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David Cameron Has Promised Voters 'The Good Life', But What Does That Even Mean? And Is He Right?

21/04/2015 17:35 BST | Updated 21/06/2015 10:59 BST

Unusually for British politics, a British politician talked about morality. At the Conservative Party's manifesto launch last week, David Cameron didn't just mention the practical details on what he would do for the economy, housing or education. He went further and made the philosophical claim that his policies would help people live "a good life."

In the same way Britain doesn't "do God", we don't really "do morality" either. Of course, we do morality all the time: Governments make decisions about how to allocate resources on the basis on their views on what matters, and moral questions just are questions about what matters. However, we tend not to explicitly talk about morality, which was why commentators were mostly either confused, amused or baffled by the PM's comment.

So, what is the good life? To be clear, we are not talking about how to lead a live that is good for other people, but how to lead a life that is good for the person that leads it him or herself. Philosophers agree that there are three plausible accounts of what they call 'well-being': what it is for someone's life to go well for them. These are hedonism, desire theories and the objective list. Whereas hedonists align well-being with experiences of pleasure, desire theorists equate it with satisfying one's desire - actually getting what you want. Advocates of the objective list think that things can be good for us independent of our experiences of them; the most famous advocate of the last account, Aristotle, thought the good life consisted in virtuous activity. Speaking roughly then, people live good lives either if they are happy, they get what they want, or they meet certain objective criteria, depending on the view you subscribe to.

Where does David Cameron's promise of a good life fit in this this? At the launch, he said "[this is] what I mean by a good life - families secure, the peace of mind that comes with a proper job and a career, the security of knowing your children are getting a great education." Irritatingly (at least for us philosophers) it's not clear which account of well-being David Cameron is buying into. A politician saying he'll deliver the good life without making it clear what it is, is a bit like an art dealer offering, if you give him your money, to sell you some 'good art': not terribly reassuring.

Judging from the quote, Cameron thinks he can offer a good life to British people because his policies will bring them security of some sort. Let's grant that Tory policies will make people more secure. But is security good for us because we enjoy it, we want it, or is it just good for us, full stop? Looking at each of the accounts of well-being in turn, it's not obvious that security is crucial to them.

Certainly, there is something pleasant about feeling secure. But security is not the only component of happiness. Indeed much of what makes us happy when we are excited is the uncertainty of what will happen in the future.

There's no doubt that security is something we want, but it's one of many things we want. Few people in this country would trade very much of their freedom for a little bit more security.

I'm not sure either that being secure is good for me regardless of what I think about it. We might think wisdom, or possibly knowledge, are good in themselves, but my security only matters to me because I want to be, or enjoy, having security.

When we analyse Cameron's offer to help people lead a good life - through greater security - against the accounts of how we might understand the good life, it doesn't do very well. Cameron's vision the good life is, a best, incomplete.

That's not to say that David Cameron was wrong for talking about well-being. I think we should have more politicians trying to spell out their visions of the good life. Politics will always be based around our values and its better those values are made explicit than left implicit. If they are explicit, at least we can have a debate over them and work out which ones we, as the electorate, agree with.

Now we know what Cameron's account of the good life is, it's over to you, Ed and Nick, to tell us yours.