New York: Routledge, 2024
172 pp. $23.70

This book is the latest in a series called “Why It’s OK: The Ethics and Aesthetics of How We Live,” which the publisher says is intended to “offer compelling arguments for widespread and established human behavior,” as opposed to the “unpopular positions” to which many contemporary philosophers devote their energies. Given that mission, one might expect these books to vindicate the values that today’s philosophy professors scorn, such as rationality, individualism, or the appreciation of beauty. Unfortunately, the other titles in the list indicate their shortcomings; they include Why It’s OK Not to Think for Yourself, Why It’s OK to Make Bad Choices, Why It’s OK to Be a Socialist (is that not the sum of the previous two?), and even Why It’s OK to Be Fat.

But unlike those things, minding one’s own business is rational and moral, at least if properly understood. In fact, the Greek philosopher Epicurus (whom, alas, authors Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke never mention) built his entire worldview around it. He argued that the goal of our ethical lives should be ataraxia, which means serenity or absence of disturbance, and that the best way to achieve this was to indulge modestly in the good things of life while avoiding the stresses of either great misery or great joy, because both cause psychological strain. According to Epicureans, the best life is one devoted—as the 18th-century Epicurean, Voltaire, put it—to “cultivating one’s own garden”; that is, minding one’s own business.

Such a view has long been anathema to many prominent intellectuals, however, who regard it as myopic at best and positively oppressive at worst. They claim that living for one’s own happiness is morally repugnant and that morality consists of moral “duties” toward others—so that, at least according to some of these critics, self-interested behavior does not even qualify as “moral.” From John Rawls, who argued that “those who have been favored by nature, whoever they are, may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out”; to today’s acolytes of critical race theory, who characterize individualism as a form of “white supremacy,” which should be replaced with “a shared definition of leadership that assumes a collaborative and collective approach”—discussions about ethics are virtually monopolized by those who preach that morality consists of obligations to other people.1 It’s not just academic philosophers, either. Tosi and Warmke begin their book with examples of celebrity commencement speakers, from Michelle Obama to television personality Katie Couric, urging new college graduates to revolutionize the world and devote their energies to the service of society rather than their individual pursuits.

The task of justifying a life aimed at self-improvement, flourishing, or ataraxia is, therefore, a substantial one for writers on ethics. In a culture in which young people are almost constantly implored to dedicate themselves to serving their communities, their families, or “the greater good” in some vague sense, what case can be made for the simple virtue of non-sacrificially pursuing one’s own ends? What role should ambition play in our lives? How should a person select which categories of life’s business one should mind—particularly when one faces dilemmas that might require giving up one goal to achieve another?

Unfortunately, Tosi and Warmke never answer these questions and in fact, barely try. . . .

“The task of justifying a life aimed at self-improvement, flourishing, or ataraxia is a substantial one for writers on ethics. Unfortunately, @JustinTosi and @BrandonWarmke barely try.” —@TimothySandefur
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1. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 101; University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and Art, “Identifying and Addressing Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture,” December 12, 2021, 18;

2. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 1179a, in Richard McKeon, ed., Basic Works of Aristotle (New York: Random House, 1947), 1107.

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