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Evaluating A Life

There are two different ways to evaluate the quality of a life: from the outside and from the inside. On the one hand, we can look at the external circumstances of any particular individual and ask ourselves whether or not that is the sort of life we would want to live or be satisfied with living. There are various aspects of value that we might consider when determining whether a life is good as seen from the outside: financial security, general bodily health, family relations, educational opportunity, vocational status, social reputation, and so on. Any individual who scored highly on many or all of these areas could be said to have a good life. But this sort of good life will always have to be qualified by “as it appears to us.” For no amount of external evidence can ever guarantee that a life is good as seen from the inside or as it appears to that person. An individual may, on all external accounts, live a life of luxury and yet have a bad life, the sort of life that we would reject for ourselves if given complete knowledge of what that life is like. This makes sense of general wisdom idioms that have long taught us that a person may have it all yet live an unhappy life.

What counts as good from the inside is quite different than what counts as good from the outside. As opposed to external states, internal states have a predictably mental character. They can manifest themselves in external ways but do not always do so. Even if they do, there is a limit to what language can convey. A subject could describe to us in detail what their life looks like from the inside, but without a way to measure or compare the quality of internal states (or what philosophers call qualia), language will be insufficient in giving us a full account of those states. A description of a person’s internal states will allow us to judge the general quality of a person’s internal life–“this person is happy,” “this person had fun,” “this person is depressed”–but the specificity runs out quickly. We will not be able to distinguish between the internal states of a person who says he has been having a rough year and a person who claims to be depressed; worse still, we will not be able to distinguish between two people who give us the same exact description. This is because there is no guarantee that a descriptor will map onto any given internal state.  “My marriage is excellent” or “my life is great” may mean something quite different if said by you than if said by your friend and may have been produced by very different mental states. As a result, a full account of how good a life is does not seem within our grasp.

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