Life as an Extreme Sport

In Which Our Heroine Learns The World Is Not Flat

Oh Stephen Fry, this is just wrong.

Saying that philosophers don’t tell you how to live your life is… I actually have a hard time getting my head around that point of view, given that many philosophers (especially those of the applied and normative branches) do, well, just that. Is Bentham’s calculus something other than how you should like an ideal utilitarian life? What about Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, a treatise aimed at doing/becoming good, a practical application (some might argue the first in the applied ethics) rather than a meta or theoretical knowledge? (Spawned this entire field, really, called virtue ethics. Be hard to argue that virtue ethics is about anything other than how one should live one’s life.) Kant’s categorical imperatives are certainly prescriptions on how to live your life as a moral agent! (Right there we cover utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and deontology, with just three well-known philosophers. There are entire library sections devoted to the ideas each discusses on how to live.)

I can understand not being familiar with modern philosophy, even of the last 100-odd years, if it’s not your field, or your field’s kissing cousin. I am not shocked that he has no familiarity with modern virtue ethicists, casuistrists, or much of the work that’s gone on in both applied and normative ethics. But the fields themselves, as subdivisions of ethical study in philosophy, have existed for much longer; Mr. Fry appears to equate philosophy with logic, epistemology, and metaphysics, extending a sort of brief acknowledgment of metaethics (which does indeed ask more broad questions such as “what is goodness” rather than “how do I live a good life?”), and going no further.

It’s sad and frustrating, and to be frank, a bit shocking. Mr. Fry is one of the last great polymaths, and I would have thought he would know his philosophy. Discovering that I know more than him on a subject is, well, I can only imagine that it’s like finding out, for the first time, that the world isn’t flat.


  1. I think you’re actually not quite right here. “How to live your life”, as ethics may be termed, is not a *solution*, it’s the *problem* ๐Ÿ™‚ You could read Kant et al. as a way to *think* about how to live your life, not a “code of ethics”, which is what Fry said in this. I suspect you’re looking at this from a top-down perspective, unlike many moral philosophers (and Fry perhaps, though it’s hard to tell from a short piece like that) who look at it from a bottom-up perspective, using it to inform how they frame and then construct their own ways to think about “how to live their lives” ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. To say that Nietzsche, Kant, Aristotle, etc. didn’t offer up ways to live your life… that they didn’t offer ethical codes or standards… that just seems wrongheaded in extremis. I can’t really think of a way to make what Fry says harmonize with what seems like PHI 101 knowledge. Certainly they probed important questions, but they also came up with answers to those questions – answers that they wanted the rest of us to accept as well.

    Even if his goal is to urge us towards eclecticism in figuring out how to live for ourselves, that seems separate from his erroneous comments about what Aristotle and company were setting out to do in their respective works. I find it hard to wrap my head around the statement that there is no ‘Aristotelian’ or ‘Kantian’ way to live one’s life, when the “Ethics” and “Groundwork” etc. are all concerned with setting out what is good, what is right, and how to achieve that.

    Certainly Aristotle’s virtue ethics is less codifiable than most other approaches, and he doesn’t list the rules or procedures which one ought to follow, as Mill or Bentham or Kant. Ditto for Nietzsche. But at the same time, they set forth their own principles even if they are not fully fleshed out. In this sense, perhaps Fry has some ground when he says that they don’t offer a code of living – if that’s even what he’s alluding to. But Kant?! Even Locke’s moral works could be summed up with ‘be tolerant!’

    Either way, there are markedly different ways to live based on the recommendations of all of these philosophers. Their philosophies each carry certain hallmarks, be they rules, ideals, formulae, or simple recommendations and dicta (cf. Epictetus and Aurelius, to wit). Thus, I cannot but disagree with Fry here. I am sort of disheartened to see such an intelligent man get things so wrong, at least prima facie. But I’m not terribly sure how to show he’s right.

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