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Morality and the Pursuit of Happiness: Understanding the Meaning and Relevance of Eudaimonism

Morality And The Pursuit Of Happiness: Understanding The Meaning And Relevance Of Eudaimonism

“Why Be Moral?”

Among the many questions that contemporary moral philosophers have raised over the past few decades is the question: Why be Moral? Nearly all contemporary scholars that address the issue seem to understand that this question is anything but new, but a much smaller number of such scholars seem to understand the meaning or the importance of the question. For example, in response to the question of why one should act morally, Princeton ethicist Peter Singer, toward the end of his book Practical Ethics, argues that this “is a question about the ethical point of view, asked from a position outside it. But what,” Singer continues, “is the ethical point of view?” I have suggested that a distinguishing feature of ethics is that ethical judgments are universalizable. Ethics requires us to go beyond our own personal point of view to a standpoint like that of the impartial spectator who takes a universal point of view.”[1]

This does not mean that Singer considers it wrong or irrational for one to ask the question of a moral imperative, “what’s in it for me?” It is, rather, that he considers this self-interested question essentially amoral. It is not, he says, a question that is asked “from the ethical point of view, but from outside it.” Again, Singer would readily admit that people often do have self-interested reasons to act morally, whether those reasons are based upon long term self-interest or short term psychological satisfaction (as when acting morally “just feels good”). But Singer, and many other contemporary moralists like him, understands the self-interested question – Why be moral? – to be something we ask only once the requirements of morality have already been determined or derived, and so the answer to this crucial question does not really factor in to determining or deriving what those requirements actually are.

Singer’s presumptions about the relation between morality and self-interest appear to be shared by the major moral normative theories of ethics one finds today among professional philosophers. Let us very briefly examine three of those theories.

The first and most obvious is Kantian deontological ethics. One might even say that Kant built his entire moral worldview around rejecting the question – Why be Moral? – as an illegitimate question. To ask such a question is to derive morality from considerations that are essentially sub-moral, such as pleasure, advantage, or happiness, and is therefore to demonstrate that one does not really understand morality at all, or what Singer would later call “the ethical point of view.” Hence Kant’s distinction between hypothetical imperatives and the categorical imperative, where only the latter is morally significant. Working to help the poor may feel good, it may contribute to deep and lasting happiness in one’s soul, and it may even be in one’s immediate personal interest. But none of these answers to our question – Why be moral? – have anything to do with determining that helping the poor is something that morality requires of us. Kant, therefore, leaves himself very little to say in response to the moral skeptic, other than that demanding reasons to act morally other than morality itself would lead to abandoning morality altogether. Powerful stuff, perhaps, for the early nineteenth century, but since Nietzsche inspired a whole generation of philosophers who have been all too happy to throw away morality altogether, the argument falls somewhat flat. It seems the question – Why be moral? – cannot be dismissed so easily.

Utilitarian thought appears to take the question more seriously than Kant, but in the end provides an answer that is no more satisfying. To be sure, utilitarians do not simply dismiss the question as irrelevant. The compelling reason for acting morally is the achievement of a state of affairs that is essentially better than what we might expect were we to act immorally. And so Peter Singer, himself a utilitarian, argues that we have an obligation to contribute to famine relief, since doing so will result in a net-gain of universal happiness compared with not doing so. In fact, utilitarians like Singer, and Bentham before him, argue that essential to acting morally is the realization that one’s own happiness is no more a compelling reason for action than the happiness of others. What matters is not pursuing happiness, but maximizing it. Therefore the question – Why be moral? – looms just as large for the utilitarian as for the Kantian. Why should one act in such a way as to maximize happiness if doing so minimizes one’s own happiness? Singer and Bentham, though conceiving of morality very differently than Kant, would complain that this very question is not asked from the ethical perspective. Why be moral? Shame on me for even asking such a thing!

Even the modern virtue ethics movement, with roots in the philosophies of Alasdair MacIntyre and G.E.M. Anscombe,[2] has failed to meet the challenge of the moral skeptic head on. Contemporary virtue ethics proposes conformity with virtue as the criteria for distinguishing between morally good and bad human actions. But what is our reason for choosing virtuous actions as opposed to vicious ones? In other words, what if the virtue ethicist replaces the question – Why be moral? – with the question – Why be virtuous? Of course, the ancient and medieval thinkers were ready with a response to this question: acting virtuously is a necessary condition for happiness (a notion I will consider in greater depth in a moment). But modern virtue ethics, for its part, does not appear to have the same unified response. Virtues are themselves worth cultivating for many reasons, one of which may involve personal flourishing, but may be recommended to us for their social utility. Modern virtue ethicists also tend to reject the teleology inherent in Aristotelian (and other pre-modern) moralities, an aspect of classical virtue theory that was central to it. In any case, whereas contemporary virtue ethics may be inspired by the Aristotelian tradition as far as its extolling of certain virtuous habits is concerned, it seems rather far from adopting the philosophical anthropology and metaethics that lie at the core of that tradition.[3]

What We Can Learn From Plato’s Answer to the Moral Skeptic

If the modern responses to the all-important question – Why be moral? – are unsatisfying, perhaps we should consider a pre-modern response. It was, of course, not Aristotle but his master Plato who first articulated just how profound and disturbing moral skepticism can be. It was also Plato who first suggested that morality is only a serious endeavour if it is capable of overcoming moral skepticism in its most powerful form. Plato’s dialogues provide powerful insight into moral skepticism because the moral skepticism they address is not just expressed in arguments, but is embodied in actual people, such as Protagoras, Calicles, or Thrasymachus. It is, I believe, Socrates’ response to Thrasymachus in the Republic, where one finds Plato’s most mature and formidable response to moral skepticism, but this is at least in part because of the fact that moral skepticism is given such an impressive voice, not only with Thrasymachus, but also with the young brothers of Plato, Glaucon and Adeimantus, who restore and revitalize Thrasymachus’ argument.

Let us briefly review. The Republic recalls a conversation about justice between Socrates and several interlocutors that lasts long into the night. Toward the beginning of that conversation, Thrasymachus, a sophist, infamously defines justice as the “advantage of the stronger.”[4] It is the first overtly political definition of justice given in the dialogue, since by “stronger” Thrasymachus clearly means those with political might. Since those in power make the laws and those laws are always to their own advantage, justice simply amounts to obedience to those laws. Socrates’ initial challenge to this position is unimpressive. First he points out that sometimes lawgivers fail to legislate to their own advantage, and so “doing justice” in those cases would mean, not obedience, but disobedience. Next, he employs an analogy in order to show that good rulers seek, not their own advantage, but that of their subjects, just as good navigators seek the advantage of their passengers and good physicians the advantage of their patients.

For these responses, Thrasymachus mocks the seemingly naïve Socrates and in so doing allows us to see into the core of his worldview. For him, Socrates is confused because he presumes that there is a meaningful distinction between justice and injustice. The real distinction, however, is between the weak and the strong. Those with reputations for injustice, moreover, come to light as the only ones worthy of real admiration. And not those with small-time reputations, such as “temple robbers . . . housebreakers, defrauders, and thieves,” but tyrants, who not only steal from their people, but “kidnap and enslave them too.”[5] And then Thrasymachus lets fall his most revealing statement of all: “For it is not because they fear doing unjust deeds, but because they fear suffering them, that those who blame injustice do so.”[6] In other words, justice and injustice are neither virtues nor vices nor objective realities of which we can have any knowledge, but merely words invented by the weak, invented so that the weak can find their subjugation more comprehensible or tolerable. Sure, they are weak and oppressed, but at least now they can console themselves with the fabricated belief that they are “just” and their oppressors “unjust.”

Time does not permit me to discuss Socrates’ attempt to refute Thrasymachus in book one of the Republic, an argument that eventually results in Thrasymachus blushing. But it is clear that, whatever the merits of his argument, it is entirely unpersuasive to Glaucon and his brother Adeimantus. Glaucon in particular is not persuaded that Socrates has proven that justice is more advantageous than injustice. In fact, Socrates’ remark that a band of unjust thieves must exhibit a certain degree of justice in order to accomplish their unjust goals only seems to underscore Thrasymachus’ essential claim: that one puts up with only so much justice as one must and that injustice is what we all truly want.

Before going any further with the analysis we must observe some critical aspects of how Plato sets these philosophical questions before us. Most important, we must understand the terms by which Socrates agrees to defend justice. Namely, he agrees to demonstrate justice’s superiority over injustice on the basis of the claim that justice is more advantageous than injustice. In other words, he sets out to show, in light of Thrasymachus’ argument, that justice is better for the just person (not simply the ones to whom justice is directed). The real test of justice’s superiority, Socrates appears to concede, is whether or not one is better off for living justly. In this we must not fail to observe that Socrates and Glaucon are in agreement with one of Thrasymachus’ fundamental premises, namely, that what matters first is one’s own happiness. If justice is to be more than a mere word, therefore, it must be shown to serve that happiness above its contrary. This, Socrates admits, will not be easy to do since justice (among all the virtues) seems to be the one virtue that, by its very nature, has to do with, not one’s own good, but with the good of others.

It is especially in Glaucon’s reformulation of Thrasymachus’ argument[7] that this point is fully driven home. As he states, most people tacitly believe that Thrasymachus is right, or that justice is only something we tolerate as members of a kind of Hobbesian social contract. We, fearing retaliation, agree to abandon our designs to harm and take from others, and those others, also fearing retaliation, agree to do the same vis-a-vis us. And yet, in an imaginary world in which the fear of retaliation is taken away, the reason to live justly evaporates. Glaucon famously makes his point with two thought experiments. The first is the Ring of Gyges myth (earlier told by Herodotus), whereby a young man discovers in a cave a ring with the power to turn him invisible. Eventually realizing that the ring allows him to commit injustice with impunity, he uses it to commit adultery with the queen, murder to king, and take over political rule himself, thus becoming one of those tyrants admired so much and praised so highly by Thrasymachus. Why would anyone, Glaucon asks, not follow Gyges’ example and choose injustice under the same conditions?

Not content to leave it there, Glaucon heaps more upon Socrates. Not only must he show that it is advantageous to remain just even with the magic ring. He must also show that justice is advantageous even when choosing it results in terrible suffering. Socrates is to imagine conditions under which the unjust man is rewarded with wealth, power and reputation (such as that enjoyed by Gyges) and the just man is stricken with poverty and suffering. As Glaucon puts it, “ the just man . . . will be whipped . . . racked . . . bound . . . have both his eyes burned out . . . [and be] crucified.” Here again we must avoid making a crucial interpretive mistake. Glaucon is not asking Socrates to prove why it is worth it to be just even when justice makes one unhappy and injustice results in happiness. What he is asking is that Socrates demonstrate the happiness inherent in living justly to be greater, more profound, more deeply satisfying, from which no degree of suffering could deter us.

And here is where Glaucon’s primary character trait, and perhaps his very reason for being included in Plato’s greatest dialogue, comes to light. It is Glaucon’s eroticism that sets the terms of everything that will be said about justice in the Republic from that moment forward. Glaucon is profoundly erotic, and his eroticism takes two forms. The first is a very base and carnal form. Whereas Herodotus’ telling of the ring of Gyges myth portrays Gyges as only a reluctant usurper urged on (in fact blackmailed) by the queen, Glaucon’s retelling of the myth transforms Gyges into a power hungry and lustful usurper. Later in the Republic, Socrates will also tease Glaucon about his inordinate lust for young boys. But Glaucon’s erotic soul also expresses itself in a much higher way by what he pleads with Socrates to do. For it to withstand Thrasymachus’ assault, justice must be something worth dying for, and even more, being tortured for, like the object of a great love affair, something akin to what satisfies the deepest longings of the human heart.[8] If it is not this, it is nothing.

This is the context in which to view all of the famous doctrines later seen in the dialogue, from the tri-partite soul to the theory of the forms and of the good. With the help of those doctrines Socrates paints a picture of the universe in which morality or justice is profoundly advantageous. According to this picture, the only truly just person is the philosopher, who alone is aware of the transcendent realities of the eternal ideas and of the good . . . the idea of ideas. The philosopher contemplates those ideas and comes more fully into communion with the good as he does so. Thus the philosopher (and only the philosopher) approaches not only human perfection, but perfection itself. The good, the closest thing we have to Plato’s god, is at once the source of all intelligibility and the fulfillment of every desire. The reason to live morally, we are given to understand, is that morality, rightly conceived, is nothing more than the kind of life one must lead in order to philosophize and pursue the good in the most unfettered way possible.

This is precisely why conventional understandings of morality (not to mention those of modern moral philosophy) are so unpersuasive. It is also, perhaps, why, by most conventional accounts, Socrates and other philosophers like him are not “moral” in any recognizable way. Like the Kantian, the philosopher will be unlikely to make a false promise, but not because he cannot “will his maxim to be a universal law,” but because he has no real desire for those things, like wealth or power, that people usually make false promises for. Like the utilitarian, the philosopher will be unlikely to commit murder or assault, but not because this will result in a net loss of happiness for the people in his moral circle, but because the philosopher (preoccupied with the transcendent) cares little for those things for which murder is usually committed: material gain, vengeance, (or worst of all) idle amusement. Finally, like the “virtue ethicist” the philosopher will be unlikely to display vices such as gluttony, and likely to display at least what looks like generosity, but not because these actions are consistent with certain arbitrarily agreed upon virtues, but because what the philosopher loves is so much higher than food and drink (in the case of gluttony) and he cares so little for material wealth that it causes him no inconvenience to give away what little wealth he has (as in the case of generosity).

The Essence of a Eudaimonist Moral Philosophy

It is usually Aristotle that is credited with being the father of what is now called eudaimonism, the concept of eudaimomia having been formalized in the doctrine of his Nicomachean Ethics. Read carefully, one comes to understand that he is merely expounding, refining, and carrying forth the implications of Plato’s teaching about morality in the Republic. Let us not forget Aristotle’s famous remarks that Plato was a man “who showed in his life and teachings how to be happy and good at the same time.”[9] What is remarkable, however, is the degree to which Aristotelian and Platonic eudaimonism remained the dominant moral philosophy for the next 1700 years. To be sure, in that span of time eudaimonism is expressed in a variety of ways, some religious, some not, some that claim that virtue is sufficient for happiness, some that deny that claim.

But the common thread throughout all these centuries of philosophizing is that moral norms derive their prescriptive force and relevance from the degree to which they direct us toward our ultimate end: eudaimonia. Theologian and intellectual historian Servais Pinckaers describes this as a “morality of happiness,” which was only replaced by what he calls the “morality of obligation” in the fourteenth century.[10] For the remainder of this talk, I would like to expound upon four critical features of this so-called “morality of happiness” (or eudaimonism) that must be grasped before we even begin to compare it with the many competing moralities of today. I do not claim that this is an exhaustive account of eudaimonist morality, nor do I even claim these are eudaimonism’s four most important properties. To a Plato, an Aristotle, an Augustine, or an Aquinas, they may even seem obvious. But to those, like us, living in an age where eudaimonism has been long displaced and defended only by minority voices, they are, perhaps, where one needs to begin.

1. For the Eudaimonist, The Pursuit of Happiness is the Basis for All Moral Oughts

This is clearly one of the most controversial aspects of eudaimonism, and the origins of the controversy trace back at least to David Hume’s famous remark that one can never validly derive an “ought” from an “is.” Although Hume made the remark, it was Kant who developed a comprehensive moral teaching with an explicit view to avoiding this apparent fallacy committed by most, if not all, previous thinkers. As Kant would argue, even if it could be demonstrated that all human beings pursue happiness and that human happiness consisted, as Aristotle suggests, in some identifiable activity or way of life, that would still not be sufficient to give us any direction of how we ought to act in any meaningful moral sense. Moral oughts or imperatives, as opposed to hypothetical oughts or imperatives, do not direct us in how to act so as to be happy, but in how to act so as to fulfill our duties and obligations to ourselves and others. One especially pernicious effect of the eudaimonist’s position is that all imperatives become hypothetical and, therefore, in some sense, optional. Instead of “do not lie” or “do not make a promise you don’t intend to keep,” one is given “do not lie or promise falsely if doing so hinders you from your happiness.” The implication seems to be that if lying does not hinder you from your happiness, by all means lie.

Without a doubt, Kant had it right that, for eudaimonism, all imperatives are, in his words, hypothetical. And yet one should not conclude that the eudaimonist must also believe that all imperatives are merely optional. In a very insightful forthcoming study of this very issue as it applies to the natural law tradition, Steven Jensen observes[11] that a broadly Aristotelian and Thomistic eudaimonism is able to distinguish quite easily between moral oughts and non-moral oughts. Non-moral oughts derive from our desire for things upon which our happiness simply does not depend. I may want to learn about the Franco-Prussian war. In Thomistic moral psychology, this desire of the will (or intention) immediately sets my intellect to thinking about the means necessary to fulfill that desire (what is called council or deliberation). I then discover that reading about the Franco-Prussian war is necessary for obtaining my goal and doing that reading becomes a kind of imperative. If, however, I lose interest in this period of history, become extremely busy, or develop a new interest that supersedes my previous one, I may simply abandon my goal and hence the imperative of reading about the Franco-Prussian war goes away just as easily as it arrived.

Whereas the eudaimonist would certainly agree that all imperatives are hypothetical, he would still be able to distinguish between those that are merely optional and those one would rightly describe as “binding” or “obligatory.” If it can be determined that certain kinds of actions are incompatible, not just with any old desire of the will, but with our ultimate happiness, we are dealing with a “hypothetical” imperative of a very different sort. Those actions would become the objects the same universal proscription against which Kant’s categorical imperative was directed. Happiness is not just the ultimate end because it is the last thing desired in a long list of more proximate desires. It is also the ultimate end, according to Aristotle, Aquinas, and many others, because human beings cannot-not desire it.

So whereas I may simply drop my desire to learn about the Franco-Prussian war and thus the imperative to read about it, I may not simply drop my desire for happiness and, along with it, the imperatives that are necessary for getting me there. It may very well turn out that eating and drinking in moderation, dealing fairly with others, and not becoming a slave to fear are all necessary for happiness, and are thus the basis even for exceptionless moral norms. Aristotle himself seemed to imply this in his remark that some emotions, such as spite, shamelessness, and envy, and some actions such as adultery, theft, and murder, are so base that they are never compatible with someone pursuing happiness rightly understood.[12] To be sure, explaining precisely how specific moral norms are derived from the pursuit of happiness requires a sophisticated moral psychology and philosophical anthropology equal to the task. Be that as it may, it seems apparent that eudaimonism is quite capable of distinguishing between moral oughts and non-moral oughts and of dispensing with the very unproblematic “is/ought problem.”

2. For the Eudaimonist, Virtue is not an End in Itself   

Whereas eudaimonists are profoundly concerned with morality, they should not be described as “moralists,” and that, whereas eudaimonists often place enormous emphasis upon acquiring the virtues, their ethics does not ultimately constitute a “virtue ethics.”[13] This is, at times, especially difficult to see in the moral philosophies of Aristotle and Aquinas. Whereas Aristotle devotes book one of the Nicomachean Ethics to providing an argument for the centrality of happiness, the five books that follow constitute an analysis of the moral and intellectual virtues that does not frequently harken back to the discussion of happiness or even provide explicit arguments as to how certain virtues have anything to do with pursuing happiness. This is most problematic in Aristotle’s discussion of that virtue which, at least intuitively, seems to have the least to do with one’s own happiness, namely, justice. Unlike the Kantian and the utilitarian, the eudaimonist is admittedly concerned with the happiness or well-being of others only in a kind of derivative sense. According to Aristotle, living justly makes one a more excellent human being, an excellence that is necessary (though not sufficient) for happiness, the ultimate end.

To be sure, much of this appears to fly in the face of many of Aristotle’s remarks in the Nicomachean Ethics. For instance, what do I make of Aristotle’s famous statement that friendship between virtuous people is one in which friends “wish goods to each other for each other’s own sake”?[14] Although this may first appear to imply a thoroughly disinterested love for another, one in which the desire for one’s own happiness is not even present, the context says otherwise. Aristotle’s intention is to distinguish between genuine or virtuous friendship and the pseudo-friendship based on utility. In those latter friendships, the friendship is maintained as a means strictly for some sub-moral end, such as is the case in various forms of business partnerships. Virtuous friendships, on the other hand, involve a love for one’s friend for his own sake.

But we should not understand “for his own sake” here to mean disconnected from any higher good whatsoever. In this sense, even virtuous friendships are still a means to an end, not to sub-moral ends but to an end that surpasses morality altogether. To those (like the Kantian) who see morality, or even friendship, as an end in itself, this aspect of eudaimonism will come across just as selfishly as the preoccupation with utility. For Aristotle, however, two friends accused of “using one another” to better pursue eudaimonia will always take it as a compliment of their friendship regardless of how the accusation was intended. At any rate, Aristotle himself anticipated this criticism, not only of his account of friendship, but of his moral teaching as a whole. As he says:

Those who make self-love a matter for reproach ascribe it to those who award the biggest share of money, honors, and bodily pleasures to themselves. For these are the goods desired and eagerly pursued by the many on the assumption that they are best. That is why they are also contested. Those who overreach for these goods gratify their appetites and in general their feelings and the non-rational part of the soul; and this is the character of the many. That is why the application of the term [self-love] is derived from the most frequent [kind of self-love] which is base. This type of self-lover, then, is justifiably reproached.

And plainly it is the person who awards himself these goods whom the many habitually call a self-lover. For if someone is always eager above all to do just or temperate actions or any other actions in accord with the virtues, and in general always gains for himself what is fine, no one will call him a self-lover or blame him for it. This sort of person, however, more than the other sort, seems to be a self-lover. At any rate he awards himself what is finest and best of all, and gratifies the most controlling part of himself, obeying it in everything. And just as a city and every other composite system seems to be above all its most controlling part, the same is true for a human being; hence someone loves himself most if he likes and gratifies this part.[15]

So it is the eudaimonist’s claim that happiness consists in the primarily non-physical or non-material goods and activities that make genuinely other-regarding virtues like justice and friendship possible within a moral philosophy where the pursuit of one’s own happiness is of paramount importance. The one who pursues happiness rightly understood pursues goods that are, by nature, sharable. Unlike the so-called “external” goods of money or possessions, spiritual goods like virtue and knowledge are not lost once they are given. If I give you $100, I am ipso facto $100 poorer. But if I succeed in imparting knowledge or virtue, I am not thereby that much more ignorant or vicious. In fact (and I speak more from personal experience here than as an interpreter of Aristotle) if I fail to share such non-material goods with others, I do in fact run the risk of losing them.

3.  For the Eudaimonist, Happiness is Distinct from Joy or Pleasure

From the foregoing remarks, it should be obvious that eudaimonism is largely incomprehensible to a materialist, for whom the term happiness is usually taken to be a synonym for pleasure. Aristotle himself makes the distinction at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics during a rough survey of the many things with which people tend to identify happiness. Among them are wealth, honor, and, most commonly, pleasure. In book one of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle tends to dismiss pleasure as something that only the most vulgar (even if the majority) of people pursue above all else, and this sort of life is to be rejected as a “one suitable for grazing animals.”[16]

Nonetheless, Aristotle’s somewhat cavalier dismissal of pleasure at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics is redeemed by a much fuller treatment of it in book 10, where the advocates of pleasure are taken much more seriously, and where their valid insights are acknowledged. The identification of happiness with pleasure, though, is ruled out by Aristotle’s earlier argument that happiness must be a kind of activity. To be sure, human beings take pleasure in various kinds of activity, but one should not confuse the pleasure enjoyed with the activity itself. The real question, the controversial question, is in what activity happiness consists. Once that it determined, one can go further to assert what is the highest form of pleasure, but one should not confuse the activity with the pleasure itself.

In discussing this, I am always reminded of a scene in film Conan the Barbarian (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) in which a damsel in awe of the great barbarian says, “I suppose nothing hurts you,” to which Conan responds, “only pain.” As humorous as this is, Aristotle would say the person who identifies happiness with pleasure is equally confused. Pleasures should not only be ranked according to greater or lesser intensity, but according to the different kinds of activity in which we take pleasure, which may be more or less (shall we say) sublime. The real question for happiness, then, is not “in what activity to we experience the most intense pleasure?” but rather “what is the highest, most noble activity?” It will then follow that the pleasure we take in that activity will be the most sublime pleasure.

A similar mistake is made if one identifies happiness with joy. As Josef Pieper observed, “happiness and joy are not the same. For what does the fervent craving of joy mean? It does not mean that we wish at any cost to experience the psychic state of being joyful. We want to have reason for joy, for an unceasing joy that fills us utterly, sweeps all before it, exceeds all measure. This reason is, if it exists, anterior to joy, and is in itself something different from joy. Joyousness necessarily implies an “about something”; we cannot rejoice in the absolute; there is no joy for joy’s sake. This something, this reason, is our possessing or receiving a thing we desire. [As Aquinas remarked], “Possession of the good is the cause of rejoicing.” This having and partaking of the good is primary; joy is secondary. In the Summa Theologiae, these ideas are expressed in the following manner: “Therefore a person rejoices because he possesses a good appropriate to him—whether in reality, or in hope, or at least in memory. The appropriate good, however, if it is perfect, is precisely the man’s happiness . . . Thus it is evident that not even the joy which follows the possession of the perfect good is the essence of happiness itself.”[17]

4. For the Eudaimonist, Human Nature is Inherently Teleological

Perhaps this has been the elephant in the room for many of you. To be sure, this is where the eudaimonist will lose most, otherwise sympathetic, people. For the whole project of rooting morality in the pursuit of an objective and ultimate end, and of distinguishing that ultimate end from the fickle pursuits of pleasure, depends on the claim that there is, indeed, such an end to be pursued. But has not, one might argue, this entire view of human nature, along with the view of nature of which it is a part, been debunked by modern science and especially by modern evolutionary theory? Is not the belief that humans have a purpose to fulfill not of their own choosing counter to Darwin’s discovery, according to which no special is goal directed, regarding the evolution of species?

But is the refutation of eudaimonism really just a matter of settled science? Hardly. Granted that Darwin’s account of how the human species evolves avoids any appeal to teleology or purposefulness, it does not follow that teleological understandings of human nature are refuted by it. Even granting that Darwin’s claims about the origin of the human species are true (as most educated people acknowledge it is), it is quite another thing to say that Darwinian science provides a sufficient account of the human species. To do so is essentially to assume that a comprehensive anthropology can be given strictly on the basis of material causes. I use the word “assume” here quite intentionally, because nothing in Darwinian science provides one with reasons for thinking that material causes are the only kinds of causes there are. The mere fact that modern science limits itself to material causes is not reason for thinking that formal and final causality have been displaced by modern science. True, philosophical arguments have certainly been given for an exclusively materialist worldview, but they hardly belong to the canons of modern science, let alone settled science.

These are just some of the reasons why a broadly Platonic or Aristotelian eudaimonist morality is still relevant today, if only defended by a minority of philosophers. I have attempted in this talk to outline some of the distinctive features of that morality, and I have done so without discussing what its primary adherents have claimed the activity of happiness to consist in, namely, contemplation. Of course, to do so would require another lecture of greater length and significantly greater complexity. Aristotle’s own emphasis in the Nicomachean Ethics is upon the activity of contemplation, which he says is best because it’s a function of what is highest or most divine in us.[18]

This should be juxtaposed with Plato’s and Aquinas’ emphasis upon the object of contemplation, for human happiness certainly does not consist in the contemplation of fruit flies, but in the intellectual gaze, in Aquinas’ words, upon the uncreated good, the unmoved mover, or God. This final good, or whole good, is the only thing in Plato’s mind capable of deterring the erotic Glaucon, and perhaps our own restless hearts, from the seductive amoral life of power and acquisition represented by Thrasymachus. In the end, that amoral life will never be rivalled by an argument that it’s better to be moral, but only by one that points to something much sweeter and richer and by which we are much better off allowing ourselves to be seduced. This is the essence of eudaimonism.



[1] Singer, Peter, Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 317.

[2] See Anscombe, G.E.M., “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy 33, no. 124 (1958), 1-19, and MacIntyre, After Virtue (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984). Although MacIntyre’s work is influential in the contemporary virtue ethics movement, one should be careful not to conclude that he is in any way part of that movement.

[3] Due to lack of space, I have had to speak somewhat dogmatically in this paragraph. For a recent and full critique of the contemporary virtue ethics movement in light of the Aristotelian tradition, see Jonathan Sanford’s forthcoming Before Virtue: Assessing Contemporary Virtue Ethics (Washington DC: CUA Press, 2015).

[4] Plato, The Republic, Allan Bloom, trans. (Basic Books: 1991), 338c.

[5] Ibid., 344b

[6] Ibid., 344c

[7] Ibid., 357a-362c

[8] I am indebted to Thomas L. Pangle for showing me the central role that Glaucon’s eroticism plays in the teaching of the Republic.

[9] Copleston, Frederick, A History of Philosophy, vol. 1 (New York: Image Books, 1993), 266.

[10] See Pinckaers, Morality: The Catholic View (South Bend, IN: Saint Augustine’s Press, 2001), chapters 3 and 4.

[11] Jensen, Steven, Knowing the Natural Law: From Preceptsand Inclinations to Deriving Oughts, forthcoming from The Catholic University of America Press (Washington D.C., 2015), ch. 8.

[12] Nicomachean Ethics, 1107a10

[13] See, for instance, Julia Driver’s observation that having a virtue theory does not necessarily imply a virtue ethics in “The Virtues and Human Nature,” in How Should One Live? ed. Roger Crisp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), n 1.

[14] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Terence Irwin, trans. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999), 1156b10

[15] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Terrence Irwin, trans. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1999), 1168b23-35

[16] Ibid., 1095b20

[17] Pieper, Josef, Happiness and Contemplation (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1988), 45-46. The quotations from Aquinas are from the Summa Theologiae, Prima Secundae, Q. 2, a. 6 and Q. 2, a. 7, respectively.

[18] NE, 1177a15

Peter KoritanskyPeter Koritansky

Peter Koritansky

Peter Koritansky is an Associate Professor of History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada. He is author and editor of several books, with the latest being Human Nature, Contemplation, and the Political Order: Essays Inspired by Jacques Maritain's Scholasticism and Politics (Catholic University, 2014).

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