Reaching a Good Life

By Yeremias Jena, M.Hum

The question of “god life” in ethics (moral philosophy) has been raised since ancient Greek time. The question could be formulated as once proposed by Immanuel Kant: “What should I do?” Another question asked by Kant was “what can I know?” While the first one is ethical question, the second one is dealing with epistemology. The state of the question itself—“what should I do”—is something to do with ethical life in the sense that by answering it we are entering into an ethical reflection.

Let us mention the three traditions in moral philosophy which are trying to reflect this question since their existence. These three traditions are virtue ethics, deontology, and utilitarianism. Based on these ethical traditions that this article will reflect further how it is applied in bioethics.

A.     Virtue ethics realizing a “good life”

Virtue ethics is related to theological ethics of Aristotle. In his opus work entitled Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle reflected human conditions under which moral responsibility may be ascribed to individual agent. He discussed also the nature of virtues and vices in moral evaluation and methods of achieving happiness in human life. Aristotle proposed certain characteristic of person who has responsibility towards himself to act morally in order to attain happiness; and the character of that person is character of “good person” in term of being virtuous man.

Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle
Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle

In Nicomachean Ethics I.2, Aristotle said that the ultimate goal of human life is happiness. Althoug everyone strives to reach happiness, it cannot be attained simply by reducing or erasing our extrinsic good, either it is wealthiness, power, or knowledge. Being happy is not a culmination of material well-being, having attained certain political position or social class. Being happy is not also a culmination of knowledge. For Aristotle, even our understanding of what is good cannot guarantee us to be happy.

Being happy necessitates a certain excellent character, or what Aristotle called as character or personality. What kind of personality is needed to reach our happiness? That personality is being a virtuous man. It means that a man is always strives to cultivate virtues and avoid vices. The condition where a person is able to live virtuous life is a moral condition where that person is responsible to himself in realizing his happiness.

Let us be precise here. For Aristotle, living a good life is living in a happy condition of life. As an ultimate goal of life, happiness attain when a person live virtuously. Now, what is the nature of virtue? First of all, virtue is not an intellectual capacity. Virtue is character, a disposition to act in certain way when one responds a similar situation. It is a habit of behaving in a stable manner. For Aristotle, virtue is always “an intermediate state between the opposed vices of excess and deficiency”. Principle of virtue can be formulated as follow: “too much and too little are always wrong; the right kind of action always in the mean” (Nicomachean Ethics II 6).

Some virtues can be mentioned here:

Too much                  Virtue                       Too little

Rashness                    courage                     cowardice

Intemperance             temperance               insensibility

Wastefulness             generosity                 stinginess

Being ingratiating      being friendly           being surly

Vanity                        magnanimity            pusillanimity

For Aristotle, happiness could be reached when a person has become virtuous man, when he has this excellence character. Again, virtues are not the result of knowledge. Virtue can only be attained by practical knowledge where by disposing oneself to certain action in the same situation, one can foster a more or less stable (mean) attitude.  Of course there is always success or failure, and that is normal in conducting a virtuous life. According to Aristotle, a person has reached the state of excellence character once living virtuous life has become habit (disposition or stable attitude). By then he/she is a virtuous man/women.

However, let us not forget that being virtuous cannot be for a lifelong. It should be striven and kept, since there is always the tension between virtues and vices. And also let us not forget the weakness of our human will. We can be easily fall back to one pole of the two extreme, be it the pole of “too much” or “too little”.

B.     Deontology reaches a “good life”

Immanuel Kant

The central notion of deontological ethics is acting ethically in performing or realizing a duty. Emmanuel Kant was the only philosopher who proposed this kind of ethics.

In order to understand properly the key concept of deontology, let us see first the condition of human being as assumed by this theory. How did Kant perceive human being compared to Aristotle ethics?

According to Aristotle, the nature of human being is being responsible or not responsible. Being responsible means act morally to foster excellent characters, means being virtuous men. On the other hand, being not responsible means letting oneself to vices, being not able to stir one’s life away from vices. It is different is Kantian way of doing ethics. For Kant, we are always living in a duality condition or situation. First, there are always exist animal condition. It is purely sensuous being, entirely subject to causal determination. Those who are living in this condition do not act according to the light of reason. They are acting according to some external conditions or reason. Even for those whose acts are driven by an outcome, they are acting entirely in accordance with causal determination. Second, the other condition describes those who lead their life purely as rational being. Here a person is acting according to a certain moral principle. This moral principle comes from his pure deductive reasoning in which a free man based his moral act in a certain moral principle which he will to be universalizable.

For Kant, good life can be reached only when moral agent act not in accordance with certain external causality or seduced by certain goal or end. Good life can be reached only when a moral agent act rationally according to certain moral principle which he will that that principle can be universalizable. And since that moral agent is free and rational, Kant assure us that other rational being also could act according to that rational and impartial principle. Once become universal, this purely rational principle stands as what Kant called categorical imperative. It is called imperative because of its commanded nature. And it is categorical, because it compels action regardless circumstances, time and space, goal, and so on.

Three categorical imperatives formulated by Immanuel Kant are:

(1)   Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law of nature.

(2)   Act as though the maxim of your action where by your will to become a universal law of nature.

(3)   Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end, and never as a means only.

C.     Attaining “good life” in utilitarianism

Utilitarianism has a main principle that in order to attain good life, we should base our action on ethical principles that have consequences. The principle can be formulated as follow: “An action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable.” Here, favorable is meant that the consequence of that action has greater result or impact to our happiness.

It is important to understand human condition by which utilitarianism is based. Utilitarianism perceives human being as always try to attain happiness, and that happiness can be reached only by realizing what pleasurable and avoiding suffering is. In every action, a moral agent weights which action will help him to reach more pleasure and which action should be avoided because it will cause suffering.

There is always tension between act and rule utilitarianism. Following act utilitarianism will be difficult than rule utilitarianism since in act utilitarianism we have to always change our moral act according to circumstances, in which condition our moral acts is favorable more to the attainment of happiness and avoid suffering. The problem is that many times we have to act according to some existing norm without being much exposed to the importance of weighting the effects or the consequences of that action. However, rule utilitarianism is not the sufficient way out since both of them are based on the same principle, which is the principle of action that leads to the attainment of greatest good for the greatest happiness of people.

D.     How about biomedical ethics?

“Is biomedical ethics dealing also with realizing good life?” Medical ethics is the study of moral values and judgment as they apply to medicine. It is a practical application in clinical settings where ethical principles as well as sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy, theology, and other humanity’s branches come into play.

The four principles proposed by Beauchamp and Childress can be used here to illustrate how good life also being a central theme in biomedical ethics. The four principles are (1) principle of beneficence, (2) principle of non-maleficence, (3) the principle of autonomy, and (4) the principle of justice. Now, in a clinical setting, application of these principles has one goal: realizing “good life” for patients. Doing good and avoiding harm, for example, in meant to realize good life for patients. The same is with the principles of autonomy and justice where the good life of patients has been placed as the ultimate end of providing health care.


©2010 by Yeremias Jena. Atma Jaya School of Medicine, Catholic University of Atma Jaya, Jakarta, Indonesia


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