The Philosophy of Happiness

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  • Topic: Ethics, Happiness, Meaning of life
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  • Published : May 19, 2011
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Chapter 1

The Philosophy of Happiness
Aristotle on Happiness Since the earliest days of Western thought philosophers have concerned themselves with the nature of happiness. One of the earliest to ask the question ‘what is happiness?’ was Aristotle, who, in a manner typical of philosophers, before providing an answer insisted on making a distinction between two different questions. His first question was what was meant by the word ‘happiness’—or rather, its ancient Greek equivalent eudaimonia. His second question was where happiness was to be found, that is to say, what is it that makes us truly happy. Reasonably enough he thought that it was futile to try to answer the second question without having given thought to the first. The definition that he offers is that happiness is the supreme good that supplies the purpose, and measures the value, of all human activity and striving. ‘It is for the sake of happiness’ he wrote ‘that we all do everything else we do’ (Aristotle, 2002, 1102a3). This seems a very sweeping statement: surely it is implausible to suggest that every human action is explicitly aimed at some single goal. Indeed, the suggestion is inconsistent with things that Aristotle says elsewhere. He does not seem to wish to rule out the possibility of impulsive actions done for fun without any reference to one’s long-term happiness. What he means rather is that if you plan your life—and any sensible person, he thinks, ought to have a plan of life, at


Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit of Utility

least in the form of a set of priorities—your top priority, your overarching goal, will show what you take to be a worthwhile life, and thus what you mean by ‘happiness’. Indeed, in the light of what Aristotle says, we might offer ‘worthwhile life’ as the most appropriate translation of his word ‘eudaimonia’. But we will continue to use the traditional translation ‘happiness’, where necessary qualifying it as ‘Aristotelian happiness’. Aristotle was well aware that human beings may have the most varied and bizarre notions of what makes them happy. But whatever they present as their ultimate ambition, it must, he thinks, as a matter of logic, pass certain tests if it is genuinely to count as happiness. For there are two features, he maintains, that are built into the very notion of happiness. One is that it must be an end rather than a means. We may do other things for the sake of happiness, but we cannot be happy as a means to some other goal. You may find, perhaps, that being cheerful helps you to make money, and for that reason you resolutely adopt a cheerful frame of mind. But that just shows, Aristotle would say, that cheerfulness is something different from happiness, and if your ultimate aim is to make money for its own sake, what that indicates is that you believe (wrongly) that happiness is to be found in riches. Happiness, he insists, is always sought for its own sake and never for the sake of anything else. The second built-in feature of happiness is that is must be self-sufficient: that is, it must be some good, or set of goods, that in itself makes life worth living. One’s life cannot be truly happy if there is something missing that is an essential ingredient of a worthwhile existence. Moreover, a happy life should, so far as human nature allows, be invulnerable to bad luck; otherwise, the constant fear of losing one’s happiness will diminish that happiness itself. So happiness, Aristotle concludes, must have the properties of independence and stability. On the basis of these definitional features of the concept of happiness, Aristotle was in a position to move on to his second question: in what does happiness consist? What sort of life is actually the most worthwhile? Some things can be ruled out

The Philosophy of Happiness


from the start. There are some occurrences in life, e.g. sickness and pain, which make people want to give up life: clearly these are not what makes life worth living....
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