The Good Life Method: Reasoning Through the Big Questions of Happiness, Faith, and Meaning by Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko. New York: Penguin Books, 2022. Paperback. 304 pp. $18.00.
The reputation of philosophy as the juvenile pastime of the privileged and unemployed is an old one. This stereotype is sometimes true and sometimes not true, depending on which questions the philosopher becomes preoccupied with or how he goes about dealing with them. A great deal of philosophy is done in response to forced questions that arise in the course of an ordinary life, however. In The Good Life Method, authors Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko, both of whom are Roman Catholics and philosophy professors at the University of Notre Dame, address these questions. They present a counter thesis to philosophy’s poor reputation: it can improve your life.
The thesis is a weakened and inverted version of the Socratic warning that the unphilosophical life is not worth living. Sullivan and Blaschko prefer carrots to sticks, reserving strong language for the occasional warning. Their approach to the philosophically uninitiated departs from the Socratic attempt to shock them into seeing that their pre-philosophical lives are not guided by reason. Sullivan and Blaschko’s method, by contrast, begins with an embrace of the fundamental pursuits and commitments “from the inside”—a phrase that shows up throughout the book. The philosophical life does not begin with a radical reorientation of a pre-reflective outlook, though it may end up there. Rather, the default, for these authors, is the trajectory of the pre-philosophical life, which philosophy improves and refines.
Sullivan and Blaschko do not think just any philosophy will improve your life. They argue for a virtue theory against a consequentializing and “maximizing” ethical outlook. We might add that their target includes philosophies according to which the ethical is equated with the impersonal. In this respect, this book is a valuable contribution to the works of popular ethics long dominated by the assumptions of modern moral philosophy. Chief among those assumptions is the confusion of justice in particular for ethics in general; that the virtuous agent is one disposed to act from motives with the least regard to himself. To be “ethical,” on the modern view, is to be impartial. When it comes to essentially partial matters, there are no right or wrong answers, except in response to questions of means and ends.
As virtue ethicists, Sullivan and Blaschko reject most of modern moral theory. Their argument is traditional enough. Human beings, being creatures that reason, aim to live well. Reason about practical matters is not exclusively concerned with the tight corners of obligations, debts, promises, and computations of outcomes–it aims at the whole of a life and a life together. The gist of the argument for virtue ethics repeated throughout the book seems to be that it better resonates with the whole of human nature.
The virtue ethics of The Good Life Method has its own particular flavor. It differs in some important ways from the virtue theory one finds in introductory textbooks. Most virtue accounts claiming Aristotle for inspiration justify the various virtues as things needed by human nature. Whereas that view tends to focus on characteristically human behavior, virtue for Sullivan and Blaschko is more phenomenological. It is just as much about paying attention to the world as it is about acting according to reason. Throughout the book, Sullivan and Blaschko deal with a variety of philosophical issues—generosity, euthanasia, work-life balance, the proper attitude toward one’s own death, the existence of God, belief in God, the problem of suffering, friendship, and many more—from this perspective. Their discussions often stop short of deciding the more controversial topics. Yet the reader will find their treatments helpful.
An emphasis on attention informs the structure of the book. Each chapter is dedicated to a theme in the form of an imperative (e.g. “Live Generously” and “Work With Integrity”). Intermingled with the co-authored texts are solo-written “apologies” by the individual authors related to each theme. These are stories from Sullivan’s or Blaschko’s personal experiences that perform various functions. First they give vivid and sometimes moving accounts of what it is like to make some decision. The authors seem to think of these stories as analogous to data in the process of ethical thinking. And indeed they are right about this. In deliberation, one may be aware of all the relevant factors without appreciating them as he should. Appreciation as a kind of perception, and so invites metaphors of vision. One of the best ways to improve your “vision” of something is to situate yourself so as to be able to experience it. Narratives can do this. Of course, narratives can also conceal and deceive, and the authors recognize this. Their solution is the same as those dealing with any fallible source of knowledge. The threat of error does not warrant wholesale skepticism, and confidence should be commensurate to the trustworthiness of the source.
The “apologies” are also meant to demonstrate the exercise of narrating to oneself. This is presented as a way to recount and reflect on various parts of life, draw morals for the future, and so on. Sullivan and Blaschko recognize that self-narrating honestly and accurately takes practice. And here, as in many parts of virtue ethics, the perfect is not the enemy of the good. The authors do not leave the reader without direction in this exercise. Each chapter ends with a series of tasks tested over the years in their courses at Notre Dame. These guide the reader in the practices the authors think are requirements of virtue.
These features of the book place it squarely in the advice-giving genre of philosophical works that have become more common in recent years. Each chapter title is, as has been mentioned, in the imperative mood. Given this, the authors’s descriptions of the good life are not as thick as they could have been. The imperatives are abstract and could be implemented without contradiction by moral enemies. This is doubtless due to the liberalism about the “good life” that runs in our DNA as modern men and women. Still, as one would think that champions of Aristotle—who himself requires that the good life involves giving to the poor, having friends, laughing at funny jokes, telling funny jokes, throwing expensive parties, and contemplating God and the cosmos—would get more specific.
Still, The Good Life method is a useful work. The authors may shy from specific directions about the good life, but they give tools for thinking through various issues, and this is perhaps the book’s greatest strength. Each chapter and subject makes a unique contribution to the book as a whole. It suffers from no redundancy, and covers a great deal of philosophy. The book is most suitable for someone who reads, but is unfamiliar with the main texts of the virtue tradition. Professors or high school teachers who for some reason do not want to assign primary texts, but still want to discuss the virtue tradition, might consider assigning The Good Life Method. I myself prefer to stick with primary sources, but I plan to use the book, particularly for its “apologies” and exercises, the next time I need to prepare lectures on virtue ethics. Overall, The Good Life Method is a gripping and practical guide to philosophically engaging life according to some of the main commitments of traditional virtue ethics.
Dan Kemp is currently earning his Ph.D. in philosophy from Baylor University. Before that, he completed an MA in philosophy at Georgia State University and a BA in PPE from The King’s College (NYC). His research concerns ethics and metaethics and the intersection of these topics with philosophy of religion and philosophical theology. Dan and his wife, Carol Anne, live in Waco with their four children.