The Good Life

Lots of people think their brand of living is the best. But the road to good living is a high call few achieve.

Is the good life spent smoking pot on the couch, obsessing about money or serving the poor? Of the following, who was the best person: C.S. Lewis, Sigmund Freud or V.I. Lenin? To become a good person, would it be better to emulate Ward Churchill, Donald Trump or Billy Graham?

Your answers to questions like these will make a radical difference in how you live your life.

Questions like these raise an even more fundamental question, however, for they’re all based on the assumption that there is such a thing as the good life, that some people really are better — morally — than others, and that people really can make moral improvements in their lives. In other words, they’re based on the assumption that there’s a real difference between good and bad, right and wrong — one that transcends individuals and cultures — and the assumption that we have a choice in the matter. Let’s call these assumptions the moral point of view.To put things in more philosophical, academic terms, one views the world from the moral point of view when he (1) subscribes to normative judgments about actions, things and motives, (2) is willing to universalize these judgments, (3) seeks to form his moral views in an unbiased way and (4) seeks to promote the good. For more on the moral point of view, see pages 402 and 403 of my Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (InterVarsity. Downers Grove. 2003), which I co-authored with William Lane Craig.

The questions at the beginning of this article are versions of three more general questions: What’s the good life?, Who’s really a good person?, and How do I become a good person? We need strong answers to these questions if we want to have any sense of purpose or direction in life but, because they all presuppose the moral point of view, we can’t even ask these questions if we don’t first adopt the moral point of view. In order to give our lives a sense of direction and purpose, a worldview must provide a good answer the question Why should we adopt the moral point of view?

Currently, a three-way worldview struggle rages in our culture amongst scientific naturalism, postmodernism and Christianity. Since I have described and argued against scientific naturalism and postmodernism in previous Boundless articles,See my articles, “What is Scientific Naturalism?” “Postmodernism and the Christian Life: Part 1” and “Postmodernism and the Christian Life: Part 2.” I will not do so here. Instead, I shall briefly characterize them and describe how they answer this fundamental question.

As I explained in the second article of this series, scientific naturalism has four major components: (1) the belief that scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge there is, (2) the belief that evolutionary theory explains every aspect of life, (3) the belief that non-physical things — such as God and the soul — don’t exist, and (4) the belief that the world’s existence has no purpose; that the cosmos and everything in it are the results of random, chance events.

Given these four components, it’s difficult to formulate a satisfying answer to the question Why should I adopt the moral point of view? Because it claims that we aren’t here for any purpose, and because good and bad, right and wrong aren’t the sorts of things we can study scientifically, the most fitting answer scientific naturalism can produce is an egoistic one, according to which you should adopt the moral point of view only insofar as it’s in your best interest to do so.Egoism is the view that one is acting morally if and only if she is acting solely out of her own self-interest. For more on this, see my previous article, “The Selfish Heart of Christianity?” But this answer is inadequate because it boils down to the claim that you should fake moral behavior and concerns when doing so pays off; otherwise, you should set morality aside altogether.

In regard to the three life-orienting questions mentioned above — What’s the good life?, Who’s really a good person?, and How do I become a good person? — the naturalist is pretty much at a loss, for he has an inadequate reason for accepting the moral point of view, and all of these questions presuppose an acceptance of the moral point of view. But still, in spite of this shaky foundation —in particular, in spite of their belief that the world doesn’t exist for any purpose — naturalists do their best to ask and answer them. According to most naturalists, the good life involves some form of material (as opposed to spiritual) success, most likely, financial, academic or artistic success; a good person is one who’s true to her own egoistic ideals (whatever they are); and one becomes a good person by becoming more and more accomplished at protecting her own interests.

The second worldview I mentioned above is postmodernism. Postmodernism contains a very complicated set of ideas and no short characterization of it could be entirely adequate.For a more thorough characterization of postmodernism, see my “Postmodernism and the Christian Life: Part 1.” Still, we may safely summarize postmodernism as the rejection of six things: (1) the correspondence theory of truth, (2) objective reality, (3) the existence of universal standards for determining what counts as knowledge, (4) the existence of universal standards for determining something’s value, (5) the idea that an author’s intentions determine the meaning of a text and (6) the existence of any objectively real “self.” According to postmodernism, the difference between truth and falsehood, real and unreal, right and wrong, rational and irrational, good and bad are relative to different linguistic communities.What’s a linguistic community? A linguistic community is a group of people that share a narrative. What’s a narrative? A narrative is similar to a worldview. Roughly, a narrative is a perspective such as Marxism, atheism or Christianity which is embedded in a group or culture’s social and linguistic practices. (Note that calling one of these perspectives a narrative rather than a worldview emphasizes that one is not concerned with its truth. Rather, one is merely interested in whether it is “meaningful” or “relevant.”) What is true, real, and so forth for one community may not be so for another.

Obviously enough, it’s also difficult to give a satisfying answer to the question Why should we adopt the moral point of view? from the postmodern perspective and, once again, the most fitting answer seems to be an egoistic one. But as we have already seen, the egoistic answer boils down to the unacceptable claim that you should fake moral behavior and concerns so long as faking it pays off, and set morality aside when it doesn’t.

This means that the postmodern is stuck with weak answers to the life-orienting questions above just as the scientific naturalist is. The main difference is that postmodernism brings the idea of community to bear heavily on egoistic considerations, so that a community’s ideas about the good life and good person (whatever they may be) determine what will be in the best interest of its individual members. Moreover, the only advice postmodernism can give on how to become a good person is Submit to your community unless doing so isn’t in your best interest.

When the question How do I become a good person? is asked by someone looking for concrete advice — the kind of advice sought in the opening questions of this article — the kind of advice that would actually recommend one lifestyle over another — neither scientific naturalism nor postmodernism has much to say. Considering the fact that most cultural differences are rooted in different answers to this question, the fact that scientific naturalism and postmodernism can barely address it is remarkable.

In sharp contrast to the naturalistic and postmodern response to the question Why should we adopt the moral point of view?, the Christian response incorporates reference to the existence of God. For example, we ought to adopt the moral point of view because it is both true and rooted in the non-arbitrary commands of a perfect Creator. Or for another example, we ought to adopt the moral point of view because adopting it is the way God designed us to function. We should adopt it for the same reason that a car should be driven on the road rather than on the bottom of the ocean: It was designed for the former and not for the latter. Likewise, we were designed to see the world from the moral point of view, and only in doing so will we serve the ends for which we were created.

Not only are naturalism and postmodernism false, but seen in light of these considerations, they are exposed as deeply inadequate for answering life’s most important questions. By contrast, the worldview of Jesus is not only true, it provides deep, satisfying answers to these questions. For Jesus — and I’m just scratching the surface here — ultimate reality is the Triune God and His Kingdom; the good life is lived in the Kingdom of God where it’s impervious to one’s material circumstances; the good person is one who’s pervaded with agape love and manifests the fruit of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control); and to become a good person, one must enlist as an apprentice of Jesus and claim allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Within the Christian worldview, certain lifestyles are clearly commanded of us and others clearly forbidden. The Christian worldview can answer the questions What’s the good life?, Who’s really a good person?, and How do I become a good person? in detail and depth. Compared with scientific naturalism and postmodernism, it’s the only game in town.

Copyright 2005 J. P. Moreland. All rights reserved.

About the Author

J.P. Moreland

J.P. Moreland is distinguished professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and director of Eidos Christian Center. He has contributed to over 40 books, including Love Your God With All Your Mind and over 60 journal articles. Dr. Moreland also co-authored The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life.