Your initial challenge in this study is to determine what constitutes your summum bonum. To help you see how this question can work, read the following answers, each of which differ in their approach.
Things are Getting Worse, By Bruce Charlton (Source)
Most people in the modern world believe in, that is live by, progress. They believe that things have been and are getting better.
They especially believe things are getting better in relation to morality.
For example, they believe that societies without slavery are better than those with slavery, and not better ceteris paribus but better full stop. Abolition is a very recent thing in human history, so these people believe in progress.
Similar arguments apply to the belief in pacifism, or the belief that capital punishment is wrong, or that equality is a good thing; recent ideas, geographically restricted.
‘Progress’ should not – properly – refer to material progress – improvements in societal capability power, comfort, prosperity (or, to do that would be to re-write the meaning of progress, to change the subject about progress): rather ‘progress’ should refer to The Good.
The Good is a unity of Truth, Beauty and Virtue – from the above we see that modern people believe in moral progress. But moral progress entails progress in Beauty and Truth also.
Yet we know that both Beauty and Truthfulness have declined; have declined over a times span of decades and in our own personal and direct experience.
Thus we know that Beauty and Truth have declined, and yet our society acts as if Virtue has increased…
The conclusion is that Virtue has of course declined; and we have merely re-labeled decline as progress (moral inversion – the essence of political correctness) – just as the professionals of ‘modern art’ assert progress from the music, paintings, architecture and poetry of the past up until now by re-labeling.
This kind of artistic ‘progress’ assumed by modern art entails ‘discovering’ that deliberate ugliness by talentless charlatans is actually Beautiful; just as a belief in the progress of Truth entails ‘discovering’ that the vast and hourly invasive world of advertising, public relations, propaganda and media manipulation is, somehow, Truthful.
So, we really have to drop the idea of progress.
But are things perhaps staying the same – is the world just as Virtuous now as it ever was, only the balance of Virtues is different – is Virtue a homeostatic mechanism whereby progress is one area is exactly matched by decline in another area?
Have things always been – overall – the same as they are now?
People often say so – that things have not changed, complaints are the same in all ages, swings and roundabouts etc… but what an absurd idea!
Whence came this supposed homeostatic mechanism that somehow keeps society as good or bad as ever – or makes Virtue oscillate about a mean such that excesses in either direction are self-correcting?
In fact, this belief in homeostasis simply serves as an instruction to ignore the past and future and accept the present – which, as alienated creatures, we simply cannot do. It is a counsel of existential despair – and one which is arbitrary and groundless.
So we are left with the conviction of decline. Decline in The Good: in Truth, Beauty and Virtue.
Behind the local and temporal oscillations, a long term decline…
This must be true from our experience, and was, indeed, common knowledge for centuries.
So that is the answer: things are getting worse.
Things are Getting Better
The following article examines the idea of a greatest good from another angle. It is taken from Oprah’s “O” magazine, a very popular and influential publication. It voices well how many people measure “things” in order to answer the question of whether we are better or worse than the past. No author is given, but here is the source. The article was edited for size.
Amid the panoply of things we all have to complain about, there are a surprising number of bright spots on the horizon. For your consideration: O’s list of people, places, ideas, and stuff we’re loving more than ever.
2. Shapewear: Spanx, Sculptz, Sassybax, and Lipo in a Box…the new foundation garments streamline you, suck you in, match your skin tone, come at every price and—as an added bonus—won’t traumatize your partner when you disrobe.
3. Your chances of visiting the moon: Numerous astronauts and several animal species including a squirrel monkey named Gordo have made it up there, but the average earthling has been stuck on the sidelines until, well, soon: Richard Branson’s latest venture, Virgin Galactic, aims to be the first to book civilian trips into space, for $200,000 a head, a price the company hopes will fall dramatically over time. Multiple competitors are tinkering with tourist spaceships, and the FAA has already released its set of space travel regulations.
4. Apps to help you lose weight: Is that a gym in your iPhone? iFitness lets you build a custom workout, iTreadmill turns your phone into a pedometer, Lose It! tracks how many calories you’ve burned in every workout, and WeightBot charts your daily progress.
9. Definition of the good life: It used to mean ostentatious designer bags, stock options, and second homes; now we’re spending $11 billion annually on goods and services that champion self-improvement. Voluntourism and spending time with the family are up, and socially responsible investing—in communities and eco-friendly companies that don’t profit from tobacco, oil, or sweatshop labor—is at an all-time high, totaling about $2.7 trillion. The good life just got better.
21. Jeans: Because nothing comes between me and my dark-wash, hand-distressed, second-skin, midrise, booty-loving, got-’em-on-sale, favorite pair that I don’t have to be 23 and a size 2 to wear.
25. Marriage: The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reports that the American divorce rate has dropped every year since 2006, bringing it down to its lowest point since 1970 (although hogging of the remote and dirty socks landing near—not in—the laundry basket remain an issue).
33. Surgery: Removing an organ through a tiny nick in the skin; using radio waves or ultrasound to destroy a tumor without a single cut—in the past decade, the kinds of medical procedures once seen in sci-fi novels have arrived in the OR, often performed on an outpatient basis with minimal pain and recovery time.
39. The news: In 1973, the year Rachel Maddow was born, only about 5 percent of TV newspeople were female. Now we’re up to 42 percent, with those glam truth-tellers Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer leading the charge.
40. Grassroots philanthropy: While corporate gifts may be in short supply during these lean times, individuals are dropping off groceries at the food bank, mailing checks for disaster relief, and making donations online. Feeling the itch? Through Heifer.org, your $20 sends a flock of chickens to a poor community.
59. Plus-size clothes: Dear Michael Kors, Elie Tahari, Calvin Klein: Thank you for designing chic clothes for those of us sizes 14 and up. We love fashion, too, and now we look better than ever. Sincerely, Women
60. Public awareness of the plastic problem: Fact 1: Except for the small percentage that has been incinerated, every bit of plastic that has ever been manufactured still exists. Fact 2: The chemicals used to make plastic pliable and flame-resistant are among the most toxic substances on Earth. Fact 3: Plastic chemicals are becoming part of our bodies, disrupting our endocrine systems. The good news: Because of increased media attention, you are more likely to know this.
77. Affordable—good!—wine: Bye-bye, sugar-laden mystery juice; au revoir, watered-down junk in a box. Thanks to sustainable winemaking technologies and increased competition, populist vintners like Hess and Wente are offering complex varietals at nonruinous prices—less than $15 a bottle.
83. Shots: Big babies, take note: The Buzzy is a new battery-powered, cold-pack gizmo that dulls or eliminates the pain of needles by confusing the body’s nerves and distracting attention from the poke.
92. Tattoo removal: Love may come and love may go. Tattoos? Not so fast, kiddo. But advances in lasers—better pigment recognition and deeper skin penetration—are making it easier to hide the evidence of a failed romance or an Aerosmith obsession.
100. You: You’ve just got this glow about you—some combination of wisdom and inner peace, plus a lovely self-awareness. You’re not sweating the small stuff; you know what feels good, feels right, and you simply don’t muck around with the rest. You’re not a kid anymore, and we mean that as a high compliment. There’s a new kind of lightness about you. And your hair has never looked better.