The Good Life – for the Individual and the Public Administrator

One of the age-old philosophical questions, what does it mean to live a good life, is one that has not been answered sufficiently. But with a continually advancing global and scientific community, people are closer than ever to answering what makes a good life. There have been many who claimed to have answered this question, but all have fallen short. There is one concept that plagues and brings unnecessary suffering to countless people throughout history: Asceticism which is “a doctrine or way of life in which the enjoyment of bodily pleasures, comfort, and ease is forsworn for moral, spiritual, or religious reasons. Enjoyment of such pleasures and comforts may be held to tempt to sin; to prevent contemplation of or dedication to higher things” (Hinderich, 61). To describe what I think is the good life, I will lay out a brief explanation of the good life with happiness at its center, explain how so many misunderstand utilitarianism, hedonism, and human nature, and end by making the case that government and public administrators have a duty to represent the citizens and ensure they have the environment to achieve their personal happiness and thus live their good lives.

The Individual

Far too many claim that to resist pleasures means a good life. Those who do could not be further from the truth – that people live short, hard, insignificant, and sometimes miserable lives. We have too few pleasures and too many struggles. And in this struggle to just make it through life, all people have are each other. Robert Ingersoll said it best: Happiness is the only good, the time to be happy is now, the place to be happy is here, and the way to be happy is to make others so. In that way, the only way to live a good life, as an individual, is to create the most good possible. If one were to raise net happiness by just a tiny fragment, then they are living a good life. So what does this come down to? If happiness is our greatest utility, then the only way to live a good life is to increase this through altruistic utilitarian hedonism. Many scientists are finding that it is in our very nature to be altruistic and compassionate. We are beginning to find that we are born with basic altruism (Cook, 2013). In the notable book The Selfish Gene, Biologists Richard Dawkins found that people, through evolution, are conditioned to empathize, be altruistic, and collaborate with others in order to survive. And in this conditioning, people have developed moral sentiments that give people their sense of morality. Some love to ask “why do we feel something is right and wrong?”it is an evolved mechanism – it would be like asking “why do we feel hungry, or why so we sometimes feel scared. It is human nature. And those who claim that resisting pleasures or happiness do not have an understanding of human nature or have a perverse view of the world.

Asceticism has hold of many areas of the world creating needless pockets of unhappiness and human suffering. Some examples of proponents of this concept include Confucius, Buddah, Aristotle, and Kant, to name a few. Another example of consistent denial of worldly pleasures rests in the doctrine of religion and especially in the Abrahamic religion. Confucius, for example, laid out a live similar, and prior to, what most are familiar with as the Old Testament including the idea that “a gentleman does not try to stuff himself when he eats and is not worried about the comfort of his dwelling” (Confucius, 1:14). Along with loyalty to parents, tradition, and to the gods, Confucius set a bar for a denial of comfort that has been repeated multiple times across multiple cultures and religions. Jesus, for example, wants his followers, and by extension everyone, to deny self and worldly pleasures (Luke 9:23). Additionally, there are countless of other commandments such as perfection (Matthew :48), celibacy (Matthew 19:10-12), and poverty (Matthew 19:16-22) just in the Book of Matthew, to name a few. This form of asceticism may seem virtuous or mild to some, but it is the concepts derived from a denial of pleasure that creates unhappiness and ruins lives that could have otherwise been good. 

The result of this ongoing assault on basic human happiness can be summarized in the life of Mother Tereasa. Mother Teresa, was seen by many as a virtuous person who directed a lot of aid towards those in need. In reality, she denied medicine to the sick, basic comforts (beds, lights, food, and even elevators) to the needy, all while pushing a religion to those most desperate or mande desperate because of her inhuman asceticism. In the book The Missionary Position, Teresa is shown to have denied these basic comforts and life-saving necessities because she saw suffering as a gift from god. This cult of suffering was, “in fact nothing more than a primitive hospice – a place for people to die, and a place where medical treatment was vestigial or nonexistent” (Hitchens, 2001). The late Christopher Hitchens put it best when he said that “she was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She liked poverty. She thought it was good for people. She told people to think of it as a gift from god, and she made sure that they stayed poor” (Hitchens, 2007). Although her life consistent of hypocritical luxury and care, Teresa’s resulting deeds are the definition of asceticism. 

Very few would want her way of life to be true, and yet, we are often told to give up comfort in order to live a good life. There are those who say “living well means striving to create a good life, but only subject to certain constraints essential to human dignity” and that “any attractive conception of our moral responsibilities would sometimes demand great sacrifices…” (Dworkin, 2011). Aristotle laid out a classic form of virtue ethics in Nicomachean Ethics and advocated that people ought to learn and practice virtuous habits, but also asserts that pleasure is not good and argues, in Book X, that pleasure in and of itself cannot be good. Either by divine supervision, or by big state, those who propose individuals to reject pleasure seem to think, like Confucius, the Ancient Greeks, religions, and the like that “the collective public interest must supervise and control the conduct of individuals” in life, in the community, in the market, as well as within government (Elcock, 2016). But these assertions only point out their misunderstandings of utilitarianism, hedonism, and human nature.

The common interpretation of utilitarianism is a product of ignorance and asserts that it “consists of nothing more than the sum of the interests of the individuals” and that the individual will only pursue selfish and immediate pleasure (Elcock, 2016). Utilitarianism as described by John Stewart Mills, Jeremy Benthem, and Epicuris, is a “creed which accepts as the foundation of morals ‘utility’ or the ‘greatest happiness principle’ holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure” (Mills, 7). The utilitarian theory seeks to increase the utility of all involved and wishes to see an increase of net happiness, not just the happiness of one or even the happiness of the majority. 

Hedonism is the doctrine that pleasure is the good and the only good (Honderich, 337). This leads people to believe that it means one ought to partake in the most extreme forms of wild pleasure (orgies, drunken parties, wealth, and any other immedient pleasure producing events) leaving behind any sort of responsibility. But this is far from the truth. Epicurus was an ancient Greek hedonist among many other titles and descriptions that put him far beyond his time (atomist, skeptic, etc)and he described hedonism as “an act [being] moral if in the long run, all things considered, it produces in the agent a surplus of pleasure over pain”and goes on to clarify that “the long-term effects of our habits are always pertinent to judgments of moral and immoral (Epicurus, 58-59). Additionally, hedonism is not focused just on the individual or the majority, but one that fosters a community of human concern that values altruism, friendship, gentleness, and loving-kindness (Epicurus, 66). So the imminent and reckless pursuit of pleasure as described above is not hedonism in this sense and those who characterize it so are mistaken.

And finally, human nature. The ascetics and virtue ethicists mentioned above, and indeed some modern philosophers including Immanuel Kant, did not have the slightest clue about evolution and its consequences for human nature that we have the luxury of knowing today. Ancient and religious thinkers did the best they could with what they knew and often attributed the highest good to the gods. They also seem to have a now outdated notion that humans have an evil nature and are all too often tempted to sin or pursue unvirtuous habits. Ignoring that fact that this means there is a god who would create humans with a sinful nature and then punish them for having the sinful nature the god gave them in the first place, believers seem to think that the only way to any sort of good is for there to be a god to judge us. Kant certainly believed this and it drove his point that people should resist worldly pleasures. But “you can make some inferences about a man’s character if you know something about the conditions in which he has survived and prospered” and we know now as a settled fact that evolution shaped man through group cooperation and thrived in a way where survival was based on altruism (Dawkins, 2). David Hume, without the benefit of knowing about evolution, theorized that people have moral sentiments and can judge right from wrong. Hume asserted that at least some morals are natural and inherent to all human beings and we can rely on this instinct for justice, general well-being, and happiness to guide us to make moral decisions (Cohon, 2018). 

These new discoveries in science and human nature brought forth a new secular understanding of people which threw out the need to rely on ancient religious texts of self-depriving pseudo-virtues to be a good person. This is what Friedrich Nietzsche meant when he boldly declared that “god is dead” – secularism and skepticism of the Enlightenment had not only eliminates the possibility of a god, but also the need for a god to live a good life. We know now that “just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or muslim algebra, we will see that there is no such thing as Christian or Muslim morality. Indeed, I will argue that morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science” and that “If our well-being depends upon the interaction between events in our brains and events in the world, and there are better and worse ways to secure it, then some cultures will tend to produce lives that are more worth living than others; some political persuasions will be more enlightened than others; and some world views will be mistaken in ways that cause needless human misery” (Harris 4 & 191). Although seeing morality as a science is not new (Epicurus’ ataraxia, Aristotle’s eudaimonia, etc) and science has always done more to lead humans towards a more enlightened understanding of happiness – the moral arc of the universe, as Martin Luther King Jr. as described it, bends ever upward (Shermer, 5). 

So if we know that there is not some tyrannical judge in the sky and that our lives really are just a collaboration between individuals, “in the moral sphere, it is safe to begin with the premise that it is good to avoid behavior in such a way as to produce the worst possible misery for everyone” (Harris, 39). Meaning, there is no purpose to self-denial of pleasure other than to deprive one or others of happiness and in this struggle to live a good life, happiness is all we have. It must be conceded that “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad” and “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it” (Singer, 1972). So for an individual to live a good life, they need to be altruistically utilitarian and hedonistic – with hedonism is the simple admission that happiness is the only good; utilitarianism the vehicle with which people can bring about good; and altruism the natural inclination to bring people together and collaborate to collectively achieve the good life. This good life or a meaning to life is simply put by the late Stephen Hawking who brilliantly held that “the meaning of life is what you choose it to be. It is not somewhere out there but right between our ears. This makes us the lords of creation” (Hawking, 2015).

The Public Administrator

Now, operating on the premise that happiness is the only good for individuals, and that because we have an innate moral sense that we developed through our natural evolutionary development, and because we can assume there is no higher god acting as the thought police to judge moral rightness and wrongness, it can safely be settled that it is up to the individual to find their own happiness and to discover what makes them happy. I have covered the individual, the group, and the gods, but there is another actor in this tale: the state. The government and its administrators are always going to be in a place where they too must decide what is best. This involves some duties of their own.

It is a sad realization that government and public administration as a whole is seen with distrust or distaste. Through the past century of the nation’s history, the United States has experienced several tides of public administration. Government failures ranging from foreign interventions like Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs to events like Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the like all lead to “the age of limits” where  more and more public disdain and public distrust lead to citizens having to “learn to live with increasingly constricted expectations” of their governments (Brinkley, 1105). The tides of administration went through various phases from the war on waste where the public was skeptical of government waste to the watchful eye tide where the public watched and judged the actions of the government ever more closely. Public administrators now have a haunting image of big government that it cannot hope to shake anytime soon. It is notable to see that this image not only tarnishes the public administrators but also the agencies and systems in which they serve resulting in a decrease of public participation in civics which only harms the situation even more. It is safe to say, one would be hard pressed to find a position or role in government that would not be positively affected by increased public participation.

From the point of view of the public sector, it is observed all too often that the solution to the problem of public engagement or public perception is to address the concerns in a sweeping and strong fashion and although this desired action does not come from a bad place, it could potentially produce some worrying effects. At base, what is desired is a collective community working together towards common goals. Those one the far right seek to force nationalism (censoring or ignoring minority concerns, nativism, etc) and religion (prayer in school, displays in government, etc.) in order to create this sense of community. Those on the far left may advocate for some sort of reeducation or forced community like soviet-style mandated community leaders. Either way is no good, as Berry Goldwater once lamented “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”. The solution must be a voluntary commitment by the individual to come together and deliberate and participate.  This collaboration is, as noted above, a natural desire by people coded into our DNA by evolution. The fight to convince the people that it is important to participate is unfortunately a generational one where each preceding generation must see how important it is to have their voices heard. So if the state cannot operate in extremes, and the need to collaborate is an inherent one, what is the duty for public administrators?

Public administrators have a duty to the public to represent them, serve them, and create and protect the environment in which the public operates. The later of the duties was established by American philosopher John Dewey who established that the moral meaning of democracy s for the government “to set free and develop the capacities of human individuals without regard to race, sex, class, or economic status” (Garrett, 2001). That is, whatever the public who elected or supports the public agency wants, they administrator must do or step down. The public shapes their views by deliberating amongst themselves and know what is best for themselves. “The individual is created by the social process and is daily nourished by that process…the reciprocal influence, interactive behavior [sic], which involves a developing situation, is as fundamental for [public] administration as it is for politics, economics, jurisprudence, and ethics” (Mele, 418). Mary Parker Follett continues by stating that “to obey moral law is to obey the social ideal. The social ideal is born, grows, and shapes itself through the associated life” meaning that the result of public desire is a product of deliberation within the community (Mele, 418). There is no concrete value system, and “all value ideas, all notions of things that are held to be valuable, are revisable…in the same sense that a scientific theory or hypothesis is regarded as revisable” (Garrett, 2001). So if the public will, societal norms, and values are so fluid, then the public sector, the state, or the public administrator have no hope to curb it or directed eliminating the extreme solutions from consideration. The only duty regarding public participation would be to create and foster a healthy environment for people-lead and community-lead value system. 

Mary Parker Follett, a woman who is far beyond her own time and seemingly beyond our own time, actively writes about the importance of deliberation in the democractic system. She poeticly vocalizes this in her works explaining that we are society and society is us and that “the individual is not a unit but a centre of forces, and…society is not a collection of units but a complex radiating and converging, crossing and recrossing envergies” her main point being that “a unified, democratic society is not based on assimilation, but on the unifying of difference” (Morse, 6). Follett describes this process in terms of the conflict it inevitably stirs up and notes that because “conflict itself is neither good nor bad” it should not be avoided – instead, “it should be used much as a violin uses friction to make music” (Fry & Raadschelders, 156). This deliberation amongst individuals is necessary for progress, which Follett describes as an “infinite advance toward the infinitely receding foal on infinite perfection” and is determined by the collaboration between individuals (Fry & Raadschelders, 157). 

This collaboration should not seem foreign to anyone because it is through this collaboration that our species has survived for so long. To imagine that the human race has survived and progressed under the assumption that we are immoral, born sinful, selfish, or in need of some agency to direct us towards better participation. Some writers in the field, such as Dr. Howard Elcock, seem to think that man is only able to pursue wealth, self-interest, geed, and irresponsible risk-taking (Elcock, 2016). The conclusion of Dr. Elcock is for more public participation, but he offers very little as a solution. He does include The Good Government Bill which only seems to be an outline of good techniques for increasing public say in government, but fails to address the issue he finds most troubling which is that “public servants, like all human beings, can act only as selfish rational maximisers” (Elcock, 2016). Follett, described as “the prophet of participation”, on the other hand does offer some outstanding methods with which to foster an environment of participation. She dictates a power-with the people as opposed to a power-over system where the role and duty of public administrators is to engage with the public and building community by moving beyond formal meetings and into the community (Morse, 25). This means fostering local self-governance and encouraging collaboration and cooperation that humans are predisposed to do anyway. This takes the totalitarian-like engagement out of the equation and  replaces it with voluntary engagement. The only duty here is for public administrator to create, encourage, and seek engagement from their constituents. 

Once recognized, the innate nature of humans compels us to collaborate and work together for a progressively better and happier future. The foundation of the good life must be build with happiness as the only good and the only thing worthwhile because life is short, harsh, and fleeting – happiness is the only goal worth obtaining and all we have is each other to achieve that goal. By working altruistically with each other, we can use happiness as a utility to maximize our happiness and lives while lowering misery and needless suffering – of which there is far too much. From this foundation, the individual is free to pursue their own good life. The government and public administrator’s only duty in this regard is to stay out of the way of their own quest for the good life. Our duty, as public administrators, is to be sure the environment protects the individual’s pursuit of happiness while encouraging and fostering public participation within their communities and governments.

References

Aristotle, Ross, W.D. Nicomachean Ethics Book 2, Section 1-3 and Book 10, section 1-3. Createspace Independent Pub, 2014.

Brinkley, A. “American History: A Survey” 10th ed. McGraw-Hill: Boston. 

Cohon, R. “Hume’s Moral Philosophy” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy October 29, 2004. Last updated August 20, 2018. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume-moral/#pred.

Confucius. (2014) The Analects (Lunyu). New York: Penguin Books.

Cook, G. “The Moral Life of Babies” Scientific American November 12, 2013. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-moral-life-of-babies/

Dawkins, R. (2006) The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dworkin, R. “What is a Good Life: Morality and Happiness” NYR February 10, 2011.

Elcock, H. “Public Administration and the Good Life” The Political Studies Association Annual Conference (April 2016). https://www.psa.ac.uk/sites/default/files/conference/papers/2016/PAandgoodlife2.pdf

Epicurus (2012) The Art of Happiness. New York: Penguin Books. 

Fry, Brian R., and Jos C. N. Raadschelders. Mastering Public Administration: From Max Weber to Dwight Waldo. Los Angeles: Sage, 2014.

Garrett, J. “John Dewey Reconstructs Ethics” February 7, 2001. Accessed November 16, 2019 from http://people.wku.edu/jan.garrett/dewethic.htm.

Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York: Free Press.

Hawking, S. “Stephen Hawking’s Grand Design – The Meaning of Life” September 16, 2015. Accessed November 21, 2019 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usdqCexPQww.

Hitchens, C. (2012). The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. New York: Twelve.

Hitchens, C. “The Devil and Mother Teresa” Vanity Fair, October 2001.

Hitchens, C. “In Depth with Christopher Hitchens” C-SPAN, September 2, 2007. https://www.c-span.org/video/?198800-1/depth-christopher-hitchens.

Honderich, T. (1995). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mele, D. “Ethics in Management: Exploring the Contribution of Mary Parker Follett” International Journal of Public Administration, (2007) Vol 30(4), pp 405-424.

Mills, J. S. (2001). Utilitarianism and the 1868 Speech on Capital Punishment (2nd ed.). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Morse, R. S. “Prophet of Participation: Mary Parker Follett and Public Participation in Public Administration” Administrative Theory & Praxis, Vol 28(1), pp 1-32.

Plato (2007). The Republic (2nd ed). London: Penguin Books.

Singer, P. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol 1(1) (Spring 1972), pp 229-243).

Shermer, M. (2015). The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Henry Holt and Company, New York. 

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