Bernard Williams begins his classic Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy with a quote from Plato:
It is not a trivial question, Socrates said: what we are talking about is how one should live (Republic, 352d).Williams highlights the impersonality of Socrates' question:
"How should one live?" -- the generality of one already stakes a claim. The Greek language does not even give us one: the formula is impersonal. The implication is that something relevant or useful can be said to anyone, in general... (1985, p. 4).The generality of the question, Williams says, is part of what makes the inquiry philosophical (p. 2).
Williams' thought seems to be that philosophy starts impersonally and then works its way back to the personal question as a particular instance. But I'm inclined to think that to begin with the general question is to set off in the wrong direction. Good philosophy is self-critical -- grounded in a sense of one's own capacities for critique and especially one's limits and biases. Before painting the universe in your philosophical colors, know the shortcomings of your palette.
Yes, these are impersonal considerations for starting with personal reflection -- exactly what is needed to persuade someone inclined to start with the impersonal!
A simple conversion of "How should one live?" to "How should I live?" is one way to go. But to the extent you're moved by the thought that it's best to start with self-critical evaluation, a different type of starting place beckons.
For example: Am I a jerk? If yes, I should probably shut up about how others ought to live and work on myself. Being a jerk is not only a moral failing, but -- in my analysis -- also an epistemic one, a failure properly to appreciate the perspectives of others around you. A jerk ethicist not only is likely to be viewed by others as hypocritical or noxiously self-rationalizing but also works, I suggest, with an epistemic disability likely to taint his conclusions.
If I am part-jerk, then my next thought maybe ought to be whether I'm okay with that; and if I'm not okay with that, what might I do about it -- a very different line of thought, and a very different plan for self-adjustment than is likely to arise from impersonal reflection on how one ought to live. Similarly, I might reflect on: "Am I a loving husband?", "Do I engage in lots of self-serving rationalizations?"
You might object: Such first-personal questions carry presuppositions of exactly the sort philosophers should question, e.g., whether being a loving husband is a good thing to aim for. We should back up and consider the more abstract questions first, such as how ought people live in general. I reply: The answers to these more abstract questions also build in presuppositions, though less visibly to me the less light I shine on my own moral and epistemic failings.
Such first-personal moral epistemology is difficult and uncertain work. If I aim at a critical first-person ethics, I must take a hard look in the mirror, and I must think carefully about the relation between what I think I see and what is really there. I must vividly fear that I am not the person I previously hoped and thought I was.
This is a less pleasant task, I find, than the abstract task of figuring out how everyone in general should live, and a different kind of philosophical ambition.