Happiness and Pleasure in European Thought

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Most contemporary understandings of happiness are hedonic: happiness is a state of feeling most precisely defined by the subject of the feeling. Happiness in this sense is subjective and can be of brief duration. Ancient discussions of happiness, however, revolve around the Greek term eudaimonia, and while this word is commonly translated as "happiness," it has a different meaning and scope than hedonic understandings of happiness.

Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) gives the earliest complete discussion of eudaimonia in the Nicomachean Ethics where he says eudaimonia is the one final overall good we aim at. Eudaimonia is complete, self-sufficient, and most choice-worthy; it applies to the life as a whole, not to a transitory and subjective sensory state, and so functions like a "life plan." The specification of eudaimonia as the final end for an individual is necessarily thin in Aristotle, corresponding to a general notion of one's life going well. Aristotlewhile recognizing disagreement about what constitutes living welladds substance to eudaimonia by stating in Nicomachean Ethics 1.7 that this highest human good is an "activity of the soul in conformity with virtue," thus linking eudaimonia with his theory of the virtues. Eudaimonia, then, is ultimately located in the bios theoretikos ("contemplative life") and hence highly dependent on a teleological biology.

Linking eudaimonia with an individual's final end produced two broad categories of commentary on the eudaimonistic tradition. Some critics argue that eudaimonistic focus on the bios theoretikos divorces one's own happiness from broader ethical or moral considerations, and so conclude that the eudaimonistic tradition had no conception of genuine moral virtues. Most current readers of the eudaimonistic tradition, however, see no conflict between the pursuit of individual happiness and external considerations, hence eudaimonism can encompass ethical and altruistic components.

The Hellenistic Era

Hellenistic thinkers agree with Aristotle that eudaimonia is the final end for humans but differ in their description of what happiness consists. The broadest school of Hellenistic philosophy, the Stoics, held that happiness consisted in a disposition to restrict one's will and achieve a state of ataraxia, or tranquility. This means that one must reduce one's desires as nearly as possible to those that can be satisfied autonomously; these turn out to be largely internally regulated. Maintaining ataraxia against external vicissitudes allows impassivity in the face of changing fortune and an eudaimonistic life. Eudaimonia for the Stoics was similar in this sense to the beliefs of classical thinkers: it held that happiness was a way in which one lived as opposed to a subjective emotional state.

One notable exception in Hellenistic thinking on happiness is Epicurean philosophy. While the Epicureans held similar views on the place of happiness in a human life, their views on what happiness was came closest in the ancient world to hedonic conceptions of happiness. But there is an important distinction to be kept in mind in making this comparison. While Epicurus (341270 b.c.e.) held that happiness consisted in staving off unpleasant sensations, he said one does this by keeping one's needs simple and easily satisfied. The reason for this was that Epicurus held that pleasures are largely products of the mind, and that consequently people can find greater pleasure through the mind than by pursuing things that most people mistakenly believe to be greater pleasures.

The Medieval View

Medieval discussions of happiness link discussions of happiness with proximity to or contemplation of the divine. Saint Augustine of Hippo (354430 c.e.) follows the Greeks in emphasizing that all men desire happiness but makes a distinction between fleeting forms of happiness found in earthly existence and true happiness, which is found in the divine. Most human beings mistake hedonic forms of happiness for true happiness, which comes only from proximity to God. Thomas Aquinas (c. 12241274) agrees, following Aristotle's discussion of final ends, adding that happiness consists in the operation of speculative rather than practical intellect, which in turn leads one to the divine.

Modern Views on Happiness

In the modern epoch, the notion of happiness has narrowed considerably. Immanuel Kant (17241804) plays a principal role in this development in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. There, he establishes his deontological moral theory, which has no room for happiness since moral actions are undertaken out of a sense of duty rather than from a psychological state or feeling. In this view, any "moral" system based on happiness amounts to hedonism, which cannot possibly provide the groundwork for morality. As such, the importance of happiness in ancient virtue ethics gets severely undercut.

Act Utilitarianism

In some ways, then, Kant's deontological system opens the door for defenses of happiness, and consequentialism emerged in this role. Of course, happiness in the consequentialist accounts is treated much more vaguely than it was in the virtue ethics accounts. Utilitarianism, especially as promoted by Jeremy Bentham (17481832), provides a counterview to both the virtue ethicists and the deontologists. Bentham's version of utilitarianism establishes it as a hedonistic view in which the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain are classified as good. On the face of it, Bentham appears to be reviving the ancient Epicurean view, especially since, like the Epicureans, Bentham contends that humans naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain. But Epicurean hedonism differs from Benthamite hedonism insofar as the Epicureans grounded their view in ataraxia, which corresponds quite well with the ancient view of happiness or eudaimonia. Bentham's hedonism contains no such ground. Instead, what makes an action good is not its effect on the psychological state of the actor but rather the consequences of the action for the (narrow) happiness of the actor. An action is good if its consequences are good (i.e., if the action maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain).

Rule Utilitarianism

This "act utilitarianism" has been criticized because it only seems to consider the consequences of an act for the actor and therefore leaves aside the consequences of an action for others. As a result, John Stuart Mill (18061873) and John Austin (17901859) proposed a system of "rule utilitarianism" in which actions would be deemed moral based upon their adherence to a specific rule of conduct that has the best overall consequences. Of course some, principally David Lyons (b. 1935), have argued that rule utilitarianism amounts to the same thing as act utilitarianism since it would simply suggest that the same sorts of acts be followed as in act utilitarianism. The only apparent difference between the two systems is that they follow different methods in order to arrive at the same place.

John Rawls

In more recent years, philosophers have returned in some ways to views of happiness that are quite similar to that of the virtue ethicists. John Rawls (19212002), in A Theory of Justice (1971), provides the best example. Consciously drawing on Aristotle, Rawls claims that "a person's good is determined by what is for him the most rational long-term plan of life given reasonably favorable circumstances. A man is happy when he is more or less successfully in the way of carrying out this plan" (pp. 9293). The favorable circumstances to which Rawls refers are found in his "primary goods," a notion that links up well with the importance of "external goods" in Aristotle's system. Primary goods, like Aristotle's external goods, are the "necessary means" to achieving "one's system of ends" (p. 93). As such, at least among certain philosophers the view of happiness has refocused on the virtue ethics' position. Still, this is a far cry from saying what Aristotle was able to say in the Nicomachean Ethics, namely, that the identification of eudaimonia (or happiness) as the final good for humans was a platitude. We have surely not gotten back to this position on happiness.

See also Emotions ; Epicureanism ; Stoicism ; Utilitarianism .


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Tim Duvall

Jeffrey Miller

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