Democratising the good life
Professor Rajeev Bhargava, CSDS and Institute for Social Justice
The article was orginally published in and written for The Hindu
Earlier, there was a single ideal defining the good life. While we have moved beyond that, we have a long way to go in pluralising the good life and making it available to all
Modern life is unthinkable without an intimate family life, a satisfying job, and the pleasure of buying and consuming things we want. Production (work), reproduction, and consumption are an integral part of the contemporary idea of the good life. This was not always so.
The monistic conception
In much of human history, such life was considered too lowly and contrasted with other infinitely ‘superior’ ways of living. For instance, many human societies in the past put the highest premium on a life spent conquering, safeguarding, and ruling territories and their populations. Courage in the battlefield was therefore the greatest virtue. The life of great warriors (example, Karna and Arjuna) was the stuff of which legends, myths and epic tales were made. In other societies such as Athens, proper human fulfilment was possible only by participating in the political life of the city republic.
Other communities found the greatest value in a life of contemplation. The highest ideal was to have a life of the mind, penetrating the mysteries of the self and the world, identifying hidden structures that hold the universe together (example, parts of the Upanishads; Aristotle; in his own way, the Buddha). Relatedly, once the source of everything was discovered, which in some cases was identified with god, a life spent in the service of god and in complete devotion was man’s highest virtue.
It is one thing to give importance to such lives (of political rule/participation, intellectual pursuits, or religious devotion) and quite another to make any one supreme, as if one alone is really worthy. Indeed, most single ideal-loving or monistic world views not only created a hierarchy between different conceptions of the good life but treated ordinary life as having no worth at all. A life of production and reproduction — namely, one deployed on the field (sowing, ploughing, harvesting, digging, weaving, tanning, all manual work) or one spent in household chores (cleaning, cooking, washing, raising children, generally the lot of women) — was inferior, falling outside the society’s conception of the good life. In these societies, even healing, accounting or trading were seen as lowly. Second, high ideals were accessible only to certain classes of people — men of high birth, people with pedigree. The really good life (of politics, religious devotion or the intellect) was unavailable to large numbers of people. Monistic conceptions went hand in hand with exclusivism.
Pluralising the good life
A challenge to this way of hierarchically arranging ideals (the monistic conception of the good life) was already articulated in ancient Indian texts which judged it unwise to spend an entire life pursuing a single high ideal. Rather, one’s life must necessarily incorporate different ideals, though not all at the same time — the idea of the good life must be pluralised. We must divide our entire life in stages, regulating each stage by a different high ideal. For example, each person first spends his life learning and cultivating intellectual and moral virtues, then lives a life of the householder (gets married, earns, raises children) and eventually devotes the rest of it away from society, in pursuit of god or other-worldly goods.
Such a life combines multiple ideals, each of which has highest value and validity only in a given context and for a given purpose. There is no ideal that is good for all times, for all places and for all stages in the life of a person. Correspondingly, to lead a complete life, many virtues are needed — physical stamina, bodily health, courage, a modicum of detachment, critical self-reflection, empathy, a sense for something higher than humans, to name just a few. And one virtue also necessary in the mix is the capacity of properly balancing different ideals.
The realisation that a full life requires multiple ideals posed a decent challenge to the monistic view, but did not fully dethrone it or challenge its exclusivism. For instance, it did not question the stigmatisation of certain kinds of manual work and workers. In more recent centuries, however, several profound changes in our thinking, not fully accomplished in practice, could democratise the idea of the good life.
A good life for all
First, the realisation that household work, raising children and manual labour are as worthy or dignified as intellectual work or political action. Second, without downgrading intellectual pursuit or political involvement, a vision of the good life must include the pleasures of ordinary life. Third, a life suffused with multiple ideals requiring a number of virtues cannot be the preserve of any one group of people but must be available to all. The valuable bits in what were once considered high and low must be combined and made accessible to everyone. A person living a life of the mind cannot afford to be indifferent to physical skills and stamina or to the world of politics. Likewise, a sportsperson, a policeperson or an army officer cannot neglect virtues of self-reflection. Nor can those involved in politics. And while professional expertise and domestic skills are important for the householder, so are, say, civility and public reasoning. Therefore, our society — in particular, our educational institutions — must be designed to help each of us cultivate all of them. Fourth, the final choice to decide how to combine these different ideals in one’s own life must lie with the person who leads it. Each person must work out what precise kind of life to lead. Freedom of choice is integral to the idea of a plural and democratic good life. We still have some way to go before fully pluralising and democratising the good life and will need to work hard to achieve it.