Mini-Feature: The Good Life
What does the good life look like to you?
For almost everyone, the good life is going to be something centered on what humans can do that robots can’t. There will be little escape from making key concessions to bots superior at some important things... but one thing humans can do that robots can’t is rule over the bots in a certain way. The faculties we will have to mobilize to achieve this are based in our bodies and souls, neither of which the bots have. In some cases, there won’t be much of a difference—reproduction, rearing, and religion have always been with us. But the stakes will be much higher now. In other cases we will push into strange and momentous new territory. The big question mark in all this has to do with the new future intersection of religion, robotics, and, well, aliens.
A lot of whiskey and women.
More seriously, some mixture of philosophy, friendship, and family. And throw in some 'overcoming' of some sort. Too indulgent and soft a life—like that punk Sardanapalus—leads to Bahr's ruin.
My canned answers to this question are, on the one hand, “to glorify God, and fully enjoy him forever” (the Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 1); and, on the other, “the active exercise of the soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue” (Nicomachean Ethics 1098a). But readers would be well entitled to ask what good these lofty formulations are at this rather tense and wearying moment. We’re muscling our way through the last month of a benighted year which, the wise among us suspect, is not actually going to politely circumscribe its problems within the confines of December. In other words our arrogant oligarchs, incompetent bureaucrats, and national indulgence in post-Puritan social mania are not going anywhere when midnight hits on December 31.
What a world! In it, can we possibly spare mental energy for “the good life”? Unfortunately, the answer is that we must either do so in the middle of this mess, or not at all. Unless you can find an “exercise” for your “soul’s faculties” that is recognizably “in conformity with excellence or virtue” in the here and now—while you slog yourself out of bed, try to soothe the splitting headache your screeching kids are giving you, spill coffee all over the shirt you have put on for your Zoom interview, and pray there is still some way you can make a living—then I’m afraid you will find no such exercise at any other time. Things are not going to calm down; you will not be granted from on high any sudden oasis of headspace or time to get your act together. Aristotle himself believed there were certain preconditions of wealth and leisure that must be met before the true practice of virtue was possible. To which I say: bully for you, Mr. A., but what are the rest of us supposed to do?
Well, let me gently suggest we are supposed to do the best we can, and let me hint even more gently that the best we can is actually better than we are currently doing. It takes almost heroic effort, yes, and daily elbow grease, and doesn’t really look or feel like the shiningly effortless grace we imagine when we hear the word “virtue.” But that word—aretē—simply means “excellence” and, much to our consternation, we do actually have a felt instinct for what excellence looks like in everything we do. It is part of the “starter pack” given to us by that God we are all supposed to be enjoying forever, and if we humble ourselves before him we will find he draws out of us an ever-more developed sense of what is pure, true, lovely, and of good report.
These things are the same as ever: courage, prudence, temperance, justice; faith, hope, love. They may each be practiced when feeding the kids, or thinking what to tweet (and whether to tweet at all), or reaching out for help from under the crushing weight of this miserable year. It takes courage, I note, to keep living if you fear you might rather not, and it takes true greatness of soul to shoulder that burden when your brother or sister cannot carry it. In the pursuit and the practice of these things we may not always have pleasure, but we will know that richness of experience and urgency of purpose which I call joy. This is some part, I think, of what it is to enjoy God: to live that “life in abundance” which he gave his own life that we might have.