Philosophers have for ages studied “the good life” with the assumption that it’s something we’re still striving towards; that for individuals and society it’s always just out of reach.
But what if we already have as good a life as anyone on Earth? And who could tell us if that was the case?
Step forward British anthropologist Daniel Miller. Having spent decades studying exotic or impoverished ethnic groups across the world, he has turned his attention to Ireland, specifically a small east coast town where he passed 16 months observing and engaging with the locals. His findings are published this week in a new book, The Good Enough Life, which makes the jaw-dropping discovery that “it is hard to find another currently existing society that is demonstrably better” than this Dublin suburb.
Before you ask, he has anonymised the fishing village – giving it the name Cuan – out of “respect” to interviewees, though it doesn’t take a genius to work it out. The Irish Times feels it’s important to say that it’s neither Dalkey nor Killiney (sorry Bono). Rather, Cuan bears an uncanny resemblance to a more humble north Dublin suburb that rhymes with “fairies”.
“The people of Cuan are simply besotted by Cuan; the term ‘heaven’ is not infrequently used,” writes Miller who builds up a rich description of cultural life in the town. It’s a family friendly place, with a relatively high quality of life but without major trappings of wealth – most people wear clothes from one of three shops: “Penneys, Marks and Spencers and Dunnes Stores”. A lively community spirit can be found in everything from Tidy Towns to an annual poetry festival.
He admits the experiences of older people are more heavily represented in the study than under 25s, and he addresses issues like housing and depression. However, “the decline of religion has turned out to be profoundly inconsequential” and people are generally tolerant and egalitarian. They’re also less individualistic than residents of a comparable English town that Miller studied.
Miller, a self-proclaimed “evidence-led scholar”, says he is loath to generalise about Irish society but “I know about this town”, and he believes the evidence supports local residents’ heavenly view of Cuan. “Basically, I’m saying I think this [perception] is true.” He explains further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.
Let’s start with dress sense. What do the clothes people wear say about Cuan?
“There are two points. That most people dress [in the town] in ways that are not meant to be intimidating is overwhelmingly the case. Generally speaking, people are not dressing to impress… I would also say environmentalism is really the only status game in town these days. People are genuinely concerned. Almost everybody takes measures. It fits well in with things like Tidy Towns, and this has become very important to all ages.”
You measure the lives you witness against the ideals of “the good life” in philosophy. However, you point out “there is no evidence in Cuan… of abstracted philosophical discourse”. Rather, people are obsessed with sports – an overtly anti-intellectual pastime. Is there an irony that the very people who fail to systematically reflect on the good life end up living it?
“I think that’s a very strong point of the book. There is a sense that being over-abstract, or philosophical, kills the vibe or the craic, or whatever, but that these people [in Cuan] are profound – and the way they are profound comes from what they do, not from pontificating about abstract ideas.”
Socrates would say “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Are you contesting that?
“Yes, I am very explicit in questioning that. One of the problems in social science is we tend to feel everything should be critical and I am doing something extremely unusual in social science, which is a book of praise… Critique alone under the sort of imprimatur of the examined life isn’t necessarily the most positive way of helping people achieve the kind of life that they might want to aspire to.”
When you showed locals a draft of the book they pushed back against your positivity. Are we biased toward the negative?
“The place where it is most conspicuous is smartphones – my core area of research. If you ask people about smartphones the reply is relentlessly negative… and yet if you turn to what they do, as opposed to what they say, they are using it 100 times a day for good things. So we have this extraordinary discrepancy: How is it that people are relentlessly negative in what they say and relentlessly positive in what they do? Maybe it is that philosophy, and these dominant discourses that tell people what they are allowed to say and think, are not necessarily aligned with the people.
“The kind of anthropology I do has always been cautious about language. Language is so much about what we think people should hear and what we think is okay to say. I don’t think it’s a self-description; you have to actually be there and observe.”
Having travelled all over the world, did you ultimately find “heaven on Earth” in Cuan?
“I think one has to be careful. ‘Good enough’ is not ‘good’… I don’t want to suggest this is the ideal society because it isn’t. What I want to suggest is that it’s hard to find anywhere much better. And I think that’s where philosophy remains useful because philosophy does help us to think of ideals we might still achieve and have not achieved yet.”