When theorizers assess how people are doing, they often speak in terms of happiness or in terms of well-being. Neither of these appears ideal to me. In my work, I talk of a well-lived human life. This notion is inspired by ancient ethics and meets three criteria.

First, it is possible for someone to lead a good life even though, at certain moments, the person is not happy. Indeed, it may be impossible to be continually happy. At the same time, a life that is entirely without positive moods, feelings, emotions, and so on, does not seem to be a life that on the whole we would want—and as I argue in a moment, this matters. In aiming to lead a good life, we plausibly aim to live in ways that include positive experiences.

Second, we are concerned here with the lives of human beings. Aristotle says that the good is different for humans and for fish. I take this to be a deep insight, one that can be developed in a number of ways. It is remarkably close to Protagoras’s Measure Doctrine, according to which human beings are the measure of all things. In my own work, I defend a notion of good that is relative without being relativist: relative to human beings. I call this approach Measure Realism, a term that I owe to Jens Haas. There is such a thing as what really is good, though not good absolutely—ethics is concerned with the good for which we, human beings, are the measure.

In ethics, the thought goes, we ask how we as human beings should live. This may well include that we ask what is good for fish and take this into account in our actions. But we don’t ask how fish should arrange their lives: we ask how we should live. An animal’s life can go well or badly, but animals aren’t subject to norms. “Going well” and “doing well”—and arguably, happiness and well-being—fail to capture the distinctively normative idea that matters with respect to human beings, the idea I express in terms of living well.

The notion of a well-lived human life is normative. But the idea that human beings are the measure of what makes for a good human life also has a descriptive dimension. Some things are good for human beings but not good for gods, such as clean drinking water. Some things are healthy for human beings but not healthy for fish, such as taking a shower.

Third, talk about a well-lived human life makes explicit that we envisage agents. Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia stresses this idea of activity. Doing so, Aristotle moves away from pre-philosophical Greek notions of eudaimonia that emphasize fate and divine dispensation of happiness. Aristotle is concerned with the way we should view the relative contributions of an agent’s own activity and the external circumstances she encounters. There is no easy answer, which seems precisely right. Positions that emphasize one of these sides to the extent that the other is eliminated seem plainly false.

The injunction “live well!” is not sufficiently informative. But it is not entirely trivial either. For it prompts the question “what is a good life?” Some of the answers to this question appeal to the fact that it is a human life. Other answers pertain to the fact that it is my life, or yours. What sorts of things are important to me, and in which ways? Do I want to study, and if yes, what? Do I want to marry this person?

Aristotle thinks that it is the most important thing of all to come up with a conception of a good life. Doing so, we ask ourselves what, on consideration, we want. It is, of course, not easy to know what one wants: what to put at the center of one’s life and what to push to the periphery, what to choose and what to avoid, and what to value in which way. There is also the question of which options we even consider. What we see as a good life for ourselves is affected by what we can imagine—what we can see ourselves pursuing and what courses of action we reject as impossible. I argue that the attempt to live well involves distinctive uses of the imagination, which philosophy has so far neglected.


Katja Maria Vogt is a professor of Philosophy at Colombia University. She specializes in ancient philosophy, ethics, and normative epistemology.


***Author’s note: I develop many of these ideas in my Desiring the Good: Ancient Proposals and Contemporary Theory (OUP 2017) and in ongoing work on the imagination.

5 Replies to “Katja Vogt: A Well-Lived Human Life

  1. One possibility would be to see the topic of an agent’s well-being (or what benefits her) and the topic of her living a good human life as different topics. It was not entirely clear to me if you are saying that working out the notion of what it is to live a good human life provides an answer to the question of what is part of her well-being or good for her, or if you want to say it does not do that but rather it is the topic that we ought to be more interested in (and perhaps is more normatively important) than the notion of a person’s own well-being?

  2. Here are two reasons theorizers such as myself are interested in understanding the nature of happiness and well-being: (1) these concepts are more tractable than “a well-lived human life” (as you point out, there is a fish analogue to well-being), and (2) if there really is such a thing as “a well-lived human life,” happiness and well-being will at least be parts of it (even if there are other parts, too), so it will be desirable to have a deeper understanding of their nature.

    You seem to suggest that the concept of “a well-lived human life” is somehow more important, perhaps because it would have a direct bearing on what a person ought to do. Maybe, but its contours are (so far as I can see) pretty blurry. It requires the commensuration and balancing of incommensurable goods and bads (not just moral virtue vs. achievement vs. aesthetic interest, but doing *this* worthwhile thing vs. doing *that* worthwhile thing). It also involves projecting out what we will care about years on (when we know more and are emotionally different). There are various other difficulties, even if we can overcome the objection that this concept depends on outdated Aristotelian (or Stoic, or Christian) metaphysics. So while an outline of “a well-lived human life” is certainly desirable, it, too, will be of limited use.

  3. Interesting. Can you say more about why we should focus on ‘human’ rather than, say, ‘rational agent’ or ‘dependent rational animal’ and maybe a bit more on how you think we can explicate the essential features of human life?

    I think I see your worry about well-being being an overly broad concept — for one thing we can talk about the well-being of plants and chipmunks, but this broadness does not fit well with our narrow focus in ethics, which we might take to be on how “beings like us” can live well.

    Beings like us have special challenges and opportunities to live well and poorly that trees and chimpunks lack so I can see the appeal of the idea that ethics should focus the nature of beings like us and he special challenges and opportunities to live well and poorly that we enjoy. But as you anticipate, I am not sure what you mean by “human” or why we should think that only humans count as beings like us of the relevant sort. Or would you be happy to simply replace human with a less specific concept?

  4. Thanks very much for these interesting comments. These are perennial questions and I’ll try to be brief.

    I agree, the notions of happiness and well-being appear more tractable. In some contexts that may be an overriding consideration. To my mind, the notions of happiness and well-being appear more tractable because they can be construed as descriptive. That can seem useful for purposes of measuring levels of happiness or well-being. But once we develop these notions, we’re likely to include lots of dimensions, some of which appeal to the agent’s own activity, which is subject to norms. And this pushes beyond the notions of happiness and well-being.

    Some philosophers describe their conceptions of happiness as Aristotelian. That’s a way of leaving behind a purely descriptive notion. Happiness as understood in ancient ethics, it is argued, is about the goodness of someone’s life as a whole. It is not a matter of subjective experiences of being elated, delighted, or in a positive mood. To signal that they are concerned with someone’s life as a whole, some theorizers say “happiness” really means “flourishing.” This notion, however, is in danger of being merely descriptive. If it is, it gives up on a key Aristotelian insight. Namely, we are looking at agents. Though agents are subject to conditions and circumstances, they are active in leading their lives and subject to norms as they do so.

    Let’s say “flourishing” is out and we return to “happiness.” Authors who speak of Aristotelian-style happiness sometimes suggest that we purge modern ideas from our minds according to which happiness is about momentary experiences. This paradigm switch works well for interpretive work in ancient philosophy. But insofar as we do ethics today, I avoid telling people what (not) to think when they encounter the term happiness. In my experience, such admonitions are largely ineffective. And yet, without such disclaimers, we are operating with a descriptive notion that picks out momentary experiences. And that doesn’t seem sufficient.

    What then about the idea that well-being is a component of a well-lived human life? My concern is, again, that this is unstable. Once we explore what well-being amounts to, we’ll be tempted to expand the notion more and more, eventually including ideas relevant to agency. And that leads toward the normative dimensions of the notion of a well-lived human life that I find compelling.

    Finally, on the question of why I speak of “human” agents. I take it that human beings have a distinctively human psychology, and that this psychology matters for the purposes of doing ethics. We would miss out on important considerations if we were to talk about rational agents, including, say, angels in Kantian ethics or Martians in contemporary parlance. To my mind, this is one of the deepest and most interesting differences between ancient-inspired ethics and modern moral philosophy.

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