, and to over-simplify, there are two conceptions of the autonomous individual. First, the Rawlsian (though this is a bit of an unfair attribution to Rawls, given that he revised his liberalism following the communitarian critique; but it is convenient so let's go with that) individual, standing apart from her ends and her social setting, as if in a blank slate, choosing the kind of life that she wants; Michael Sandel calls this the 'unencumbered' individual, while Charles Taylor, if memory serves, criticises this view of the individual as atomistic. The second conception of the autonomous individual is one that communitarian (loosely-called) philosophers have endorsed, though it is perhaps contentious to call this conception of the self an alternate conception of the autonomous individual. This view, in any event, is the situated individual: she who is situated within her social world, encumbered by everything that makes up her social reality, including the history of her nationality, ethnicity, gender, etc; including her familial obligations. Thus situated, she does not so much choose her ends as she discovers them; this, at least, is Sandel's view. But other communitarian philosophers would probably endorse a conception of the self that more or less varies along these lines.
So perhaps the question arises as to why I call this the communitarian conception of the autonomous individual, for surely she cannot be autonomous if her ends are not chosen, but discovered. Autonomy and choice, after all, go hand-in-hand; to be autonomous is to choose, though not just any choice would do, but a choice that one arrives at after practical reasoning and self-reflection. So this idea of discovering one's ends seems to negate our ability to choose, and so it follows that it is not really a conception of the autonomous individual.
I think Appiah's writings on this issue provides a pretty good account of how we can be autonomous situated selves. Like I said in the entry about his usage of Mr. Stevens to illustrate his point about individuality, though, he doesn't really say anything new or controversial; the point, to me, is pretty self-evident. But what I like about it is the way he puts it so neatly and clearly; and so I will quote it in full before moving on to the two things that I want to say about this.
Living a life means filling the time between birth ... and death with a pattern of attempts and achievements that may be assessed ethically, in retrospect, as successful or unsuccessful, in whole or in part. And the ethical dimensions of the life include both the extent to which a person has created and experienced things - such as relationships, wrosk of art, and institutions - that are objectively significant and the degree to which she has lived up to the projects she has set for herself ... A life has gone well if a person has mostly done for others what she owed them (and is thus morally successful) and has succeeded in creating things of significance and in fulfilling her ambitions (and is thus ethically successful). Your individual identity, your individuality, defines your ambitions, determines what achievements have significance in your own particular life. Your individuality makes certain things a significant part of the measure of your life's success and failure, even though they would not be elements of the measure of success in every life. In my novelist's life - a life that is a novelist's life because I have chosen to make it one - the fact that I have not written that witty and intelligent satire of contemporary urban life ... is a significant failure. My life is diminished by it. In your philosopher's life, the witty and intelligent satire you have written is an accidental thing, adding little to your life's value; and its cost was that you failed to complete the thinking-through of metaphysical realism that would have made your life wholly more satisfactory.
To create a life, in other words, is to interpret the materials that history has given you. Your character, your circumstances, your psychological constitution, including the beliefs and preferences generated by the interaction of your innate endowments and your experience: all these need to be taken into account in shaping a life. They are not constraints on its shaping; they are its materials. As we come to maturity, the identities we make, our individualities, are interpretive responses to our talents and disabilities, and the changing social, semantic, and material contexts we enter at birth; and we develop our identities dialectically with our capacities and circumstances, because the latter are in part the product of what our identities lead us to do. A person's shaping of her life flows from her beliefs and from a set of values, tastes, and dispositions of sensibility, all of these influenced by various forms of social identity: let us call all these together a person's ethical self. (pgs 162-163)
(emphasis in underline added)
The Life that I Have Chosen
In the first paragraph, Appiah's example of the novelist life versus the philosopher life seems to suggest that these two things can't be chosen at the same time by the individual; she is either a novelist or a philosopher, because writing a successful satire about urban life adds little value to a philosopher's life. If she can be both a novelist and a philosopher, Appiah is unlikely to have said that writing a successful satire is accidental to the philosopher's life.
One can contest whether he is right to suggest that we can only choose one lifeplan for ourselves, but that is not the point that I want to make. The point that I want to make is a decidedly less philosophical and more personal one. I read this paragraph in the library and the notion of failure - the failure to write a successful satire - stood out to me. If Appiah's point is that realising or fulfilling the measure(s) of success of the life that one has chosen makes one's chosen life go well, then I cannot help but wonder what it is that I have chosen; the life that I have chosen. I am putting things a bit backwards here; my starting point now is not the life that I have chosen, but the measures of success ordinarily taken to evaluate whether one's chosen life has gone well. In other words, I start not from the premise that I have chosen the life of the philosopher, for example, and I have not done x to fulfil this life, or I have done y which is accidental to this life. No, I start from the fact that I have done x and y, and I wonder what these things say about the life that I have chosen for myself.
The fact that I am doing a quasi-philosophical, theoretical, and barely-legal PhD at the Law Faculty of the University of Cambridge would suggest that I have chosen a particular life for myself. This could be a philosopher's life (though I wouldn't be so full of myself as to call myself a philosopher), a theorist's life, a legal academic's life... But if that is the case, then why do I sometimes feel as if I have not achieved those measures of success that point to the going-wellness of my chosen life? Does this not mean that I did not choose this life as much as I fell back on it? Indeed, it seems as if my ostensible choice was, as Appiah said, influenced by my own history, my social circumstances, the various forms of my social identities. I am doing a PhD in Law because I have law degrees, so it makes sense to do this; I am doing a PhD because I didn't like practice (both domestic and international) and I didn't like working in the government, so the PhD and academia were the logical choice after a process of elimination; and then there's the question of why I chose to go to law school in the first place. I went to law school because I did well for my A Levels and this was what everyone with my grades did with these grades - social conditioning, then. My decision was influenced by my social environment, by the norms set by my sociality. Was I autonomous then? Was I autonomous two years ago when I decided to apply to PhD programmes? Was I autonomous for ostensibly choosing this life?
The reason there is a question mark is because there has always - always - been a nagging sense at the back of my mind that I am not realy doing what I should be doing; and so Appiah's example of the novelist life struck a very personal chord. It seems as if this PhD that I am doing and whatever measures of success will flow from it are accidental to, not definitive of, whether my life is successful; and if I feel this way, it seems to follow from my reversal of Appiah's argument that I have not actually chosen the life that I want. I regard the fact that I have not written anything in more than 8 years, let alone a novel, to be a failure. Why should it be failure if I have ostensibly chosen the legal/theoretical/philosophical academic route? It suggests, then, that I did not choose the life that I really want.
This brings me back to the question of autonomy. I find it hard to disagree with Appiah when he says that creating a life is interpreting the materials that history has given me. But what if I interpreted it wrongly? What if I made a mistake along the way? At what point is it too late to put a stop to this and say that I want a do-over? I suppose he wouldn't object to this; but I wonder how autonomous I really am if, despite feeling like I am not doing what I ought to be doing, I can't imagine doing anything to change that. I can't imagine doing anything but finish this PhD and go into academia. Am I really choosing? Am I choosing, or am I just going with the flow? Or am I choosing to go with the flow?
It seems to me that if I were to really choose, if I were in full control of my autonomy, I would choose a different life; I would choose the novelist life. It is what I have always wanted to do; and writing is the only thing that I have ever been good at, without which I would not be doing a PhD at Cambridge today. But this is why we are not Rawlsian individuals. We cannot separate ourselves from our encumbrances and decide in a vacuum what ends we would like to pursue. If it is too autonomy-restricting to say, a la Sandel, that we discover our ends, then Appiah is right to say that we interpret the materials that history has given us in choosing our own lifeplan.
It is an obvious point, of course. No one would deny this once they really sit down to think about this. But why is it so hard to change course? Why is there such resistance in me, this inertia, this fear of the unknown? Perhaps I have just answered my own question; it's the fear of the unknown. It's also the maybe-false security of the comfortable present.
But there is something to be said about my conception of failure. When I stop to think about it, I really feel as if I have continuously failed and am continuously failing for failing to write, failing to complete a piece of writing, just failing to do what I have always wanted to do. Maybe that's why I write so much in this journal. Or rather: at least I still write in this journal. But it is definitely not the same, and it makes up for absolutely nothing.
Critical Reflection on One's Life
I don't want to sound like an intellectual snob, but these philosophical ideas about a good life and living well aren't really philosophical to me at all; rather, they are so obvious and commonplace that I can't imagine how anyone doesn't think about these things. How can anyone not reflect on what makes their life go well? How can anyone not have a conception of what would make their life go well? The various philosophical conceptions of the self - especially the liberal one - have been criticised for being too idealistic, not matching up to reality, not describing how people actually see themselves. Critics of autonomy say that people don't actually behave like this; they don't critically think about their life, their options, and choosing on the basis of the result of a process of practical reasoning. Most people simply don't think very hard about these issues at all, and so exalting autonomy as the ultimate, or one of the most important, values is misconceived.
The point that I want to make now has little to do with all of that, though I will say that the mere fact that the ideal of the autonomous self doesn't match with how people live is neither here nor there; this conception of the autonomous self is an ideal from which political principles should be derived because it is better to err on the side of caution and confer more rights based on this conception of the individual than less rights based on a 'realistic' conception of the person. But anyway.
The point that I want to make is this. It is very important to me that the person that I date - for good, maybe - critically reflects on his life. In fact, it is very important to me that he realises that nothing about him, what he purports to believe in, his identities, is beyond rational revisability. Because if he thinks that he's answered a moral question and it's case closed and nothing can ever change his mind, then perhaps he's not a very critical thinker after all; and honestly, I just find that really unattractive.
John expressed surprise to me that there are people who have lived their whole lives without any of their views challenged by others. To me, though, it is not surprising at all. To me, that's really the way that the ordinary person lives, and our lives are not of the ordinary in that sense. We talk about these issues because we are doing a PhD on these issues, because we are interested in giving good, proper reasons for a particular substantive moral position. But most people don't think in this way. Most people are happy to accept whatever they have been told and get on with their lives, because life is too short to be serious (on the contrary, I think that life is too short to be unreflecting and...well, dumb; though the shortness or otherwise of life has nothing to do with whether we should reflect and think about important things; indeed, this rather goes to the quality of one's life and not its duration). And so I want someone who isn't like this because I don't want an ordinary person. I don't want someone who doesn't reflect, who doesn't think, who doesn't question the supposed truths that he thinks he believes in. I don't think I can ever respect someone like this. And I don't think there's anything particularly intellectual about the process of critical reflection; it is something that anyone can do if one is minded to do so.
Last week, when B and I had our final conversation, I told him that he was the first person who made me rethink my stance against having religion in my personal life. His immediate response was, 'I don't want to change you.'
But that's not the point, is it? This response suggests that there is something sacrosanct and inviolable about the positions that we have adopted; but the mere fact that we have adopted a certain position says nothing about whether this position was arrived at after a process of critical thinking, or whether it was arrived at on a whim and fancy, and it'd simply stuck over the years, or whether it is even right, or good, or desirable. Why shouldn't all our positions be open to rational revisability? In fact, why shouldn't everything that we do be open to challenge by someone else? There is nothing so special and inviolable about a person's character that shouldn't be changed, especially if there is something about this person's character that is bad, or unsavoury, or self-damaging. You wouldn't tell a drug addict to continue living his life this way on the pretext that you don't want to change him, so why should other aspects of this person's life and convictions be immune to challenge?
My reply to him was that there was no reason why I shouldn't revise a position on something if I have thought about it and realised that my position didn't much make sense, or didn't stem from any kind of critical reflection. That seemed to me to be the case with my stance against religion in my private life; I thought about it and it didn't make sense anymore why it should be a deal breaker when there are things about the religious person that I like, when his values align with my own, when we get along and there is chemistry, and when he doesn't seek to impose it on me. Despite the fact that it didn't work out with B, and perhaps because it didn't work out, I think I learned something pretty important about being open to changing my mind about something. For all the shit I have written so far on uncritical lives lead by uncritical minds, I am rather narrow-minded when it comes to revising my viewpoints. I tend to dismiss too quickly viewpoints that differ from my own, labelling them 'conservative' and thus idiotic, or something equally mean.
But I am straying from the point. One point is this: not wanting to change someone makes sense in the ordinary meaning of the sentiment (i.e. you take your partner as he/she comes, plus people can't really change anyway), but it doesn't make sense when you really think about why a person's beliefs or habits should not be open to challenge and revision. Why should I hold on stubbornly to this ridiculous stance I had against religion in my life if letting go of it would invite a wonderful person into my life? Why should he not tell an ex-girlfriend to stop drinking if drinking too much isn't good for her anyway? Sometimes, we should want to change our partners (and vice versa) because part of a relationship is bettering the person. Of course, this is rather paternalistic, but 1) it's not so bad if it's not imposed by the state; and 2) more seriously, a committed couple should bring out the best in each other, even if it means changing the other party.
The other point is this: critical reflection of one's life. Do we know where we are going with our lives? Do we know what we want? Do I? Maybe I don't, maybe I don't have all the answers, maybe I really shouldn't be doing a PhD in Law; but I know other things. I have thought a lot about why my relationships keep failing. I know the kind of relationship that I am looking for. I know the quality of the life that I want to lead. Maybe I think too much; but I would rather think too much than too little. After all, some dead ancient philosopher did say that 'an unexamined life is not worth living'.