Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Quality of Life

We are forever in search of ways in which to improve our quality of life. And, yet, does anyone know what 'quality of life' really means? When we try to define quality of life we often land up metaphorically chasing our tails. Things are good if they improve our quality of life. But this adds another poorly understood word into the discussion. What do we mean by good? And further, are things good because they improve our quality of life or do they improve our quality of life because they are good?

One of the problems is that 'quality' is a poorly understood subjective term. A thing is good if it has good qualities. Robert Pirsig the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance wrote a second, less well known book, called Lila in which he attempted to address the issue of what we mean by 'quality'. He tried to say that we may not be able to define quality but we do not need to because we all have a shared subjective understanding of what quality means. According to Pirsig, anyone, regardless of their philosophical disposition, would agree that sitting on a hot stove is a low quality situation.

This may be true but is not useful unless the question that we are trying to answer is - should I sit on a hot stove? Most people would agree that improving the quality of their lives would be a good thing. And most would also agree that not sitting on hot stoves would contribute, in a positive way, to their quality of life. But this observation has little value beyond this specific situation. Eventually we have to return to the question - what is 'quality of life' and how can we improve it?

In the next post we will look at objective attempts to define quality of life and see how they can be misleading. In the post after that we will return to this notion of a subjective quality of life and see if we can get a little beyond the avoidance of hot stoves.