dark blue graphic with intertwined blue and yellow partial circles on the left and text that says: Reimagining the Good Life with Amy Julia Becker. In the middle of the graphic is a a photo Meghan Sullivan. On the far right is a photo of Amy Julia.

S7 E18 | Exploring the Good Life with Meghan Sullivan, Ph.D.

What does it mean to live a good life? How do we find meaning and happiness in our everyday lives? In this episode, Amy Julia Becker sits down with Meghan Sullivan, co-author of The Good Life Method and philosophy professor at Notre Dame, to explore:

  • The narrow American understanding of the good life
  • How to help students (and all of us) explore the big questions about life, purpose, and meaning
  • How individuals with intellectual disabilities contribute to our understanding of humanity
  • The relationship between love, attention, and the good life
  • Expanding our conceptions of work and vocation 

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Guest Bio:

Meghan Sullivan is the Wilsey Family College Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. She serves as Director of the University-wide Ethics Initiative and is the founding director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Ethics and the Common Good, which will launch in the summer of 2024. In 2022, Sullivan published The Good Life Method with Penguin Press (co-authored with her teaching collaborator Paul Blaschko) based on a wildly popular introductory philosophy course she developed at Notre Dame called “God and the Good Life.” Sullivan has degrees from the University of Virginia, Oxford University, and Rutgers University, where she earned a PhD in philosophy. She studied at Balliol College, Oxford University, as a Rhodes Scholar.

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Note: This transcript is autogenerated using speech recognition software and does contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Amy Julia (00:01)
Every week I begin this show by saying, I’m Amy Julia Becker and you’re listening to Reimagining the Good Life. And then I explain this is a podcast about challenging the assumptions about what makes life good, proclaiming the inherent belovedness of every human being and envisioning a world of belonging. I’m here to introduce the final episode of this season of Reimagining the Good Life today. And to conclude this season, I wanted to talk with someone about the idea of the good life.

I’m really grateful that Meghan Sullivan, who is the Wilsey Family College Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, is here with us. Dr. Sullivan serves as director of the University -wide Ethics Initiative. She is the founding director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Ethics and the Common Good, which will launch this summer, summer 2024.

Back in 2022, Sullivan published The Good Life Method with Penguin Press, which was co -authored with her teaching collaborator, Paul Blaschko. And that book was based on a wildly popular introductory philosophy course that she developed at Notre Dame called God and the Good Life. You’re gonna get to hear all about it. In case you are not already convinced that she’s the right person to be talking to, I will add some credentials here. She has degrees from the University of Virginia.

Oxford University where she was a Rhodes Scholar and Rutgers University where she earned a PhD in philosophy. So, thankfully she also knows how to talk to a lay audience about these topics. Before I get to our conversation though, I want to just remind you, I send out a newsletter each week. It’s called Reimagining the Good Life. And this podcast is going to take a summer break. I’ll be back in September.

But I will continue writing weekly reflections on disability, faith, and culture during these summer months. So I would love for you to subscribe. The link is in the show notes, or you can go to amyjuliabecker .com slash subscribe. So please join me this summer in reimagining the good life. Now here’s my conversation with Megan Sullivan.

Amy Julia (02:13)
I am sitting here today with Professor Meghan Sullivan. Meghan, thank you so much for joining us.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (02:18)
Thank you, it’s so great to be with you.

Amy Julia (02:21)
Well, I’m here today as actually the final episode in this year’s podcast. And we have recently renamed the podcast Reimagining the Good Life. And you were recommended as someone to talk to because you have written a book with a colleague called The Good Life Method based on a class that you co-teach at Notre Dame. So I thought that maybe we could start with just the story of the class. Why did you start teaching it? And I know from reading the book that you…

changed the format of the class even after you started teaching it. So I’m wondering about like, if you can tell us the kind of the story of the class and then what prompted it to become a book.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (02:58)
Sure. So I’m a philosophy professor here at Notre Dame. I’ve been here for 13 years. And about six years ago, I had just gotten tenure. So I just kind of like gotten serious with Notre Dame or we’d put a ring on it and decided I would stay. And I’d been thinking a lot about my vocation as a teacher and just like, what is my role in my students’ lives? Especially when you take this big step of deciding to make a big job

Amy Julia (03:13)
Oh, no, no.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (03:27)
commitment. When you get tenure at a place, you’re thinking in the long, you know, you start thinking in like 20, 30 years, what kind of impact you’re going to have. And that question was really weighing on me. Another thing that happened in 2016 is my youngest brother went away to college for the first time. I’ve got I’ve got two younger brothers. My little brother never went to college. But the baby brother joined me as being the other college educated Sullivan.

Amy Julia (03:42)
I don’t know.


Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (03:52)
And he was going to Brown and I was having all these conversations with him about going away to college and just really, really thinking about what I hoped would happen for him his first year of college. And these coincided with the start of the academic year and this feeling that the introductory philosophy course that we teach at Notre Dame could become really focused on helping young people

ask these big questions about how they imagine the good life. Questions your podcast listeners are also asking themselves every time they tune into an episode. These are very much weighty questions for a 17, 18 year old who’s moving away from their family for the first time. And I saw it, I had one in my own network who was getting ready to take this big move. And I just kept thinking, colleges should be a place where you…

Amy Julia (04:30)


Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (04:48)
have to confront these questions in a really direct way and that there are friends and professors and people who are there to help you try to get better answers, at least to imagine better answers. Which is very different than how we teach intro to philosophy. The way that I took introduction to philosophy, the way that I taught it up until that year was you’re learning philosophy facts. So like Socrates came first and then Plato and then Aristotle.

Amy Julia (05:04)


Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (05:14)
Here are some ideas, here’s a really, really abstract essay I need you to write. It’s really about dead people or really abstract ideas, it’s not about you. But those dead people, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, they thought philosophy was about changing your life. They literally, Socrates’ term for it, philosophy is about learning how to care for your soul. And it just occurred to me, and I felt this very strong call that

Amy Julia (05:36)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (05:42)
when young people go away to college, they should be exposed to the ideas that they need to start really taking care of their souls. And in fact, it’s a very tumultuous period. They are facing all kinds of world crises and inner crises where they need an opportunity to ask those questions. So the God and the Good Life course really came about the summer before my brother went to college. I sat down with one of our graduate students. He’s now a teaching professor here, Paul Blaschko,

Amy Julia (05:48)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (06:10)
who was similarly passionate about these questions. And we asked ourselves, what would it look like if we took every single class session, we got 28 class sessions, intro to philosophy, and we just made them all about philosophical advice we could give to 18 year olds about how to start caring for their souls. Starting with questions about like, how do you have disagreements about philosophy with people? How do you have political disagreements? But moving up to the bigger questions, like, are you gonna join a religion?

Amy Julia (06:28)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (06:39)
What does it mean for you to be a good parent someday or to love another person? Up to the really, really big questions, and this is where we always end the class with, how do you deal with the fact that you only get so many years here on earth? And how do you deal with the fact that the people that you love and you sacrifice for and the beautiful life that you build for yourself will eventually encounter suffering and will end?

And these are also the kinds of questions which, you know, my students laugh because they’re still so young and early on in life. But to live well, you’ve got to start recognizing them and wrestling with them early. You got to start training for the really big questions so that when those moments come, moments of grief, moments where your life does a 180, you’re the person that’s prepared to meet those challenges. So that’s the kind of basic philosophy behind it. I can tell you more about how we try to pull it off. That’s usually the hard part.

Amy Julia (07:24)

Yeah, and again, you can tell, well, I think, here’s my question. How did the reception by students of the class change when the class itself changed?

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (07:41)
You know, so funny, I launched the class, I taught the class for the very first time, one section of it in fall of 2016. And when we were launching the class, when I was launching the class, we were getting all kinds of criticism from other professors. So there was like one group of professors that was like, you cannot ask 18 year olds on the first week of school what the meaning of life is because they have no clue. Like you can ask them maybe at the…

Amy Julia (08:06)
Hmm. Hahaha!

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (08:10)
senior year when they’ve read some Thomas Aquinas and Plato and they’re deep, but they’re, you know, young people are just way too shallow to be posed these questions at the beginning of college. They need to just be reading books and writing essays. That turns out to be wrong. I mean, anybody who spent a lot of time with teenagers realizes that they, whether you like it or not, they are asking philosophical questions constantly, long before they arrive at college. It’s college philosophy is very different than a college calculus class.

Amy Julia (08:30)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (08:38)
Math is never on the minds of young people, but questions about whether they’re a good friend and whether or not they’re good at caring for others and whether or not they have the right goals, big philosophical questions, it’s always on their minds long before they arrive here. There was another group of faculty and staff who were just nervous that we would open a door that we couldn’t close again. Like we would start asking students when they arrived to Notre Dame, is life worth living? That’s one of the big ultimate questions of philosophy.

Amy Julia (08:48)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (09:07)
And if they came back with a really intense answer, we wouldn’t be able to follow up with them. Like we wouldn’t be able to take care of them. And so it’s better to kind of keep the classes a little bit less in your face and a little bit more detached because those are the kinds of situations that we can manage in a college classroom or on a college campus.

Amy Julia (09:15)


Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (09:28)
It turned out that both those sets of fears, the set of fears that our students wouldn’t have anything intelligent to say and the set of fears that our students would say things that we were unprepared to handle, were just unwarranted. I have to say, when I launched the class in 2016, I was still learning a lot of the philosophical ideas that we were trying to put in front of the students. We were still trying out activities and assignments to make the class feel very relevant and to feel about their lives.

And we’ve gotten a lot better at that through years of practice, but the concept of the class caught on with the students almost immediately. I mean, it really was like electric. Within a few weeks, students were realizing, oh my gosh, somebody, Notre Dame is making something that’s really trying to help me. And I really, really wanna get to this answer, this answer to the question of like, what is it that I am aiming for with my life? And I’ve heard from other college

Amy Julia (10:15)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (10:22)
professors who have done similar courses. There’s a really nice course at Yale called Life Worth Living that we talk to those folks all the time. Other people have tried similar things and it’s not just me and it’s not just Notre Dame. It’s definitely like a moment where students and their parents really, really want colleges to create and design spaces where this work can happen. And in 2016, we were dealing with all of the political crises in our country

Amy Julia (10:27)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (10:50)
and plenty of angst about what the point of college was. And to be able to introduce a course like this at a large scale for freshmen, it just definitely seized on a big unmet need. And it just kept going through there, through a global pandemic, through all kinds of changes in the world, the course has just grown and grown. And it’s just, it’s even more popular now than it was in 2016.

Amy Julia (10:54)

I love you.

College, I think, has always been a time of exploring whether or not the answers you’ve been given are the ones you wanna live by, but when you haven’t even been given frameworks

to ask the questions or answers for them, all the more so. Because as humans, we still have those questions. So I do think, yeah, it makes sense in a spirit, in an age of fear of meaninglessness, right, which I think we really are in, that having a place to say, well, let’s go there. Is it meaningless or is it not?

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (11:46)
I’ll tell you, there was an article in the New York Times that I read around 2016, I think it came out in 2014, that totally lit me on fire. It’s probably the first emailed article that I send to other college professors. And it was by Michael Roth, who’s the president of Wesleyan University, and he still teaches a big philosophy and literature class every year. I love, I love, love the college presidents that still teach undergraduates. I think that’s, I think those are, that just shows so much character.

Amy Julia (11:56)
No, no.


Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (12:16)
But Michael Roth wrote this little two-page rant in the New York Times called Young Minds in Critical Condition. It was a rant against other college professors. And he was basically like, we spend all of our precious time in these introductory courses teaching students this skill we call critical thinking, which is the ability to be skeptical, to be able to find holes in arguments, to be able to find problems with positions. And that’s important.

Amy Julia (12:22)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (12:44)
But it’s equally important and 100% neglected to teach students how to fall in love with things. Like to teach students who their favorite artist is in their first year of college or their favorite writer or to teach them which philosophical ideas they think are like theirs, like their big ideas. And Roth is like, we have stopped teaching students how to fall in love with ideas, with each other, with places, and this is a tremendous loss of an opportunity in college.

Amy Julia (13:12)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (13:14)
And it’s something that we’ve got to regain. And we could teach in a different way and approach courses in a different way. And I just remember reading that as an assistant professor and thinking, yes, I never had the words to describe what I really believe is the goal of an outstanding professor, but that’s it. And I do think in our current moment of doubt about higher education and our current

feelings of grief for our campuses. I think I am one of these professors that just kind of grieves seeing what’s happening on so many campuses right now. We have lost this ability to fall in love with ideas and people in college.

Amy Julia (13:53)
Well then, let’s stay with our current moment for a minute because I want to ask you a couple of questions just to back us up a little bit in terms of the idea of the good life. So I do want to go back in time and ask that question, but let’s start with like right now, what would you say is a contemporary American understanding of the good life?

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (14:02)

The American understanding of the good life, and I always ask this to my students, there is being a grinder. I don’t know if you know this, but somebody who’s just like hardcore, going after a goal, usually a somewhat complex goal to become like, for my students, it’s to become a wealthy tech entrepreneur, who’s also a great husband or wife and a great parent, who’s physically very active and healthy.

Amy Julia (14:21)
Good night.


I’m sorry.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (14:43)
who every morning gets up and just like goes after it full intensity and the American vision of like human flourishing is being that kind of person and succeeding, you know having bumps on the road and interesting stories, but ultimately you get to the destination, which is this state which you know, they’re frankly not that far off from what the Greeks thought of the good life. They thought the good life they were like an Olympic athlete who was also a courageous warrior who also that the Greeks had this

Amy Julia (14:47)



Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (15:13)
virtue called magnanimity, which is like the virtue of having enough money that you can give it away in splashy ways. My students totally believe that magnanimity is still a virtue. They just want, they want enough money to be able to like take their friends on nice vacations.

Amy Julia (15:28)
Right, I want all the things I want and I’ll give you some too, yeah.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (15:31)
Exactly, exactly.

Amy Julia (15:34)
And so, well, yeah, I mean, you’ve kind of hinted at this already, but like when we use the phrase the good life, it actually is emerging from like a philosophical tradition that has gone back, I mean, eons, like not just, you know, modern era. So can you, you know, in three minutes or so, just give us like a little bit of a history of the good life? Like what are the philosophical underpinnings of it? Where does it come from? Why does it matter?

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (15:58)
Sure. So, I mean, one thing that’s just remarkable about human history is that there was this period of just a few hundred years when everybody started asking this question, what is the good life for a human being? And it all happened kind of around the same time. So, 2400 years ago in ancient Greece, you have Socrates, who starts the tradition of philosophy by basically going around all the young people in Athens,

Amy Julia (16:12)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (16:26)
saying, do you really know what the good is? Like what it is to be a good judge? What it is to be a good soldier? What it is to be a good person? And the young people would share their ideas that they learned from their parents and Socrates would ask them questions. Basically saying like, is that really good? Like, is it really good to just be like a completely ruthless soldier? Is that really good? And the students would start to doubt and the parents got sick of Socrates and they killed him. But it was too late. Philosophy had gotten going.

Amy Julia (16:31)


Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (16:55)
This practice of questioning what’s good had gotten going in Greece. In China, about 200 years earlier in the Zhou dynasty, you have figures like Confucius and his students who are looking at a world that is constantly at war and seems very unstable and asking this question, can we educate people

to be more peaceful and to be more harmonious and to be happier. Like if we just started the right kind of education early on, could we actually make life better for everyone forever? And that’s where philosophy gets started in China with that question of like, what’s the common good and what’s the good life for us and for our families? In India, you have Siddhartha Gautama, who’s going around talking with his students and he’s like, man, human life is just one episode of suffering after another. Is there a different way that we could think about ourselves and our lives

Amy Julia (17:26)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (17:46)
that would enable us to end suffering once and for all? And he gets his version of philosophy going. And in the Middle East, you’ve got the wisdom tradition in Judaism, where basically they’re asking the same questions as Siddhartha, man, human life is a lot of suffering. What does God think of us? He just lets us keep suffering in these ways. And you have the book of Job and the book of Ecclesiastes and the beginning of philosophy in the Jewish tradition of saying, maybe we have to…

Amy Julia (18:06)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (18:14)
understand God and goodness in a very different way. So all of these are, you know, they’re all happening within a few hundred years in different pockets. It’s like the lights kind of came on in the human mind thinking we are goal-directed creatures, creatures that have to have a sense of what we’re aiming at. That’s what makes us different from squirrels and from wolves and from plants who live their lives but are never aware that they have a life that’s got this unfolding story.

Humans can worry about whether they have a good life or not and can think that if they get the right answer, they can control and direct their lives. And there’s this period 2400 years ago when everybody started getting really interested in that project. And that’s really where philosophy comes from.

Amy Julia (18:56)
That’s awesome. Thank you for your, clearly you clearly teach a class to people and try to make this accessible. So I appreciate that. No, it’s really awesome. And I loved that point you made in the book itself too, that this was all kind of happening in different places around the globe more or less simultaneously, which is really cool. So you just hinted at this in what you were saying, but one of the themes that I think runs throughout your book is the idea that reason is something that sets us apart as human, that goal

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (19:03)
I love talking about this part.

Amy Julia (19:25)
seeking ability to think about the future and pursue it. And I think like use the intellect as well. And I’m curious like why reason matters so much and the ways in which it can lead us astray in understanding or living the good life also. Cause you’ve just mentioned like Americans reason, right, that the good life is to be a radical, independent individual who is akin to a superhero. And so did the Greeks, right? And we…

maybe could poke some holes in that. So I’m just curious about like what it means for the role of reason to be a part of the good life or understanding the good life.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (20:04)
Americans, certainly contemporary Americans, just make a mistake about what reason is. So we think a really good reasoner is somebody who’s very good at optimization, very good at getting the most efficient path towards the thing that they want. And college professors are sometimes the worst for this. So many college professors write books about rationality where they treat rationality just as this

Amy Julia (20:10)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (20:32)
ability to be really, really clever and getting from where you currently are to the thing that you want. So like Elon Musk becomes the paradigm of rationality there. It’s like somebody who’s like able to decide we’ll have electric cars and then figure out like the cleverest most like grand way of getting to that goal. And that is not what real philosophers think reason is. Reason is not just the ability to like really cleverly get what you want

Amy Julia (20:40)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (20:58)
or really cleverly expand or scale things. That’s part of being reasonable, but that’s nowhere close to the whole of it. The way philosophers have understood reason, this capacity that we have, is as the ability to see how everything fits together. And that doesn’t necessarily mean just wanting to dominate everything like Elon Musk does, or wanting to get all the things, or always thinking about how you can be more efficient

Amy Julia (21:16)


Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (21:26)
but it really means having the ability to take a step back and notice all the connections that think, creatures without reason never notice. Like I’ve been watching, it’s springtime here in South Bend, Indiana. My yard is full of squirrels and chipmunks. And I love sitting in the morning, drinking my coffee and just watching them go about all their little projects in my yard. And squirrels are pretty good at like means ends reasoning. Like if I hide these nuts in the yard, then they’ll still be there in a couple of weeks when I want them.

But squirrels are complete idiots about thinking about the bigger picture of like, why are they leading the squirrel lives that they have? And could they be better squirrels? Or maybe they should pick up and try to move to Ohio. Like squirrels, there are so many questions that squirrels never even ask themselves. They’re just so focused on get the nut into the hole. Squirrels have a certain kind of good squirrel optimization reasoning that evolution is programmed into them, but they don’t have what the Greeks in the

Amy Julia (22:09)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (22:24)
Confucian celebrated as human reason, which is the ability to see things fit together and ask questions like, why do I bury nuts in the first place? Having a really developed capacity of reason is the ability to take a step back and even ask whether or not your goals were the right ones to begin with. It’s a faculty Elon Musk also seems to lack. I don’t think Elon Musk ever wakes up one day and asks himself whether accumulating billions of dollars is in fact a good thing for him. He just doesn’t have that switch is not turned on in his mind.

Amy Julia (22:40)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (22:54)
And so a philosopher would say he’s missing actually a key dimension of reason, which is the ability to ask like as a whole, how is this all fitting together? And am I confident that I know the reasons why it’s good? And that’s those are the questions we try to really get in front of the students who take our class and the people who read this Good Life Method book is like, let’s try to think there are way bigger, more expensive questions you could be asking about your life than just am I the most efficient pursuer of the goals that I currently have?

Amy Julia (23:20)
I mentioned to you before we even started, I have an 18 year old daughter with Down syndrome. And so I think because of my experience with her and with people with intellectual disabilities, it raises a lot of questions for me to put reason as kind of a necessary

distinctive aspect of being human. Like I hear that and I wonder whether that means that if you have disabilities intellectually, that means you are less than fully human, which I know from reading your book is not what you’re saying, but I’m wondering how we understand. And also, I will also say that I have learned a lot about what it means to be human and live the good life

by exactly those experiences as a kind of highly rational, highly intellectual, highly individualistic, on the American grinder track person being kicked off that in a wonderfully, disruptively gracious way, right? Like I’m so grateful for that. And so again, I just wanna give you a chance to kind of talk about what role, how do we think about people with intellectual disabilities, people who might be more on the margins of kind of the American good life

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (24:17)

Amy Julia (24:38)
more broadly when we think about our common humanity and this pursuit of the good life from a philosophical perspective.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (24:48)
I’m so glad you asked this question, because this is also one of the reasons why I think we need much more attention to philosophy and its history to counteract this deeply American, deeply modern assumption that a good life is a life that’s defined by being efficient, by maximizing everything that you can do as an individual.

Amy Julia (25:11)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (25:14)
It’s a paradigm of quote-unquote intelligence. I’m making scare quotes in the podcast right now. A paradigm of intelligence that we’ve now built into our idea of artificial intelligence, like we call machines intelligent when they’re able to do things really, really fast. And that’s just, it’s capturing our imagination about what a human mind could be. And it’s a mistake. It’s a radical narrowing of our idea about what a good mind and a good life is that is

Amy Julia (25:18)
Yeah, yeah, yeah.



Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (25:42)
going to lead to disaster, or at least disappointment, if the history of philosophy is any indication. One of the really big ideas in ancient Greek philosophy, one of the really big debates, is how important is the life of action and activity for being a great human compared with what the Greeks called the life of contemplation, which is the other dimension of human existence that doesn’t have to do

Amy Julia (25:44)
the time.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (26:12)
with efficiently achieving tasks. They debated this constantly. And they didn’t think of contemplation as like, solving Sudokus or math problems or like very, very like nerdy intellectual activity. Rather they thought of contemplation as this ability that human beings have to become absorbed in the world or absorbed in their thoughts to be, you know,

Amy Julia (26:24)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (26:38)
absorbed in something beautiful. So take again the like squirrels in my yard. I have to say, I’ll spend like 10 minutes just watching them move around the front yard. And it kind of takes you outside yourself, nature, especially in this time of year in spring of just being able to see something beautiful and you just can’t help but pay attention to it. You’re not trying to do anything to it. It’s not part of like a project. You’re just absorbed. For those of us who are around physically people that we love.

Amy Julia (26:40)
I don’t know.

Hmm. Yeah.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (27:07)
You feel this all the time. So you bring Penny home from the hospital and she’s sitting on your bed for the first time and anybody who’s around a newborn is like this, you’re just absorbed. You’re just like, oh my gosh, what is this person? What is going on? And it’s the Greeks called this contemplation. It’s this capacity to just be like absorbed in something with your mind. And this feature of human life is

Amy Julia (27:17)



Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (27:34)
really underappreciated in our contemporary economic-driven, AI-obsessed idea of life. It is an important part of the good life. I mean, some very happy moments, I know, are new parents who get that level of absorption in their new child, or, you know, bird watchers who get that level of absorption when they’re out on a hike. We don’t call it out nearly enough. And when you think about loving

Amy Julia (27:55)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (28:03)
people with cognitive disabilities, and when you think about the good lives of people you love that have these kinds of lives, I think contemplation is one of the key things that we can appreciate. I have a cousin that has Down syndrome. She is two years younger than me, so we grew up together. And for individuals with Down syndrome, they absolutely have this ability to contemplate, oh my gosh, like she actually has the ability to get absorbed in activities

Amy Julia (28:20)


Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (28:32)
much, much more than I ever have, free of distraction. It’s just this kind of like focus and way of experiencing the world that in a certain sense, that dimension of her human function, her human capacity is much more attuned and intense than it is for me or somebody that quote unquote, it’s got a normal capacity. I think also this dimension of the good life helps us realize

Amy Julia (28:35)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (29:00)
how important like dependence is for the good life. Not just that we’re depending on other people to achieve our goals, but that literally other people give us the material to contemplate, to like fall in love with. Like, you know, they’re the thing that we pay attention to. Not because we wanna, you know, do anything. Not because we have some like joint project that we’re trying to achieve with them, but just their mere presence. They’re like, you know, the birds and…

Amy Julia (29:15)
Yeah, yeah.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (29:29)
children and the beautiful things in this world, their just mere presence makes our life good because it gives us the subject matter to be absorbed. And that is incredibly valuable. That is like just as valuable, if not more so, than any of the particular projects that we set for ourselves in life. In fact, the Greeks thought Plato and Aristotle were adamant that we have to appreciate this kind of value in the world because it’s the only kind that’s sustainable.

Amy Julia (29:35)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (29:58)
Everything else that we go after, we think like, the good life for me is getting a great job. The good life for me is earning a lot of money. I’m doing endless home improvements right now. The good life for me is finally finishing the renovation of my bathroom. All those projects end. They end and then they’re over and then you’ve got to figure out what you’re going after next. But contemplation and contemplating the people we love and understanding their value can just go on and on and on and on with no end. And so it’s a kind of…

Amy Julia (30:23)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (30:26)
goodness that’s actually durable in a way that all of our activities are not.

Amy Julia (30:33)
I love that. And it makes me think about, you have a section in the book about Iris Murdoch. And there are two aspects of that I wanted to just kind of draw attention to. One is this idea of love, as I’m quoting here, a virtue we cultivate by working on our capacity for attention rather than action. And I think you’ve been speaking to that with the word contemplation, but that relationship between love and attention, especially in what we now call an attention economy.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (30:38)

Oh yeah.

Amy Julia (31:00)
And so for all of us to ask those questions of where am I paying attention? And is it really telling me what I’m loving? But what I also thought was so beautiful in your description of Iris Murdoch is that towards the end of her life, she was a great philosopher and she developed dementia. And so she was not able to use her faculties of reason and intellect in the same way that she had been as a younger person. But you write that she had a new way or that her biographer, I guess, said

she had a new way of knowing that there was a presence to her that she did not lose. And I guess it seemed to me that her discipline, like her virtue of cultivating her capacity for attention over the course of her life, may very well have remained, even if those kind of intellectual capacities didn’t. And it seemed like a bit of an embodiment of even what you were writing about in terms of her philosophy.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (31:55)
Yeah, I find Iris Murdoch, I mean, she’s such a philosophical inspiration for me and for many people, for listeners who don’t know, she was one of these rare women philosophers that came out of Oxford after World War II, who totally revitalized this tradition of virtue ethics, like was really a trailblazer in opening the paths for many, many future generations of philosophers. And I, you know, she, she

suffered from dementia for the last 10 years of her life. And I have friends who are suffering with dementia right now. You wouldn’t wish that diagnosis on anyone that you love. It’s very, very challenging for people who are going through that kind of suffering and also for their family members. So it’s a tough situation to be in. But that said, Iris Murdoch spent a large portion of her career trying to convince

the rest of culture, that this capacity to be gripped by the world around you and to pay attention to it without trying to change it or without trying to stick it into some project that you’re pursuing, but to really be just like gripped by the beauty around you and to allow it to change the kind of person that you are. She spent so much of her working years convincing people that was important, that was an idea worth taking seriously.

she’s credited with really reviving this idea that goes back to Plato about how important beauty is for forming us as a person, that it’s fitting she spent so much of her life creating space to allow us to see what could be really good about somebody who their disability prevents them from really going hard in the life of action anymore. It prevents them from having long-term projects maybe because they have a memory deficit, because of dementia.

Amy Julia (33:48)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (33:49)
It prevents them from being a really active, engaged parent because their deficits mean that they’re not able to drive a car anymore, do any of the tasks that you usually go into caregiving, but they still have this capacity to love and receive love and to be attuned and enjoy in the moment the beautiful world around them, and that in and of itself is really good. It’s such a gift that she created space for that idea before she succumbed to her illness

Amy Julia (33:59)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (34:19)
that I think we owe her a great debt of gratitude because she gave us a philosophical language for talking about all of the different ways that a life can be beautiful and valuable, even if it doesn’t fit into the sort of narrow path of what we would call in philosophy the life of action, the life of constant projects and doing.

Amy Julia (34:38)
Well, and I think there’s a passage in here, hold on, I’m gonna look it up, in your book, that’s talking about vocation, about work. And you write, “An account of work and the good life must recognize that work comes in many forms throughout a single life and in different kinds of lives. Virtue ethics gives us the capacity to see work far more expansively than, say,” and we haven’t talked about this here, but “the effect of altruists. The work of an activist might be organizing to help

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (34:48)

Amy Julia (35:08)
groups, exercise political agency. The work that an adult with Down syndrome performs might be serving the common good through being a loving member of a family. The work that a deployed soldier does is serving the good through a 24 seven commitment to protecting national security. In a good life, we revisit these stories and change them in new ways all the time.” And I just loved that sense of expansiveness within our individual lives and among us, like recognizing, and maybe this goes back a little bit to the sense of dependence,

that interdependence, that my life can be good in a different way than someone else’s and in different ways over the course of my life, but they’re all somewhat connected to each other in terms of creating the good life in some broader sense, which of course we don’t ever quite realize, but as a society.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (35:59)
Absolutely, and you think you know anybody who’s like built a family and lived a life with somebody with Down syndrome or with somebody with another serious cognitive difference realizes like there are days of the week where they show up to work you know, they’re great to be around they’re helpful members of the family. They’re loving and they’re you know, they’re hilarious. You know, so many adults with Down syndrome have incredible senses of humor

Amy Julia (36:18)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (36:27)
Like everybody else, they also have bad days where they don’t show, you know, they’re difficult to the family, they’re ornery, and they’re, you know, the things are slightly off. And so there’s also like, you know, standards of growth and good days and bad days for any life. It’s not the case that any person is ever just like always a subject of everybody else’s lives, but they have their own like plans and ambitions and days that are good, days that are bad.

Amy Julia (36:53)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (36:55)
And I think we have such a narrow conception of work in our society right now that it’s also narrowed our conception of how to have conversations about what good days or bad days for people with differences. And it’s just a huge loss. If we think about work the way a figure like Aristotle would or the way that many of these great virtue ethicists of the past would.

Amy Julia (37:09)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (37:22)
Work is a matter of thinking about the role that you’re playing, contributing to the communities that you care the most about. And I think having that much broader conception rather than thinking of work is the way that you earn money or the way that you accomplish projects, which is how the tech industry right now in the United States would like us to think about work. Thinking about it more expansively helps you realize, oh, my gosh, all of these people in my lives who might not have jobs,

Amy Julia (37:43)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (37:52)
are doing really important work. And, and can also describe like the texture and the history of that work and how they’re changing over time and how they’re evolving and how they’re fitting or not fitting with the common good. And, you know, it gives us a lot, a much deeper set of resources for talking about all of the different ways that people are living out their lives around us, which again, is part of enjoying these lives and seeing all of the beauty and interestingness of the worlds that we’re in.

Amy Julia (37:54)

I have one more question for you, which may just spawn so many other questions that I need to apologize in advance to anyone who’s going to, because I’m going to cut us off for in the next few times. But no, you’re not too long winded. This is exactly where I want to be. I just know that I may want to ask you 17 more questions and I promise not to do that. But I’m curious about, and the book covers this as well, but like the God and the good life part. In what ways are these questions

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (38:33)
I’m too long-winded.


Amy Julia (38:53)
dependent upon some awareness or belief in or not, someone called God. And again, you really do address this in a comprehensive way and I’m gonna ask you to give us the three minute version, but I just wonder in what ways does God matter when we’re asking these questions.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (39:13)
I love this question. You know, the joke in the class, and it shows up in the book too, is the first half of the class is all just the good life. We really don’t talk about anything having to do with religion. We just talk about like, how do you have better political disagreements with people? What’s the role of money in a good life? What’s the role of work in a good life? What’s the role of love in a good life? And we ascend to increasingly existential questions without talking about religion at all.

Amy Julia (39:31)
I’m going to go ahead and close my eyes.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (39:38)
And then they go to fall break or spring break and they come back and that’s when it becomes God in the good life. And we have this epic week where we say, all right, let’s hit pause because the questions we’ve been addressing so far have gotten really hard. The love unit is just a challenging question. How do you tell whether or not you’re good at loving the people that you love? It turns out to be very, very hard philosophical question. Like let’s hit pause and just introduce this hypothesis.

Amy Julia (39:58)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (40:06)
Is it even possible that there’s a morally perfect, all-powerful being in the universe? And if so, how does that hypothesis make all the questions we’ve been talking about better, and how does that hypothesis make them so much harder? And it’s a nice twist, it’s the big reveal, it’s kind of like when Darth Vader pops out from behind the sliding door of like, things just got so much more complex by introducing the question of God to the mix, in a really interesting and fruitful way.

Amy Julia (40:30)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (40:35)
We want students to see it just like it makes things just so much more interesting and so much more challenging trying to add God into the mix. So on the one hand, God helps, you know, the belief in God can help give a lot more depth to these questions about love that we’ve been asking right before break that, you know, we realized we’re just, you know, running up against a brick wall. On the flip side, questions of like suffering and injustice become that much more acute when you realize that you might believe that it’s actually designing this whole life.

Amy Julia (41:02)
I know.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (41:06)
So we want our students to wrestle with these questions. And I definitely want to give people space, age 18, 19, to ask what’s really, they’ve been thinking about the religion question probably for a while, but I wanna give them some space to really start to ask their questions. And hopefully to realize that there are people at a university like Notre Dame who wanna accompany them as they try to figure out how they’re gonna wrestle with some of the biggest questions of human existence. Personally,

Amy Julia (41:16)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (41:34)
I am an adult religious convert. I chose to join a religion in my second year of college, and that was a really momentous, but also very authentic, really wonderful rite of passage for me when I was their age. And some of the way I teach my class and the way I write this book is kind of wanting to be the professor that I wish that I had in college. Like I totally, I kind of did it myself

Amy Julia (41:40)


Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (42:03)
in a really ad hoc, random way that a 19 year old pieces together her answers to big existential questions. But I had very loving professors that I didn’t feel like I could talk to about any of these questions when I had them. And I kind of hope that the book and I hope that I know that our course creates some space to realize like students don’t have to go through these questions alone, that they can do it in a community, that we can build that community at college for them to do it.

And that we’re here no matter what to help them figure out how they’re gonna make that leap of faith. And so I love talking about this stuff. I mean, that’s my favorite unit of the course is when we take that twist because I just think that it’s so much more interesting. And I remember what it’s like to be in their shoes. I have just so much empathy and compassion for what they’re trying to figure out. So it’s one of my like great joys as a teacher. Every six months I get to have that moment where we open that

that door and then walk through it together.

Amy Julia (43:03)
Well, I’m sure that everyone listening to this podcast who has kids who are in high school or college are hoping that they get to take that class with professors like you who are not only asking the questions, but as you just said, like willing to be a companion in seeking after those answers. And I’m sure many people listening to this are still in a place of asking a lot of these questions. And you know, the

that sense of, yeah, there aren’t easy answers and there aren’t necessarily even these like, oh, I can just spit it out to you as though it were an AI generated answer, you know? Because that will not actually.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (43:38)
I banned chat GPT in my class. They’re not allowed to use it. Everything’s handwritten now in the class. Well, I’m not gonna have it.

Amy Julia (43:43)
Yeah, I believe it. And I’m, yeah. So, but thank you. Thank you for just prompting the questions, but also being just, yeah, in the, I can tell from talking to you that there’s both a sense of confidence that it is worth seeking after the answers, even though there’s like an expansive path to, to trying to find and explore those answers. So thank you for that.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (44:10)
I appreciate it. And I think if listeners find themselves asking these kinds of questions or trying to think about how they want to talk to their kids or their family members about these bigger questions about what do we love? What’s the goal of our lives? Check out the book. It’s one of these kinds of books where you might think you hate philosophy. We really tried to make this book very approachable and to teach it the same way we talk to our own students. And really do think it can be a great way to introduce these conversations into your

Amy Julia (44:20)

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (44:38)
good lives, which is that’s what philosophy really is. It’s about asking the questions.

Amy Julia (44:43)
Yeah, and I’ll just read it again. The Good Life Method, Reasoning Through the Big Questions of Happiness, Faith, and Meaning. And I agree, it’s very accessible. As someone who never took a philosophy class in college, I’m catching up apparently. I took theology classes, but not philosophy. So there’s some overlap, but nevertheless, it’s really a great kind of primer, and I do think it’s accessible to lots of people. So thank you for that.

Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) (45:08)
Thank you.

Thanks as always for listening to this episode of Reimagining the Good Life. If you have, you know, I don’t know, 60 seconds to offer, I would really love it if you would take a second to rate or review, share this episode, share this podcast with the people in your life who might benefit from it. And I will put one final plug in to subscribe to my weekly newsletter so that we can stay in touch over the summer. The link is in the show notes. It’s also available at amyjuliabecker .com.

I would love to hear from you, especially as we are planning the next season. If you have suggestions or comments, I would be really interested. So you can just click the link in the show notes to offer those. And finally, I want to thank Jake Hanson for editing the podcast and Amber Beery, my social media coordinator and podcast producer for doing everything to make sure everything happens. And

I also will say I hope that this conversation and all of these conversations help you to challenge assumptions, proclaim the belovedness of every human being, and envision a world of belonging. Let’s reimagine the good life together.

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