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The meaning of the good life

There are only two paths to choose in life. You can either be a person of principle or a person of doubt. The first empowers you to act and become a person of virtue, and hence realize the good life, whereas the latter will make you choose temporal things, but soon you will succumb to what is called a life of vice. In the end, ethics is about our ability to answer not only what can make a person happy but also how one is able to realize the meaning of this happiness.

It all begins the moment you wake up. A person who chooses the path of righteousness will make the bed as the sun rises outside. It is a simple thing to do, but it will soon define for this person what it means to be one of moral integrity. If you can’t be trusted to do the small things, then there is no way that you can meet the huge responsibilities in life. Indeed, doing things the proper way is a matter of practice, and sooner or later it becomes a matter of commitment.

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A person who chooses the path of moral doubt was not really born bad. This person knows what lies ahead as the day is about to start. The same also knows how to distinguish right from wrong and understands what the ethical life is all about. Yet, this person is guided by whims, fancies and impulses instead of the light of a moral life. This person will seek first to please oneself than comply with the rules that guide people toward what is right.

A person of principle is thrown into the same world as the person of doubt. But the moral person will look for no excuses and admit one’s mistakes as one does things in order to accomplish some purpose. True, this person will often find it difficult to fit in and will have trouble living in harmony with a world that is unjust. Still, this person will choose to pursue the path of moral righteousness and will not be bothered by the things people say. Persistence in the things that you do matters in this way.

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The person of doubt will complain a lot about a world that is not fair. And for this reason, this person will find it easy to justify one’s laziness, dependency, caprices, and lack of plans in life. This person will seek help from friends and other people all the time, including strangers, convinced that other people should carry one’s many burdens. This person often gets into trouble but will always find it more convenient, as expected, to blame somebody else for one’s misdeeds.

Two paths, but here we are talking of what it means to be a good person. Are human beings a result of a bad or selfish gene, or does society influence what becomes of people? Aristotle taught that intellectual wisdom is different from moral wisdom. Moral virtue, he suggested, can only be learned through habit and practice.

This type of knowledge Aristotle called phronesis, or practical wisdom. This distinction is crucial as it explains to us what it means to be an ethical person. Ethics in its literal sense means “character.”

For Aristotle, the purpose of the individual is not just to know what is good or right. Ethics is linked to practical knowledge. The moral path is about doing and acting. In possessing practical wisdom, the task at hand is to be able to live the good life. For Aristotle, the purpose of ethics is not to acquire a theoretical knowledge of the good. The goal of ethics is not to inquire about the meaning of virtue, but to be able to practice it to realize the good life. The good life is eudaimonia or happiness—“the state of living well.”

Now, we come to a point in terms of understanding why, despite the country’s difficulties, Filipinos remain the happiest people in the world. The answer, perhaps, comes from a sense of solidarity being the source of our communal values. For the Filipino, happiness is incomplete unless shared. Whatever society may not be able provide, the caring ways of family and friends will enable us to survive the struggles that come to life.

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Christopher Ryan Maboloc, PhD, teaches philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University.

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TAGS: Aristotle, Christopher Ryan Maboloc, doubt, ethics, good life, Inquirer Commentary, Morality
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