This column is the second in a three-part series concerning ethics and human happiness.
In the previous installation of this series, we examined the nature of ethical inquiry. After thinking through the subject, it was concluded that the goal of ethical inquiry is to attain goodness, i.e., the immutable characteristic of all upright moral actions. Ethics is also a practical and systematic inquiry focused on the concrete world. However, the object of ethics is unlike objects of other inquires. Goodness, we discovered, is something that lasts and it relates to our character in a way that the objects of other sciences do not. To be concerned with ethical action is, therefore, to desire a lasting foundation for an upright character. However, the question left open is, do we all desire the things that last? Or is this desire merely subjective and different from person to person like different tastes and desires concerning food and music? I want to argue in this column that we all do have such a desire, and this desire is the desire for happiness which ultimately leads to God.
Now, how should we define happiness? Presumably it can be generally defined as fulfillment, i.e., a life well lived. It appears that a life well lived need some type of constancy. One cannot live well if he is always to worry about material needs, or if the deepest desires of his heart that guide his life are routinely in flux. Neither can one live well if his actions and thoughts do not come from a constant state of character. If one is charitable to a homeless person in one encounter, for example, but cruel in the next, and displays no constancy of will or action, then such a person cannot grow in the ability to live well. A plant cannot grow if it is habitually torn up and replanted. So too, it seems, with our own lives. It is hard if not impossible to make progress towards flourishing without steadiness and consistency. I would like to illustrate this point further as well as begin to answer the question raised above by using an example.
Suppose you know a man – call him James – who works so much during the day and so many days a year that he almost never sees the sunshine. James gets up early in the morning and often returns home late in the evening. This grueling schedule also severely limits James’s time with his wife and children. For all intents and purposes it’s as if his family is a hobby filling up his precious little spare time while his job is the main focus of his life. Upon reflection, would anyone truly think that James could be happy? It is true that oftentimes the practical demands of life such as paying bills and raising a family require schedules like James’s. However, that still leaves the question in tact – can such a person be called happy? It seems to me that most people would say that such a person cannot be called happy. To be fair though there would also be some who would say that such a person can be called happy. Let’s take the negative answer first.
It seems reasonable to suppose that the ones who would answer the above question negatively would say something close to the following, “We cannot call James happy because he has no life. He does not see the sunshine or his family. His days are filled with commuting and office work. That is not a fulfilling life. There is so much more to life than that.” The ones who answer the happiness question in the affirmative would probably say something along the lines of, “James can be called happy because he is sacrificing to provide for his family. “ Or they might say, “James can be called happy if he likes his work a lot and prefers doing it. After all, happiness is different for everyone and if such a schedule makes him happy then so be it.” The second answer is a form of relativism. For the reasons I gave in the previous installment, I have put the question of relativism to the side in this series.
The Route to Happiness
So, where does this example leave us? Notice that all of the answers given are susceptible to change. What I mean by this is that none of the things suggested above as causes for James happiness are lasting. Time with family and in the sun come to an end and the days of James sacrificing for his family will not last forever. Also, none of the things listed above guarantee happiness because there are people with many or all of the things listed above (e.g. money, time with family, sacrificing for family etc.) who are not happy. Yet it seems that at least some of the items mentioned above(e.g. family time, lack of severe material want etc.) do contribute to a happy life even if some people with those things aren’t happy. But, how can a life be well lived if we work for things don’t last or guarantee happiness? How can we have constancy in our thoughts and actions if there isn’t constancy in the things that we seek and act for? Is there anything constant upon which a man can build a happy life and flourish?
The moral qualities of ethical inquiry seem to fulfill the necessary requirement for these questions. Consider the answer regarding sacrifice. In order for James’s work arrangement to truly be a sacrifice, it must spring from a constant will on his part to do what he’s doing for the sake of his family. If he only does it for his family sometimes, or only wants his family to think he’s doing it for them, then it is not truly a sacrifice for his family and maybe not a sacrifice at all. Notice that this sacrifice has to come from a constant will and has to be for the good of his family. This sacrifice then has the moral quality of goodness because it concerns a constant effort on James’s part to do what is right for his family. Since his action has the moral quality of goodness it is in that sense lasting and enduring.
Recall the negative answer to the above question regarding the state of James’s happiness. It seems like this answer also implies that his life is missing something that is lasting. To say that there is more to life typically means that there are more important (i.e. intrinsically worthwhile) things one could be doing. To say something is more worthwhile is presumably to say that such things will contribute to happiness. However if they contribute to happiness, as we’ve seen, then that means they must bring some type of constancy to our life. So happiness, therefore, is connected with ethical inquiry because happiness implies constancy of thought and action and ethical inquiry guides us towards what is good and what is good is both lasting and requires constant will and effort on our part in order for us to attain it.
Now how does this help us answer the question with which this column started, namely, do all humans desire the things that last? Well, the answer is yes as long as all human beings have a desire for happiness. This is the case no matter which specific definition of happiness you choose. This is because every definition of happiness concerns the general idea of constancy that we sketched above. Even Utilitarians such as John Stuart Mill and Hedonists who define happiness as pleasure instead of flourishing all maintain that happiness should be a more or less constant state in life; we should try to make it last as much as possible.
So the question then becomes, do all human beings desire to be happy? On a general understanding of happiness as living well, i.e., the avoidance of what is evil or not pleasurable and attaining what is pleasurable or good it seems that the answer is yes. No one willfully does what one thinks is bad for the sake of badness. Even those who commit suicide, light themselves on fire in protest, or starve themselves on a hunger strike do what they do because they think it will either serve some higher purpose, (e.g. an end of tyranny in the hunger strike case, say or personal suffering in the suicide case) or help themselves to attain a good they otherwise cannot receive.
Where the controversy comes in is when happiness is fleshed out in more concrete terms than just a general desiring to live well. However, we have said above that no matter what definition of happiness one subscribes to, one is searching for some sort of constancy. And we have already seen that that which is constant in the relevant sense are the moral qualities incumbent upon our actions which we can discover through ethical inquiry. So happiness is especially connected to ethics and concerned with constancy. However, the moral qualities found by ethical inquiry seem to only partially fulfill the requirements of happiness. This is because our actions and our lives do not last forever. We have to repeatedly do what is good, we have to repeatedly strive for happiness, and our strivings and actions are ultimately ended by death. So the lasting things of ethical inquiry only seem to be lasting in a secondary sense, i.e. they last longer than everything else in life. Is there anything then that can completely fulfill our desire for constancy, and make us happy?
At this point after briefly surveying the nature of ethical inquiry and our desire for happiness it seems that only what is eternal and unchanging, unable to experience death and decay, can fulfill our desire for happiness. Furthermore this eternal thing cannot be impersonal because our happiness is connected to our ethical lives and ethics is primarily concerned with how we treat ourselves and one another. Therefore our happiness must ultimately rest in God since He is both eternal and personal.[i] St. Thomas Aquinas says that God “lulls the appetite altogether.” This means that with God there is eternal constancy. We do not have to keep trying over and over to attain happiness; with Him we have happiness all at once and forever. God then is like the Sun on our restless hearts, constantly guiding us to Himself so that we may rest and be happy. As our Lord says, “Come to me all ye who labor and are heavily burdened; I will give you rest.”
What then is the nature of the relation between God, ethics, and happiness? How is it that we can reach Him, as it were, and be happy? We shall conclude the series by endeavoring to answer these questions.
[i] I am not here making an argument for God’s existence. There is a famous argument for God’s existence known as the ‘moral argument’ which has been defended by luminaries such as C.S. Lewis and Archbishop Fulton Sheen. That argument seeks to establish God’s existence starting from the concept of morality and moral obligations. My intention here is not to argue for God’s existence, I am merely assuming it for my purposes.