The Unexamined Life Is Worth Living

David Ramsay Steele has a rather long review in the February issue of Liberty discussing recent psychological literature on happiness research and the paradox of declining (or stagnant) happiness in a world of increasing affluence. He makes a quotable off-hand comment:

There prevails a strong tradition for intellectuals to believe that ordinary people are incapable of happiness, or at least of "true" happiness, as well as being wretched and not even truly alive.

This reminds me of an argument I frequently have with one of my philosophy professors. The notion that "the unexamined life is not worth living" begins with Socrates but extends throughout the entire Western philosophical tradition. Glen Whitman put his finger on the psychological explanation, dubbing it the "My Job Is the Most Important Job in the World" phenomenon. Philosophers examine the unexamined things in life all day, so of course they think that the unexamined life is not worth living. If they didn't believe so, they'd be carpenters instead. Indeed, after Wittgenstein thought he solved all of the problems of philosophy with the publication of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he promptly gave up philosophical work and became a gardener. (He returned to philosophy when he realized that there was still a bit more work to be done.)

What's interesting about this argument is the interplay between egalitarianism and the division labor. At first glance, Socrates' statement seems highly aristocratic. If the only real value, or at least the highest, truest value in life is the study of philosophy, then only philosophers' lives have real value, while everyone else is just wasting away, no better than animals. (Rand comes to mind here; no surprise considering Aristotle agreed with Socrates/Plato on this point.) Clearly, everyone can't be a philosopher - who will tend the fields and mind the flocks? Why should the masses be condemned to a life devoid of value?

Aside from the economic problem, what if people either aren't interested or simply aren't capable of being philosophers? (Although I enjoy philosophy, I can sympathize with those who don't by recalling my extreme dislike of, say, chemistry. There is nothing I'd rather not do than learn about Avigadro's number.) The professor knows better than I do that the majority of students in Philosophy 101 are taking the course for the humanities credit, and fight with every fiber of their being to keep their eyes from glazing over in class. Either because of their religious precommitments, their general lack of academic curiosity, or their intellectual inability to think about matters abstract and abstruse, few students are interested in examining the previously unexamined.

Suddenly, the aristocrat becomes the egalitarian. The division of labor is not important, says he; it is just a function of the alienation and exploitation of the capitalist system. As Marx wrote,

In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.

Further still, we must reject the reactionary notion that some people simply aren't "fit" for philosophical activity. Intelligence is a social, not a biological construct, and everyone is capable of engaging in any intellectual pursuit, so long as they put their mind to it.

The argument dead-ends at this point, unable to continue until both sides can agree on the existence or nonexistence of people incapable of doing philosophy. But even if it is true that everyone is capable of doing philosophy, why should they want to? What's so great about philosophy anyway? I like it, you may like it, but what makes us think that everyone else is just like us? Why is it so much more valuable than, say, a life of small-talk cocktail parties, football tailgating, and other trivial pursuits? And who is to say a life of philosophical inquiry is not as trivial as these other activities? By what standard can we make this judgment?

On the other hand, if everyone can agree that people do exist who are incapable of doing philosophy, is it right to say that their lives are not worth living? If you knew that tomorrow you would lose all interest or ability to do philosophy, would you kill yourself today?

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My apologies, in advance,

My apologies, in advance, for any errors of grammar or spelling that might remove this comment from your reading list.

It could be that, as one of the many glaze-eyed students in Philosophy 101, I did not correctly understand this. I was under the impression, however, that the notion that 'the unexamined life is not worth living' not a claim to constantly examine one's life, but that, without at least occassionally doing so, one fails to notice whether one's life is worth living. In this respect, examining one's life acts as a defense against failures of intrapersonal trusteeship. I examine my life to confirm, from time to time, that the choices I made before are still good for me now, and, as it stands, that my life is worth living.

Muckraker, Is your


Is your interpretation something along the lines of Socrates urging us to examine our lives and weigh the costs and benefits of continuing to live versus committing suicide? But if that's what Socrates is getting at, shouldn't he have instead said something like, "Your life may not be worth living, so you should examine it to make sure"? In other words, the unexamined life may be worth living, but it may not be, and we won't know which possibility is true until we examine it. Whereas, Socrates' statement as it stands implies that the unexamined life is never worth living, regardless of the costs and benefits. Socrates seems to be arguing against the notion that ignorance can ever be bliss. If this is the correct interpretation, then I think Socrates is wrong, on the grounds that values are subjective, the division of labor is useful and desirable, and time is scarce.

Speaking of "ignorance is bliss," here's an interesting article about Robert Nozick's "Experience Machine" argument and the movie The Matrix. I like how life insurance comes into the picture.

Thank you; I did not

Thank you; I did not sufficiently consider my last post.

As for Socrates, I did not mean to suggest a regularly-updated cost-benefit analysis to determine whether to shuffle off the mortal coil. I had meant to suggest that, without regular reflection, an individual will tend towards choices in lifestyle that, after having the experiences, the chooser himself will find worthless.

"Will tend towards", of course, is a pretty weak claim. In my mind, I put insufficient emphasis on 'never', and was therefore implicitly endorsing something closer to what you stated that Socrates should have said.

[Given that such a mealy-mouthed claim would be unlikely to have made it through the ages, though, I can see why 'the unexamined life is never worth living' was the choice of language.]

It's like the old line "Is

It's like the old line "Is it better to be Socrates, dissatisfied, or a satisfied pig?"
I think it all depends on the weather.
Some days aren't worth getting out of bed for unless you're philosophical.
Other days, you'll miss all the fun if you're stuck in your own head.:juggle:

A while ago I decided that,

A while ago I decided that, contrary to Socrates, an examined life is not worth living. When I started asking myself the question "why?" all the time, it interfered with actually feeling happy, or sad. For me I seem to be able to either experience life or examine it, and the first may have its down bits, but it also has its highs.

Do philosophers ever have this problem?

Yeah, it's funny how

Yeah, it's funny how philosophy has a rep as this Ancient Intellectual Search for Wisdom and Truth when it's more like the classic symptom of the dysfunctionally pensive.

Heh -> "Dysfunctionally

Heh -> "Dysfunctionally pensive"

Indeed. :beatnik:

"It is a profoundly

"It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copybooks and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilisation advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them."
-- Alfred North Whitehead

This is in reply to Tracy

This is in reply to Tracy from January 18th...

The question to pose is not so much "Why?", but "How does this (thought, feeling, behavior) serve me?" By examining our own thoughts and emotions, we can begin to discern our true voices from those that have been socially constructed for us. I agree that questioning one's own values, beliefs, ideals and morals isn't easy, and that blissful ignorance can seem preferable to examination. But what greater happiness can there be than knowing oneself?

I belive that Socrates was

I belive that Socrates was saying that man must know himself in order to have a meaningful life. I think that an examined life is a life well thought-out. This person takes the time to know his strengths and weaknesses. An unexamined life is different. I believe, if one deosn't know himself he won't know life, and him may mislead himself. With self-examination you will know your limitations, and an unexamined life or a person who does not know himself is living a disordered life, and a disordered life is worthless.