Can Being Virtuous Make You Happy?
The idea of happiness is not typically associated with being virtuous. Happiness is the pursuit of what one likes and desires, whereas virtue is believed to involve moderation and abstinence.
This depiction, however, is more or less the result of some very modern peculiarities. There is in fact an account of happiness and virtue that paints a more symbiotic relation.
In my previous blog “Who Needs Virtues Anyway?”, I stated the case for the important role virtues play in forming our character, or person, and providing us with the means to act appropriately when required to do so. We saw that virtues come from a variety of resources—parents, religion, schooling, athletics, politics, etc.—that can and often do conflict. I ended with the promissory note of providing some kind of answer as to how this conflict might be resolved when considering the nature of goals through the lens of virtue ethics.
In this blog, I make good on half of the promissory note. I offer a different way of thinking about goals to set up (in the third and final blog) how conflicts between virtues can be resolved.
To wit . . . Happiness is not only a great instance of a goal—each one of us has probably some notion of the pursuit of happiness—but as we will see, it is also the preeminent case by which we can see how we (as moderns) arguably have got it wrong about what it means to be happy and how virtues can resolve this issue.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Humans tend to be directed by goals that range from short- to long-term. There are immediate practical ends, such as making one’s bed, feeding the pets, or making it through a busy day. There are intermediate ends, or so-called one- to five-year plans. Then, there is the vague but nonetheless impressing long-term goal of a happy life. Presumably, a significant portion of the short and intermediate goals ought to be contributing to the long-term goal of happiness.
Presumably . . .
Consider that if happiness is conceived as a pursuit, it suggests that it is a destination at which we hopefully arrive. Yet, this way of thinking can be a bit blinkered. For, we often find that goals lead to other goals, other wishes and desires. As the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) aptly put this vicious relation, desire outruns desire.
Some might opt for embracing each moment in which one’s desire is satisfied and reject the idea that we neither need a long-term account of our life’s coherence nor benefit by making one up. This can be a tempting option which can sprout into many forms: hedonism, enlightened self-interest, self-help ideas about living in the “now” and “mindfulness”.
But I think this option is inevitably self-defeating: Questions about the overall direction to one’s life encroach no matter how one decides to live in the moment. One may wish to live in the moment, but thoughts about how one’s life is going in the long run are inescapable.
And, that leaves us with the dilemma of how our lives, as a long-term project, can relate to happiness in a benevolent (as opposed to pernicious) manner.
Happiness Is Not a Pursuit
There is much that can be said about the way some ancient Greek thinkers understood the nature of goals. Aristotle, whom we met in the previous blog, took a significant end like happiness to be something present and immanent in the actions we undertake, as opposed to being a distant goal. (Not all goals are like this; one’s that have to do with morality tend to be.)
To get a sense of this difference, let’s take a modern example that runs counter to Aristotle’s idea.
Today, we regard happiness as a psychological state resulting from something that takes place, that we do, or that has been done to us—e.g. the serene sunrise accompanied by birdsong when waking up on a camping trip; or the company of good friends over a nice meal. According to the psychological account we strive to be happy, to attain that mental and emotional end-state we call happiness.
In contrast, Aristotle’s way of thinking does not emphasize striving for distant ends and trying to recapture moments we take to be constitutive of those ends. A key shift in his thinking may help to see this contrast in more relief:
The psychological understanding places “me” at the center of what determines happiness. If I don’t think I’m happy or feel happy, then happiness has not occurred as a result of the events or actions in question.
Aristotle understood at the center of happiness was not “me”, or the actor, but the action. In other words, happiness was not defined by its effect on me but what the action in principle enacts or performs—what the action does by its being done by me.
It’s important here not to think just in terms of consequences of an action. The consequence may be different from the principle of the action. The principle is what legitimizes or warrants the action for Aristotle. So, for example, helping someone in need tends to be a good principle from which to act when someone is in distress. Recognizing this principle when acting in such an instance is what makes the action genuine; whereas acting for other motives, like desiring praise, does not.
Nonetheless, consequence matters, too, for Aristotle. But he recognizes that things can go wrong despite our best intentions and judgments; and also that we are only human, liable to err, or suffer from certain weaknesses or flaws.
What we can take from his account is that happiness is a goal that is more significantly a principle that informs our actions. (This sounds awkwardly put; for those familiar with Aristotle, I am trying to emphasize goals as an efficient versus final cause.) We do not strive after it. In other words, when we act from a recognition of the principle of happiness—just as we might act from the principle of helping someone in need—our action enacts happiness.
As opposed to the modern, psychological conception of happiness, let us call Aristotle’s conception practical. This is because by enacting happiness, we are in fact practicing what it means to be happy. We are not striving towards a goal we may or may not reach. This is why, to recall, I mentioned happiness for Aristotle is something present or immanent in what we do.
What about "Me"?
It’s not that Aristotle ignored the importance of feeling good. However, he had a different word for these kinds of experiences—not happiness but pleasure. Pleasure is a by-product of happiness that can result from doing something well or from good fortune.
What is crucial to recall from the previous blog is that where “me” matters is in terms of being a capable actor (or en-actor). As I argued, virtues are what make one more capable of doing things. I cannot enact the principle of helping another in need if I lack the courage to put myself in harm’s way (physically and emotionally).
Likewise, lacking virtues will make for a very unhappy person on Aristotle’s view. This is because one doesn’t actually possess those qualities to perform those actions that comprise the happy life. One cannot take in a beautiful scene of nature because one lacks patience. One cannot appreciate the company of others because one lacks compassion. One cannot maintain a balanced life because one lacks justice.
Which Activities? Whose Happiness?
I have left unaddressed what kinds of activities best suit our enacting of happiness. This is partly to do with the fact that answering this question brings us back to the thorny issue of those communities which act as resources for values, ideas, and virtues. We saw that such communities can conflict with one another because they have different ideas about what matters most.
In the final blog of this series, we will delve into a resolution to this issue which draws on the way happiness produces a shift in how we relate to others. Rather than focusing on how ends might conflict, we are asked to focus on understanding the principles from which one has acted or from which one espouses a belief. And this makes all the difference between "getting one's back up" and "digging one's heels" in versus a real opportunity for mutual understanding.
Dr Todd Mei is a public philosopher and business consultant who specializes in the areas of meaningful work, the philosophy of work, virtue ethics, and hermeneutics. He runs a podcast called Living Philosophy. Todd was formerly Assistant and Associate Professor at the University of Dundee and the University of Kent, respectively. In addition to being an academic writer, he is also the author of a short sci-fi novella called Pig Terrorism. When not immersed in reading and writing, he can be found rock climbing or windsurfing.