I argued yesterday that materialism will not serve, for most of us, anyway, as a stimulus to the good life. My preference, both for myself, and as the basis for good social policy, is ‘creativity’, by which I mean that we should strive to to live as fully and as creatively as our innate and developed talents allow. But to say that involves you at once in considering what would be the ethical basis of such a life. I am not a Christian, an agnostic if you want a label, and my guess is that the majority of Australians today would wear it.
In default of a personal faith, we will need to build and hold on to a personal ethic if we are not to live a life that is marked by disappointment and frustration. I would agree at once that such an ethic will be a position supported by ‘faith’, if only a faith that in the long run this is the best path to follow. I encountered evangelists when I was young who told me that I could not live a good life without belief in God. I found that a real worry at the time, since I didn’t believe, and couldn’t imagine, what such belief would mean, but could not agree that I would therefore be unable to live a good life. Now, after fifty years watching a society grow steadily less formally religious and yet in some ways more sensitive, caring and harmonious, I think it was and is a completely empty assertion.
My own personal ethic, developed over a long time, has been built around the notion that the shaping of my own life is my responsibility, and that I do my best to consider how others would feel before I act towards them. It is my version of the Golden Rule. I remember learning it like this: ‘Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You’, and since I remember the capital letters it was probably a banner at one of my Sunday schools. Many people think that the Golden Rule is Christian, but it too is very much older than Jesus Christ, even though it is certainly part of Christian teaching (Matthew 7:12 is very like the text set out above). The Golden Rule can also be found in ancient Greek philosophy as well as in the writings of the Chinese philosopher Kung Tze (Confucius), who lived several centuries earlier than Christ.
Like the seven of the ten biblical Commandments that set out how we should behave to each other, it is also a rule of social common sense, and if we all followed it we would live much more peaceful lives. But our egos, our circumstances, our sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, of fairness and unfairness, usually get in the way. To set out to follow the Golden Rule is, however, a good strategy for a good life. The spiritual side of one’s life is always one’s own business, but I believe that an open-ness towards the possibility of it, rather than a flat denial, is important. Among other things, an attention to it tends to make us aware of how, in so many ways, we are relatively insignificant as individuals, but joined to everyone else through our common enjoyment of the colour of the sunset, the majesty of tall forests, the sweetness of harmony and the power of great art. These experiences, it seems to me, are especially good for us.
On what assumptions should we shape our own lives? I offer three interconnected propositions. The first is that life is a unique gift from our parents. Of the millions and millions of possible combinations of sperm and egg that were available at the time, the outcome was each of us. The other combinations were not realised. In that sense our life is the result of a lottery, and we won the big prize. Such prizes can be wasted or used with discrimination. If we use the prize well, we can develop the many capacities within us, and thereby experience the best of what human life has to offer.
The second is that along with the prize comes a task, the most important personal task we will have: the building of a person of whom we can be justly proud. The third is that we are not simply individuals, but that we live among other individuals, whose collective efforts provide us with the means of developing our capacities and enjoying life. We have to play our part in that effort, too. Our great social task is the building of a better society than the one we ourselves live in, partly because it is the social version of the second maxim, and partly because it is our extra gift to those to whom we will give, or have already given, the gift of life, our children and grand-children — and to those who are the descendants of our friends.
You could add a fourth, that each human being contains great potential for good, despite a powerful potential for doing harm to others. We see that good in the creative expression of people like J. S. Bach, Leonardo da Vinci and Shakespeare. To be confronted by their work, to enjoy it and appreciate it, is to feel that our kind has something to offer, and that feeling will sustain us in the shaping of our own lives. I am confident that we all have creative potential, and that releasing it, nurturing it and developing it is a major task for the future whose outcome, both for each individual and for the society as a whole, will be an increase in human happiness and a reduction in unnecessary and unproductive expenditure.
Going back to yesterday, when I hear someone imploring us to go out and spend, so that retailers can have a good Christmas, I feel how shallow that all is. Yes, we all need jobs, both for the cash they bring in and for the social context that work provides. But life can be so much richer.
If you think that this post is a serious one, you’re right. In writing it I was also stimulated by the appalling behaviour of some of our politicians in the last week. We deserve better than that.