Buttle's World

13 March, 2009

A Life Well-Lived

Filed under: Posts — clgood @ 9:45

Charles Murray’s 2009 Irving Kristol Lecture explains exactly why we should not let America follow the European model.

First, the problem with the European model, namely: It drains too much of the life from life. And that statement applies as much to the lives of janitors–even more to the lives of janitors–as it does to the lives of CEOs.

I start from this premise: A human life can have transcendent meaning, with transcendence defined either by one of the world’s great religions or one of the world’s great secular philosophies. If transcendence is too big a word, let me put it another way: I suspect that almost all of you agree that the phrase “a life well-lived” has meaning. That’s the phrase I’ll use from now on.

And since happiness is a word that gets thrown around too casually, the phrase I’ll use from now on is “deep satisfactions.” I’m talking about the kinds of things that we look back upon when we reach old age and let us decide that we can be proud of who we have been and what we have done. Or not.

To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important (we don’t get deep satisfaction from trivial things). You have to have put a lot of effort into it (hence the cliché “nothing worth having comes easily”). And you have to have been responsible for the consequences.

There aren’t many activities in life that can satisfy those three requirements. Having been a good parent. That qualifies. A good marriage. That qualifies. Having been a good neighbor and good friend to those whose lives intersected with yours. That qualifies. And having been really good at something–good at something that drew the most from your abilities. That qualifies. Let me put it formally: If we ask what are the institutions through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life, the answer is that there are just four: family, community, vocation, and faith. Two clarifications: “Community” can embrace people who are scattered geographically. “Vocation” can include avocations or causes.

It is not necessary for any individual to make use of all four institutions, nor do I array them in a hierarchy. I merely assert that these four are all there are. The stuff of life–the elemental events surrounding birth, death, raising children, fulfilling one’s personal potential, dealing with adversity, intimate relationships–coping with life as it exists around us in all its richness–occurs within those four institutions.

Seen in this light, the goal of social policy is to ensure that those institutions are robust and vital. And that’s what’s wrong with the European model. It doesn’t do that. It enfeebles every single one of them.

It’s not all bad news.

And yet there is reason for strategic optimism, and that leads to the second point I want to make tonight: Critics of the European model are about to get a lot of new firepower. Not only is the European model inimical to human flourishing, twenty-first-century science is going to explain why. We who think that the Founders were right about the relationship of government to human happiness will have an opening over the course of the next few decades to make our case.

The reason is a tidal change in our scientific understanding of what makes human beings tick. It will spill over into every crevice of political and cultural life. Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson anticipated what is to come in a book entitled Consilience. As the twenty-first century progresses, he argued, the social sciences are increasingly going to be shaped by the findings of biology; specifically, the findings of the neuroscientists and the geneticists.

Read the whole thing.



  1. Interesting article

    “the answer is that there are just four: family, community, vocation, and faith”

    Faith? Really? Here’s where I think the idea of “deep satisfaction” can be tricky. Chiefly because my “deep satisfaction” concerning faith based religions may differ wildly from the person next to me.

    Time has proven that faith based anything inevitably ends up in legislations that attempt to advance moral agendas.

    Faith is make believe. Powerful yes, but still fiction. It has no place in social policy. None.

    By adding faith I think Murray has muddied the water of an otherwise compelling argument.

    Comment by Bob — 13 March, 2009 @ 12:42

    • I completely agree that Faith is make-believe. I don’t see that it follows that it can’t provide the deep satisfaction he’s talking about. Your statement that it should have no part in social policy may well be true, but is tangential, I think, to his point.

      I believe that the founding fathers got it just right: Set up a system of government friendly to faith, but which keeps it completely out of the business of government.

      The faithless certainly legislate “moral agendas” as well. I think that’s a wash. Pretty much everybody tries to legislate their morality. Morality is, after all, about the only thing you can legislate. If a law has no morals behind it it’s a useless law. Which doesn’t mean that just because something is moral it should be legislated, nor that just because something is immoral it should be made illegal. That’s how you get to the typical Leftie position of, “People should be able to do whatever they want, as long as it’s mandatory.”

      Comment by buttle — 14 March, 2009 @ 21:16

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