“Wait, how is that not about ethics?”

July 3. Not a holiday, but close enough that there was lots of confusion — as usual — about my gate clearance, ride to the school, and whether there had been call outs. I got to the school late, as a result, even so, COs, but no men in the classroom. Eventually three men trickled in from three dorms, one because he saw me get out of the van and could show his CO a call out print out, even though there’d not actually been a vocal call out.

We were to start a new book, the first three chapters of Sarah Bakewell’s philosophical biography of Montaigne, How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

A lively, interesting book, so far. I didn’t want to get too far into it since we were five or six men short and would want to cover the new material with the whole group, but two of the men really took Bakewell to task over her claim in the introduction that (of Montaigne’s Essays project):

Although it is not quite grammatical in English, it can be phrased in three simple words: “How to live?” This is not the same at the ethical question “How should one live?” Moral dilemmas interested Montaigne, but he was less interested in what people ought to do than in what they actually did. He wanted to know how to live a good life — meaning a correct or honorable life, but also a fully human, satisfying, flourishing one.” (p.4)

starting with my titular question: What makes for an honorable, flourishing life? Wait, how is that not about ethics? Aristotle would famously agree, and so would many of his philosophical descendants. We shall see how the ought/is distinction pans out in the rest of the book.

Not all three men agreed, I should add, with the hold out eager to link morality and ethics to divine law. He asked passionately Really, why do you do this, I mean apart from what you might get out of it? In other words what’s the story of why something is the right thing to do (justification?) that doesn’t rely on a higher sort of ethical law or demand? He knows I am an atheist, and still cannot get his head around the idea of actions having moral worth, or agents having moral intentions, or even life having meaning or other value (honor, flourishing) if we believe in a godless universe. I have never been moved by the tension between godlessness and being committed to an ethical life — I just don’t feel a gap at all — but I can see the difficulty of positing value in a world of purely physical objects. He tried to give me an out by asking me if maybe I was spiritual (if not religious) :).

We will take up these questions again soon.

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