What does it mean to live a good life?
This semester, a group of Rutgers University–Newark undergraduates are exploring this question in depth.
Camil Golub, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy focusing on ethics, metaethics and moral psychology, arrived at RU-N in 2017. He teaches “Introduction to Ethics” and “The Nature of Morality.” This spring, for the second consecutive year, he’s also teaching a “The Good Life,” which interrogates the idea of a well-lived life.
The topic dates back to ancient Greece, where philosophy revolved around questions that students tackle in the course, such as What makes our lives go well: Is it about enjoyment, virtue, happiness, desire fulfillment, achievement, living a life that’s meaningful? What role should morality play in a life well lived? How does death factor into the equation: Is it bad for us and why? And how should we make important life choices such as what career to pursue or whether to have a child?
Students examine major theories related to these questions and wrestle with various arguments in their discussions and papers. Such lines of inquiry relate directly to students’ lives, making the course resonate with them all the more.
“I tell my class at the beginning that engaging in ethics is inescapable, that just by going about our daily lives and making choices about how to treat people, what foods to consume, what plans to make, what to spend our money on, we make ethical choices,” says Golub. “My course gives them tools to do that work more rigorously, in a more self-aware way.”
Golub says that to some extent such questions became less important over the course of the 20th century, in contemporary analytic philosophy at least. There has been renewed interest on the good life and what makes people happy in psychological research, however—and not just via self-help books and TED talks but in university courses at places like Harvard and Yale.
I tell my class at the beginning that engaging in ethics is inescapable.
Students might take away practical guidelines from that psychological research to apply to their own daily lives, he adds, but he’s offering something different in his course simply by virtue of the discipline.
“Philosophy questions the very ideas of what makes a good life,” he says. “We distinguish between happiness, meaning, moral value and other issues and help students to see these differences, and how the different choices they make in life amount to weighing these values against one another.”
Students in the course are of different ages and come from a variety of majors. Freshman Sarah DaSilva, who plans on majoring in philosophy and minoring in pre-health, took Golub’s “Intro to Ethics” class in the fall and is enjoying the current class just as much.
“I feel like this course is allowing me to give reason behind my actions and beliefs and also allows me to see how other people act and understand why they do what they do and why they have a certain stance on a topic,” she says. “Philosophy courses can really open your mind to different beliefs and maybe even change how you live your life.”
According to Golub, one of the topics that surprises students most, but ends up resonating with them as well, is death. He says it may seem odd to cover this when teaching about the good life but insists they’re inseparable: After all, death is not necessarily a bad state to be in, since it means being free of pain.
“The ancient Greeks took this kind of therapeutic approach, saying death is not something to fear because it is the permanent cessation of existence, and someone who no longer exists can’t be harmed by anything,” he says. “So, we put pressure on that idea in class.”
A course on the philosophy of the good life takes on special resonance in these tumultuous times, Golub adds. All students worry about their career, but in this post–Great Recession world, he’s noticed that students are even more anxious about their job prospects and financial security, especially with the level of debt that many students leave college with.
“I don’t tell my students to forget about making money or getting good career, but I try to expand the range of things they think about when considering careers,” he says. “Maybe finding financial security will still be one of the most important things for them, but I hope that they’ll discover by the end of the class that they already care about other things equally that might affect career and other life choices.”