The Case for a Philosophy of Life
3 min read

The Case for a Philosophy of Life

Wouldn’t it be horrifying to look back on your life and realize that you’ve wasted it?

Yet, how many people of all ages think about the “What If’s” in life? How many live with regrets for past acts? With regrets for not taking action?

If we don’t want to join their ranks, we might want to consider adopting what William Irvine calls “A Philosophy of Life” in his book “A Guide To The Good Life.”

A Philosophy of Life

According to him, a Philosophy of Life has two components:
A grand goal in living and an effective strategy for attaining it.

A grand goal in living orients our actions and gives our life a coherence that we otherwise lack.

An effective strategy guides us towards what we must do in our daily activities to maximize our chances of attaining what we take to be ultimately valuable.

This seems obvious, yet we might wonder why many people lack a Philosophy of Life.

It is, after all, hard to know what to choose when you aren’t really sure what you want.
-William Irvine[1]

Running on Auto-Pilot

Imagine someone put in some coordinates in our body-navigation system and we follow its way-points. After a few years of doing this, we realize that we’ve run in circles. Even though we had the feeling of getting somewhere, we’ve gone nowhere. How does this happen?

It happens, because we know what we want minute to minute – yet we don’t consider our grand goal in living.

Our culture doesn’t encourage us to think about what we want to strive for, and worse provides us with endless distractions, so we don’t ever have to. We work hard for money believing that if we only buy enough stuff, we have a life that is both meaningful and fulfilling. We feel comfortable spending our days “seeking an interesting mix of affluence, social status, and pleasure.” In other words, we pursue an enlightened form of hedonism.

In fact, we have our own navigation system: it’s called evolutionary programming. We seek the rewards our evolutionary programming has to offer, such as pleasures from having sex or consuming a big meal, and avoid punishments like public insults or uncomfortable situations.

In this light, we might ask ourselves: would it be better to adopt a Philosophy of Life instead?

The most important reason for adopting a philosophy of life, though, is that if we lack one, there is a danger that we will mislive – that we will spend our life pursuing goals that aren’t worth attaining or will pursue worthwhile goals in a foolish manner and will therefore fail to attain them.
-William Irvine[2]

The Importance of a Philosophy of Life

In contrast to our evolutionary programming, a Philosophy of Life can help us to seize our one chance at living. Without a Philosophy of Life, a real danger exists. We might pursue valueless things and therefore waste our lives. In contrast, a Philosophy of Life helps us to discern between what is worth pursuing and what isn’t. It offers us help for decision-making. It also simplifies daily living. Our decisions become relatively straightforward. If we don’t have a philosophy in life, we will have difficulties making choices. If we have a philosophy in life, choices become simple: we choose what is more likely to help us attain our grand goal. Additionally, a Philosophy of Life can make us more accepting of death. By knowing what was worth pursuing, we spent our time pursuing it and attained it to the extent that it was possible for us. Thus, while others will desperately want to delay death, even though we might still want to prolong our lives, there’s a good chance we won’t feel cheated in the end.

I think the biggest mistake, the one made by a huge number of people, is to have no philosophy of life at all.[3]
-William Irvine


Even though adopting a Philosophy of Life is rarely encouraged by society and most people, it can save you from wasting your life. A grand goal and an efficient strategy for attaining it might help you to pursue what is meaningful, instead of what is expedient and in the end, you may look back on your life without regrets but joy. Joy for a life well-lived.

  1. William Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life, p 203. ↩︎

  2. William Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life, p 203. ↩︎

  3. William Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life, p 278. ↩︎

Create Your Ideal Future

Understand who you are, unlock your potential, and create your ideal future with my weekly letters.