Proposed Definitions of the Essence of the Good Life

Most recent alteration: August 5, 2003

Some students prefer not to read my paraphrases of philosophical discussions but go directly to the source. That's fine. Others may wish to consult the source before or after hearing or reading my introductions. Here is the horse's mouth himself, Aristotle, discussing various views of happiness or the good life in Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics.

There may be some points in the "table" below that have the benefit of 2300 years of hindsight following Aristotle or simply additional relevance given the nature of the modern audience. The "table" is not a mere summary of Aristotle.


Discussed by Aristotle


a means to almost everything else; having it promotes sense of freedom

challenge and criticism:

just a means, so it can't be ultimate goal; how much we have is not always up to us, thus money is not a secure possession

pleasure, avoidance of pain

Discussed by Aristotle


natural: nobody likes pain, everyone pursues what seems pleasant

critcisms and challenges:

pleasures may be trivial; hedonism promotes laziness; many pleasures are of brief duration and unsustainable; a goal suitable for a pig; sometimes pains are unavoidable



life is never boring if you have it

criticisms and challenges:

exciting things can be trivial and pursuit of them may ignore social dimension; exciting things can be exhausting and physically risky (pursuit of them may be unsustainable over long run)

honor/praise, love from others

Discussed by Aristotle


fits our social nature, helps one lead, has its own type of pleasure

criticisms and challenges:

makes us slaves to others' opinions of us; when we don't get it, we feel miserable; these things are not entirely up to us, thus they are not secure possessions.



pleasures associated with it can be quite intense; social in that it involves interpersonal comparisons

criticisms and challenges:

very few can win; chances of not winning are high (risky, costly); those who have to win at all costs make enemies; winning is not always up to us (rivals may just be better equipped to compete), thus being a winner is not a secure possession.

physical health


having it promotes freedom, sense of control over our destiny

criticism and challenge:

not always up to us, so health is not a fully secure possession

negative freedom

Negative freedom, also known as negative liberty, is freedom from coercive interference by others.


Negative freedom can protect us from subjugation by others and thus often permits us to pursue our own goals.


(1) Negative freedom at most provides conditions for pursuit of the good life. It is not the good life itself.

(2) A person who is without resources (a plot of land of her own to farm, seeds to plant, water to irrigate, education, access to health care, ability to pay for what she needs, powerful friends, etc.) may live a life that is unpleasant and short. But if she is not attacked or robbed by others or enslaved against her will, then her negative freedom is not violated. She may reasonably ask whether her negative freedom is worth very much to her.

substantial freedom (=capabilities)

Capabilities are abilities that make people who have them actually able to do things that promote their own conceptions of the good life and active participation in society. They are promoted by conditions like education, health care, and the presence of political participation rights. Capabilities generally require more resources than negative freedom. They are classified (by Martha Nussbaum) into basic capabilities, internal capabilities, and combined capabilities. For further discussion of this concept see also Sen's Ethics of Substantial Freedom.


Without capabilities, the realization of the good life seems impossible. Capabilities are things that public policy can deliberately foster in order to help promote happiness in members of society.


While it may be impossible to refute the idea that capabilities provide an important way of understanding how society and individuals can promote happiness in their own lives and in the lives of others, capabilities themselves are not equivalent to happiness. For it is possible to possess the important capabilities in significant degree and yet fail to use them well in making a good or happy life for oneself.

having good character (=virtue)

Discussed by Aristotle


enables us to choose rightly concerning what is in our control; promotes sense of freedom; frees us from obsession about external things; "wise" people of past support this goal; takes important things seriously

criticism and challenges:

(1) Acquiring it may partly depend on having good models to follow; and some people don't.

(2) Acquiring it is quite hard, requires mental discipline, reflection, learning from others . . ; [Note that these may not be very effective criticisms: important things may be worth great efforts.]

(3) Another criticism is less easy to refute: that one might have good character but be prevented through illness or social isolation from using it to the fullest, and therefore not truly flourish. This weakness suggests that the following definition may be superior.

an active life that expresses (one's own) good character,

over a "complete span"
The view preferred by Aristotle

Virtue (good character) is basic in this kind of life--you have to develop it before you can be fully happy--but other goods like honor and possessions, in proper amounts (neither too much nor too little), are included in this life as supporting conditions.


Using virtue is superior to just having it (but being unable to use it) b/c of, say, disability.

criticisms and challenges:

(1) same "criticisms" as the "criticisms" of virtue by itself, except for the final criticism.

(2) Unless the activities included are strictly mental, this is not entirely up to us; nor is longevity (having a life with a "complete span") entirely up to us.