The opening sentence of the book’s acknowledgments reads, “In many ways, this book is an expression of the love and gratitude we have for Catholic education.” And indeed, like certain strands in Catholicism, The Good Life Method somehow manages to be at once revolutionary and conservative.
I will begin with the revolutionary aspects — which themselves begin, conservatively enough, in ancient Greece. Socrates was executed for corrupting the youth. Socratic corruption goes by way of conversation and reflection, questioning what others take for granted. He famously claimed that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Yet Socrates’s reward for pursuing and promoting the examined life was a death sentence. Reflection and revolution, it seems, are not so distant.
The Good Life Method likewise calls for questioning the assumptions of our society and culture, assumptions about what makes for fulfillment in life, the role of money and romance, the importance of truth-telling in our storytelling, where to put our faith, and how to find meaning in our existence. Presumptions on all these topics are fed to us by our society. Both the technocratic culture from Silicon Valley and consumerist capitalism come under scrutiny in The Good Life Method. The chapter on career (“Work with Integrity”) considers Karl Marx’s revolutionary view of labor and alienation (Marx, recall, has friends in both the Catholic liberation theologians of South America and the Catholic Worker Movement in the United States).
Plato’s allegory of the cave recurs as a theme. Most of us, this story goes, live our lives in some sort of cave, with our backs to the sun, and we think the shadows on the wall in front of us are reality. The philosopher, through sometimes painful, disorienting reflection and reasoning, draws us out of the cave into the brilliant daylight, where we confront the strangeness of things as they really are. The Good Life Method challenges us to reconsider whether we are living in fully illuminated reality or whether, instead, we are seeing only the shadows our society projects on the wall.
The book is also revolutionary in its insistence that the results of philosophical reflection be put into practice. Each chapter ends with an assignment: tasks for readers that typically require either putting pen to paper or finding a friend or family member to engage in conversation — sometimes both. These assignments stand in for the pedagogical pillars of the college course: small discussion groups and a capstone writing assignment in which students write about meaningful events in their lives while giving their own answers to the “big questions” raised in the course. Sullivan and Blaschko call these assignments “crafting” (e.g., “soulcraft,” “truthcraft,” “workcraft”), which they see as the beating heart of philosophy.
The book is conservative in that it has a clear set of heroes in the ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato. While it unwaveringly asks readers to come to their own independently reasoned conclusions about the good life, it is equally unwavering in its own confidence that “virtue ethics” is the best way to think about the good life.
Though some would call for a greater attempt at neutrality when introducing ethical theories, the book’s confidence in virtue ethics is mostly unproblematic because the version of virtue ethics at work is so thin. The Good Life Method rests content with time-tested, uncontroversial virtues such as honesty, integrity, love, and generosity. Other, less universally loved virtues do not appear — chastity, for example, or honor, or submissiveness — and their absence goes unremarked. “Virtue ethics,” as it appears in the book, is more or less commonsense, down-home morality.
A more standard introduction to ethical philosophy would ask why certain characteristics are virtues while others are not, and it would thereby unveil a thicker version of “virtue ethics.” Consider Aristotle’s way of locating the virtues: he believed that each natural thing, if undamaged, unhindered, and properly supported, will reach the fulfillment of its own nature, as the acorn becomes the oak. The virtues, he taught, are those characteristics that, when exercised, allow you to fulfill your nature, that allow you to grow and to flourish. Thus, for Aristotle, identifying the virtues of a thing requires identifying its nature and considering what contributes to the fulfillment of that nature.
While aspects of this are lovely, it is unavoidably “essentialist” — it posits, for each of us, an essential nature that determines how we ought to live. Existentialists, such as Sartre, reject such essentialism by pointing out that the same rational, reflective intellect lauded by Socrates enables us to question everything — including whether to live according to our nature. We are free. Unlike the acorn, we can deliberately direct ourselves toward “unnatural” ends. Thus, even if we do choose, conventionally enough, to become oaks (so to speak), that is still a choice for which we bear responsibility. We cannot shirk our responsibility by saying, “But, that’s just my nature” (nor “I was just following orders,” nor even “That’s how we do things around here”). Our responsibility cuts deeper than that — and so calls into question what guidance our nature can provide.
Perhaps more troublingly, Aristotle assigned somewhat different natures to different classes of people, to the predictable detriment of women and his so-called “natural slaves.” Christianity, too, can be essentialist. In Genesis, for example, God made man in His image, and Christianity often teaches that we find our fulfillment in realizing that nature. But it can be argued that different people have somewhat different natures. As a young woman, I was told that God chose to manifest Himself on earth as a male, thus revealing that the proper fulfillment of the function of women is to relate to men as the Church relates to Christ — adoringly and submissively. In light of answers such as this, the thicker question of how, exactly, we identify the virtues becomes pressing.
To be clear, The Good Life Method is staunchly affirming, throughout, of the equality of all people, welcoming of all stripes. I only note that this ideal is not found in virtue ethics of its heroes. None of this is news to Sullivan and Blaschko, of course. They simply leave it off the page, perhaps reserved for a more advanced course.
Though The Good Life Method can, at times, seem remarkably confident in its own answers, the book is also strikingly undogmatic. It is, in fact, positively warm, oddly free of moralizing, welcoming of disagreement and engagement. By the end, you are ready to have a beer with the authors — and you feel they would welcome the opportunity.
The back half of the book, which takes up “God and the Good Life,” also provides strikingly personal windows into the private spiritual lives of the two devoutly Catholic authors. In doing so, it may advance the good discussed in the first chapter (“Desire the Truth”): building bridges across our currently polarized political culture, through respectful listening and learning.
Yes, the book’s first chapter dives boldly into our current political divisions, starting with the 2016 presidential election. That boldness in embracing controversy — enabled by the calm confidence of the authors, which supports their willingness to transparently and undogmatically engage — continues throughout, to excellent effect.
Audaciously, the GGL course presents to its students its own price tag (calculated by dividing the tuition of Notre Dame by the minimum number of courses taken) and then points out that the same sum could be used to save the lives of two children from mosquito-borne illness (as estimated by the GiveWell foundation). Students confront the question of whether they ought to redirect their tuition. That question then becomes the frame for considering utilitarianism (the philosophical ethical theory that, arguably, has the largest popular following among college students, due in large part to Peter Singer and the Effective Altruism movement).
Utilitarianism measures actions by their outcome: the morally right action is the one that would generate the best outcome, measured in units of well-being. The Effective Altruism movement uses utilitarian reasoning to determine where to direct resources. Sullivan and Blaschko tell the story of Matt Wage, who followed Singer’s advice to Wall Street, where he has been directing his large salary to maximally efficient charities. They then question whether the reasoning behind Wage’s life choices is consistent with living a good life. They note that it requires allowing the markets to mediate between you and those you aid, and that doing so seems to amount to treating “yourself as a mechanism for promoting [a] selfless external moral objective.” This, the authors argue, is neither the good life nor the virtue of generosity.
While the book insightfully displays the difficulty and oddity of utilitarian thinking, it does not, I think, squarely face the challenge posed by the fact that you might redirect your tuition to save two lives. (The book does, in its characteristic honesty, quote a student who struggles with the question.) That challenge appears, I believe, not when asking how to do the most good (as the utilitarian would have us ask), nor when asking how to live a good life as a good person (as virtue ethicists would have us ask), but rather when asking what you might say in an imagined conversation with the person whose life you could save with resources at your disposal. Although our lives are certainly not to be treated as mere mechanisms for maximizing well-being, we still owe a story to the person whose life we might save. Simply pointing to the virtue of generosity or the ideal of a good human life seems, to me, not yet an answer that could be given eye-to-eye.
Having grown to like the authors, I began reading the eighth chapter, “Struggle with Suffering,” with dread. The theological problem of suffering is a doozy. Sullivan and Blaschko quote Hume’s succinct statement of it: “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? then where does evil come from?” Put more personally: “God, do you not see? or do you not care?”
The problem has received many “answers” from philosophers. As Sullivan and Blaschko put it, “such philosophers take their job to be proving that it’s conceivable for God to have an adequate reason to permit all the suffering in the world.” Blessedly, Sullivan and Blaschko decry such answers. Rather, they appeal to Kierkegaard and his attempt to make sense of the story of Abraham — and, thereby, of God Himself — in Fear and Trembling. They allow, in the end, that there is something absurd in placing your faith in God in the face of suffering. Their treatment both acknowledges the depth of the problem and allows for simple silence and empathy in the company of those who suffer. Catholicism is not afraid to appeal to mystery while acknowledging suffering and tragedy — kyrie eleison, the Mass repeats.
I close with the final sentence of the book: “This drive to find a goal proportionate to life, and to seek to know this goal with others, is, for virtue ethicists, what the good life is all about.” “Find[ing] a goal proportionate to life” (to life, not to our essential nature) is the animating project of the Good Life Method. Inviting and guiding the reader through a set of reflections — even spiritual exercises — aimed at that discovery is a very Good Thing.
Professor Pamela Hieronymi teaches philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles.