A Very Brief Look at Lower Ways of Life

Featured Image is Parable of the Wheat and Tares, by Abraham Bloemaert

Fellow Sweet Talker Akiva is uneasy with virtue ethics and related families of theories. His chief concern is that the underlying assumptions about human nature will be used to shout down people’s voices about their own self-conceptions. In short, taking seriously what Charles Taylor calls strong, qualitative evaluation, will push us away from respecting individual dignity. And this is especially so when we are speaking of higher or lower ways of life, as Taylor says we must.

We could go back and forth hashing out the details of a virtue ethics position that might be palatable to him, but I’d rather find an example where I can dig in my heels and we can discuss the matter.

Let’s visit a common scenario; an adult who lives with his parents, and further, lives off his parents—he has no income of his own. Let’s say that he’s 35 years old. Crucially, let’s say his local economy is in a state equivalent to the height of the dot com boom; unemployment is so low, the job offers are practically knocking at his door. It would take very minimal effort for him to get a job that paid enough for him to live on his own, or with roommates. Or at least to pay his parents rent and cover his own costs.

Instead, he stays at home, and watches TV; primarily reality TV and cable news. He has minimal contact with his friends, and hasn’t dated since he was in school. His parents live to a very old age and he lives this way until they die. He needn’t have been perceived as a burden; perhaps they could easily afford to support him and were happy to do so.

Forgive me, but I cannot help but see that as a lower way of life than someone who puts in effort to provide for himself, is married and has children, has numerous friends, and continues to better himself in multiple ways. It seems to me that our hypothetical sloth has cut himself off from everything that imbues life with meaning, that is admirable or good.

And it seems to me that virtue ethics provides a useful framework for talking about this. Just as we can tell when someone is born with an unhealthy heart because we have a normative sense of what a good heart is, so too do we have valuable notions of what a good person and a good life are. These are much more fluid and manifold than something as concrete as a heart, but a lot of the basic things that characterize such lives are the same in broad outline: love, initiative, integrity, responsibility, and so forth.

Akiva’s argument is that everyone deserves to have their dignity respected, and to categorize the layabout as living a lower way of life is to impose ourselves on them. In short, disrespecting their self-conception is the same as encroaching on their dignity.

I cannot agree. I am not going to crash into this person’s house and start imposing my authority upon him and his parents. I can respect their dignity as human beings able to make their own choices without thinking that all of their choices are good. To attempt to discard our ability to speak of whether other people are making good choices or not seems to me to simply embrace nihilism—a rather severe consequence if preserving ethical egalitarianism is your goal.

But I invite Akiva, or anyone else, to persuade me otherwise.

5 thoughts on “A Very Brief Look at Lower Ways of Life

  1. Suppose the “layabout” is genuinely, truly happy in his position. Suppose pursuing “everything that imbues his life with meaning” makes him genuinely less happy. How would you then advise him? Would you tell him to go back to the life that made him happy, or would you plead with him to try to find happiness in things that displease him?

    And if you met a truly miserable man, one who worked at a job he hated, in which he derived no sense of self-worth, in order to support a family who doesn’t appreciate him, would you really say he’s living a “higher way of life?”

    If the higher way of life is more miserable than the lower, then are these concepts of any real value to the ones who actually have to live those lives?

    1. Let’s go further: say the layabout does not even like expending the effort it takes to feed himself. He checks himself into hospice, or his parents hire a nurse, so that he can stay in bed 24/7 getting food and water intravenously and having his waste disposed of in a similar manner. With the exception of the fact that he is often awake enough to watch cable news, he lives like a coma patient. And he would be miserable if he had to expend any effort at all beyond that.

      And you’re going to tell me this *isn’t* a lower way of life? If he is miserable doing more than this, wouldn’t we say instead that he is clearly handicapped, akin to someone who has lost their vision or hearing, but instead has lost their ability to live normally?

      You remark reminds me of people who say that blindness, for example, is an identity, and it’s bigotry to call it a handicap. It is obvious that blindness is a defect akin to a weak heart, and it is the mark of a peculiarly modern absurdity that a coping mechanism people have developed for having this defect is to say that it isn’t any better or worse than being able to see.

      Being handicapped is something you compensate for as best you can, not something you pretend is no worse than *not* having the handicap.

      1. I’m not sure what your added details accomplish, other than to tailor-make an extremely peculiar example to suit your more general point. But that’s the problem: Your position doesn’t generalize very well. I think that’s what Akiva noticed, too. You can always invoke some peculiar example that demonstrates an extreme case, but that doesn’t prove anything at all.

        My point was: It seems that you are willing to double-down on your virtue ethics position even when following that advice stands to make you *less* happy, not more.

        As for me, I sympathize with those who choose genuine happiness over what may appear to them to be abstract and purely intellectual concepts.

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