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Reflections on the "Good Life"

J. P. Moreland


"Now the good life isn't consumer goods and things like that. The good life is the life of happiness or eudaimonia. That's the Greek word.... That's happiness. We're guaranteed the right for the pursuit for the right of eudaimonia.... There is a vision of what the good life is. What does that mean? That means the life of human flourishing. That's the life that humans were intended to live. That's living according to my 'nature,' if you want to put it that way. You see, this assumes that there is something called 'human nature' and ideal human functioning. There's a way we are supposed to live as human beings.

"That shift [in the modern conception of the good life] is a major statement. Not only do we no longer know what the good life is, but our replacement for it is infantile.... We have a population of children, of adolescents. Studies are indicating that people are carrying adolescence into their mid-thirties instead of 23, 24. It's basically our culture. But the good life is shaped by the average guy who's a beer drinking guy and drives a Toyota truck and likes to watch 'chicks' on the beach and go through a lot of consumer goods and have a blast. He's about twelve years old inside. He thinks below his belt and that's about the size of it. He's not an adult, he's a child. And if you threaten his toys he gets mad. We live in a culture of children, of infants who have never grown up.

"But you see, this definition of the good life now is almost totally in terms of instrumental, extrinsic goods. It has nothing to do with character. And it's joyous to watch because Christians will predict that this kind of thing will be dehumanizing.

"So this new definition is dehumanizing and infantalizing. And what it will do is it will cause a decrease of human flourishing with one key exception. In order for people to flourish with a bad definition of the good life, they're going to have to practice denial because they will, in fact, not be living in the way that they were meant to live and what their nature is. And the only way to do that and not experience the pain is to anesthetize oneself. But the price you pay for anesthetization is you lose touch with reality and you cease to be truly human.

"If a person tries to live after a false definition of the good life that is not in keeping with their true nature as a human being, then they will to some extent be missing human flourishing, whatever that is. And I think that's clearly delineated in Scriptures, although I think Aristotle and Plato had some good insights.

"But people can still be happy, they can still flourish to a degree if they have enough power and they can oppose their will on others and have enough peace and goods and prosperity. Those people can be happy. But the price that they will pay will that it will anesthetize themselves from the pain of living the way they were not meant to live. To some degree this will produce passive, listless, dependent people. Except for some it will produce aggressive, achiever oriented people because people will have to pursue....

"It's like Turkish Delight in C.S. Lewis, you've got to have more and more of it. You have to pursue more of it and the goal will be pleasure and you'll have to impose your will. The key is not the guy with the most toys wins, he who dies with the most toys and beats the other guy wins.

"There seem to be more and more people who come in for therapy now with a narcissistic personality. And a narcissistic personality is that I love three things in this world: me, myself and I. And I'm the center of my own universe and everything revolves around me. And if I have the will to pull that off I will. But if I don't I'll become a passive, dependent couch potato and retreat and withdraw. But either way, you see, you pay an incredible amount of energy because if you have the strength to force your will on others, it still takes an incredible amount of energy to create reality and sustain it. You pay a huge emotional price with that.

"The senior pastor concept of the church creates passive, dependent people. You know what's happening to some of you in this class? You're becoming active, independent people to some extent. Some nerves are coming alive and again. And you don't get that in the church. Why? Because the church is primarily a place that creates passive, dependent people. And it attracts powerful communicators in senior pastors that are capable of entertaining people, but they become isolated. They can't keep reality together, it doesn't work.

"Os Guiness said the church is becoming its own grave digger. We're anti-intellectual, we're not activists. But we think we're successful because we're building big churches. It's working in the short term. But that's not what Christianity is. And it comes partly from a faulty definition of the good life.

"You know, suffering is a part of the good life. It's not the avoidance of suffering. Who was it who said that Luther and Kierkegaard probably would have ended up plumbers if they'd been born in the twentieth century because they would never have experienced enough pain to have driven them to their genius."

"The majority of the Bible is biography because we learn virtue by observing people in their virtuous and viceful behavior rather than by learning principles."

"The more virtuous you are, the more clearly the eyes of your soul are going to be so you're going to see what's right. It doesn't make any sense to think that you can live like a moral monster, read a book on ethics and then you're going to turn out with good moral views. Certainly, caring about morality and trying to pursue a life of virtue.

"And that's why if you want to argue with people, one thing I ask somebody that's arguing with me about a moral principle is I try to say, 'I'd like to ask you a candid question. How much do you care about the moral life, personally? I mean, have you labored?'

"I like to do this with Mother Theresa because I like to say well, 'Mother Theresa is against abortion.' And that's an argument. I'm using that as an argument. Now when Mother Theresa is against abortion, you've got to think about it. I'm using that not as an appeal to authority; that's an argument.

"The argument goes like this. People who have given their entire lives to caring about morality, developing moral sensibilities and working hard should be the people who are in the best position to have good intuitive insights into what's really right and wrong and what's virtuous. Now it's true that people of good will are ultimately going to differ so that can't be the only thing you say. But it does count for something.

"It seems to me that the great majority of the people who have gone to change the world in the interest of what's right have been Christians. I'm not saying others haven't, but the majority of people who have genuinely established orphanages and cared for people around the world have been Christian missionaries and others who have reached out. And that's true clear back to the beginning of the church.

"All throughout the course we've appealed to intuition. You've got to [appeal to intuition] eventually. An intuition is a way of seeing something. It's not without accident that the Scriptures constantly use a 'seeing' metaphor to talk about the spiritual and ethical life. Jesus talked about your eye, the eye of your soul. If your eye is dark you're in trouble. Paul talks about the eyes of the heart being enlightened. What did he mean by that?

"Why do these guys use 'seeing' metaphors? I think it's because there's something called an ability to see non-physical things and to just have insight into them. So if intuition is a way of seeing something, then moral intuitions are ways of seeing moral texture and moral savvy."

"You can't reduce moral decision-making to a series of steps that a computer can run through. That's why the Bible rests the authority for the local church, not simply in the Scriptures, but in a group of virtuous people.

"If you want to see what it looks like to establish morality in a set of rules look at the Jewish Mishnah. They have rules for every cotton pickin' thing you can imagine. The problem is sooner or later you've got to pay the piper and apply this stuff. And that's where character comes in. So the Scripture has character traits that are required for local church leadership. So my point is then that if intuitions matter, that means that your 'seeing' matters, and that means your ability to see matters.

"So that raises the question: how can you get good at 'seeing'? That depends on the field you're working in. If it's nursing, if it's being a physician, you've simply got to work hard at knowing the different kinds of diseases so you see more than the average person. If it's philosophy, you've got to get good at concepts so you see more or hear more than the other person. If it's baseball, you've got to spend time so you know the difference when a pitcher goes to his belt or his glove before he pitches. The other guy never sees that stuff. A major league baseball player see fifty times more than we do when he watches a ball game.

"If it's ethics, one of the things you can do to be a good seer is to practice virtue, to care about virtue, to cultivate your character. So I say to somebody, 'Okay smart alleck, you're shooting your mouth off," like this philosophy professor. One thing I'd like to ask him is, 'Tell me how much you've given to the poor and how much you care about rolling your sleeves up and getting involved and how much have you labored and what has been your strategy to become good at the moral life? And if you really are teaching this stuff academically and don't care about it, why should I trust your intuitions?'

"Now, that's not your only argument, but that is an argument. And it comes from the insight that shaping character will hopefully help you have better intuitions into the texture of morality and character.

"If you want to change, get your body involved in your spiritual life. We are embodied creatures. Bodily disciplines effect our spirituality. For example, malice is a tongue problem, a physical problem. There are bodily disciplines in the Scriptures that Jesus practiced and Paul practiced and the great saints of old practiced, like fasting, solitude, silence, servanthood. Bodily practices you do over and over ingrain habits and dispositions and shape character...You don't get that way by living the way you want to and then claiming a Scripture verse and trying to be a spiritual giant."


About the Author

J. P. Moreland, Ph.D. is Professor of Philosophy at Biola Unviersity. He has authored or co-authored many books including Christianity and the Nature of Science, Scaling the Secular City, Does God Exist?, Immortality: The Other Side of Death and The Life and Death Debate: Moral Issues of Our Times. He is also co-editor of Christian Perspectives on Being Human. His work has appeared in a wide variety of journals, including Christianity Today, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research and The American Philosophical Quarterly. Dr. Moreland served with Campus Crusade for 10 years, planted two churches, and has spoken on over 100 college campuses.

Resources by J. P. Moreland Available from Stand to Reason

Last Updated: May 7, 1998 webmaster@str.org

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