Future Present: Perspectives from the Edinburgh Futures Institute

In this article

EFI Deputy Director and Doctoral Researcher in Philosophy, Owen Kelly, explores how the coronavirus pandemic has made us re-evaluate the nature of a 'good' life and why we mustn't lose sight of it.

EFI is publishing a series of blogs that invite our community to respond to the existing crisis of COVID-19 through a variety of lenses. These lenses, economy, sustainability, creativity, history, health, justice, education, democracy, societies, are some of the themes critical to recovery. Members of the EFI community from across the University, different Schools, disciplines and experiences, will share their work and insight and help us consider our present future.

In our third article in this series, EFI Deputy Director and Doctoral Researcher in Philosophy, Owen Kelly, explores how the coronavirus pandemic has made us re-evaluate the nature of a ‘good’ life and why we mustn’t lose sight of it.

COVID-19 has given us a fresh perspective, let’s use it to make the ‘neo normal’ better

“World is crazier and more of it than we think,

Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion

A tangerine and spit the pips and feel

The drunkenness of things being various.”

–  from Snow by Louis MacNeice, 1935

It has quickly become a cliché to say the COVID 19 crisis has forced us to re-evaluate our lives and reconsider what is important. In the UK and most European countries, the coronavirus pandemic has made us recognise the value of the often taken-for-granted people who provide the foundation for what we consider a ‘good’ life. For the first time in some cases, we’ve celebrated the essential people who support the functioning of the realm of our shared experience, from care workers and teachers to sewage workers and delivery drivers.

For policymakers the world over, the primary question now is the trade-off between economic recovery and growth, and limiting the spread of the virus – or to put it simplistically, between prosperity and a decent way of life for many, and severe ill-health, and possibly death for a few. Society meanwhile is asking what we think makes a good life. Does it lie in material prosperity and economic activity, or in caring and a sense of community? It is, of course, a mixture of these things and many others, which is different for each of us. Perhaps it takes a global pandemic to remind us that the nature of the good life for a human being is always in question and that the answers we give affect our lives, and the lives of others, in many different ways.

What is a ‘good’ life?

In Ancient Greece, what constitutes a good life was subject to constant analysis and discussion. Socrates posed the famous and still, to my mind, most important of questions: how should we live? His successors, Plato and Aristotle, provided related but significantly different answers. Plato thought there was a knowable good which exists in the realm of ideas. The Good, he argued, holds the key to a good life for those who understand and partake of it. Aristotle agreed that there is such a thing as a good life, but argued it could be found in the world, not in some supernatural realm of ideas. He gloried in the ‘incorrigible plurality’ of the world – to borrow MacNeice’s phrase – and acknowledged it is a complicated place, where one has to pay attention and work pretty hard to identify and live a fulfilled existence.

It is tempting to reject Aristotle’s view that reasoning about things, case by case, is an essential part of the good life, in favour of the simple and compelling answers to Socrates’ question. It’s why packaged belief systems such as political ideologies, which purport to provide a set of tools that can measure any situation and tell us what to do, are so popular.

Responses to big political or social questions can become all-encompassing answers, deployable in all settings as if good and fulfilled lives flow automatically from changing a system in one critical dimension. However, the truth is choosing how to live is not simple, and there is no easy answer to Socrates’ question.

An opportunity to make the ‘neo normal’ better

The observation that life is complicated is banal to the point of absurdity. But as Aristotle recognised, what constitutes a good life for humans is under constant negotiation, renewal and reassessment. This process underpins many of the ways we organise societies. The uncontroversial assumption that a good life involves feeling secure is the reason we have policing and welfare. That it includes some degree of wealth is why we have work, and payment for it. But what about justice, and equality? Or the opportunity to strive to succeed (never mind actual success) in competition, in free markets? Or ownership of the fruits of one’s labours? These questions are more open to deliberation and analysis.

I do not believe universities should start to formulate some idea of what the good life is. That would be misguided. It might also entrap us in the dogmatic strangeness that led libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand’s followers to claim tap (definitely not the tango) was the only ‘rational’ kind of dance; and Mao Zedong’s most enthusiastic supporters to prohibit anything other than the ‘Loyalty Dance’ during the Cultural Revolution. (What is it about dance and prescriptive ideologies?). However, universities should keep Socrates’ question at front-of-mind in scrutinising the values we have so far lived by and discerning the outlines of the ‘new normal’ (or the ‘neo-normal’, as Lesley McAra puts it).

It is unlikely we will ever find a complete answer. Answers, of course, change with time and circumstance, as part of the ‘drunkenness of things being various’ (and drunkenness can be uplifting). But the importance of the question does not. If we use it to guide our approach to education, or organising the economy, we may doubt that we will arrive at the sort of systems we currently have. COVID 19 has cast the world in a new light and renewed the significance of ancient questions about the nature of the good life, but from a fresh perspective. Let’s take the chance to use it as a point of departure, and see where it takes us.

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Owen Kelly

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