What does it mean to live a good life? It’s a simple enough question. Answering it not so simple. Philosophers, ethicists, and anyone working for the common good have wrestled with this question for hundreds of years. It is complicated. What does it actually mean to live a good (or decent) life, especially when one person’s “good life” is different from another’s?
I think about this question a lot. As an ethicist pursuing a PhD in Ethical AI, I am always asking whether a given AI application is worth deploying. I want to know if the automated system or machine learning algorithm will support human flourishing. But in order to know if it’s worth pursuing, I also need to know what human flourishing looks like.
There is a book by Maura Powers and Ruth Faden called Social Justice that has helped me think about this question. Powers and Faden accept that “the good life” is hard to pin down because people want different things. They do not point their finger and say, “This! This is a good life!” Instead, they focus on specific aspects of well-being that are common to all people. They argue that the job of justice – and ethics – is to nurture and maintain these universal aspects of well-being.
The Good Life and The Six Dimensions of Well-Being
Whatever else we may want out of life, we all want these six things. What’s more, if any one of these is seriously lacking in our lives, then “the good life” as we want it to be is also seriously lacking. So, when evaluating whether a project or activity is ethical, I start by asking whether it supports these dimensions:
This is the basic biological functioning of the body. Every one of us wants access to healthy food, water, air, and health care services. This is true no matter what kind of body we have – tall, short, robust, petite, wheelchair-ready, diabetic, whatever. Each body comes with strengths and limitations, and living a good life means being able to meet our own unique health needs. Of course, this also means we must work to prevent illness, injury, and premature death.
We all need to be (and feel) safe. A good life is not possible if we are living with (or in fear of) physical or psychological abuse. Intimidation, terrorism, assault, rape, or torture are invasions of personal security, even if they are just threats. We want to be protected so that we can pursue a life of meaning, whatever that looks like for us.
This dimension covers the basic intellectual skills necessary for us to understand the natural world, to discuss our choices with others, and to determine what is true or false. A basic education is only part of this. Of course, we all want to read, write, and converse in the language(s) of our family, friends, and community. But we also need critical thinking skills so that we don’t simply inherit the beliefs of those around us. We want to be able to decide for ourselves what we believe and why we believe it.
We are missing something deeply important for a good life if we do not respect ourselves or if we do not have the respect of others. Respect is simply the ability to treat yourself and other people as independent sources of moral worth and dignity. To not have the respect of others is an attack on well-being from outside sources. To not respect yourself is an attack on well-being from within.
Humans are social creatures. Whether we are introverted or extroverted, we all want to have meaningful connections with other persons. This may come in the form of participating in sports, religion, community theater, or many other activities. Whatever it looks like for you, we want our social institutions and conventions to help us cultivate bonds of friendship, love, and solidarity.
This is the ability to shape the contours of your own life. We all want to make our own choices about how our lives will unfold. Maybe you want to go to college (or not), get married (or not), have children (or not), travel (or not), etc. etc. In order to have self-determination, our legal systems and cultural norms have to allow for us to make meaningful choices and to then implement those choices.