Maggie and Me (a philosophical dialogue): The Happiness Question, part 1

Maggie: Why should I try to be good? Why should I try to be virtuous? When I look around I see people having great success who are neither good nor virtuous, and some who are just out and out bad.

John: This is a wonderful question and one that philosophers have been wrestling with for centuries. We could answer this in one very long response, but I would rather unpack the question and examine the issues over three or four blog posts. We will call this series of blog posts the “Happiness Question.”  

The first thing we need to do is answer the question “What is the chief goal or ultimate end in life?” We can also ask it this way: “What is it that every person wants or desires?”

There have been a lot of different answers to this question over the years, but I think we can reduce them down to the three different options discussed below.

1. Pleasure. Some people have suggested that pleasure is what every person wants in life. They have defined pleasure differently over the years, to be sure. Some have defined it as bodily pleasure, to be found through drugs, alcohol, food, or sex. Some have defined it as intellectual pleasure, to be found in ideas, books, blogs, or conversation. And, some have defined it as emotional pleasure, to be found through relationships and love. We see this often in teenagers and young adults, who want self-gratification beyond everything else.

But I don’t think pleasure is really what everyone desires. It is not that pleasure is necessarily a bad thing, but seeking pleasure as our chief goal in life reduces us to our basest instincts. It makes us a slave to our passions. More importantly, pleasure is really just a means to another end.

2. Honor. Some people have suggested that honor is what every person should pursue in life. Respect, praise, adulation, and even fear from our fellow human beings is the chief goal of living. We see this often in politicians, business leaders, and religious leaders who love power more than they love people.

But again, I don’t think honor is really the best good or ultimate end in life. The chief good should be something of our own and hard to take from us, and honor depends more on those who do the honoring than on the individual herself. And like pleasure, it is really just a means to another end.

3. Money. Occasionally someone will suggest that making money and being rich is the chief goal in life. We sometimes see this in athletes and Hollywood actors. But this idea is silly. Money is clearly a means to some other end and, thus, cannot be our chief pursuit.

Maggie: Okay, I get it. Our chief goal in life—that thing that everyone really wants—cannot be a means to another end. Are there any other criteria you can tell me about to help me identify this goal?

John: You keep asking good questions. Yes, there are other criteria. Aristotle lists three, including the one you just mentioned.

The chief goal must be complete, which means the end must be chosen for itself and never as a means to another end. It must be self-sufficient, which means it must make life good all by itself, without the need for anything else.   And it must be fully choice-worthy, which means it is chosen solely for itself, and nothing can be added to it to make it better.

Those are the three criteria: complete, self-sufficient, and choice-worthy. Can you think of anything that fits those criteria?

Maggie: Well, since you already told me the answer because you can’t keep a secret, yes! The answer is happiness. That is the chief goal of our lives, the thing that everyone wants in life.

John: Can you define happiness for us? Is it an emotion or something like that?

Maggie: I know it’s not an emotion, or a feeling, or something easily taken away.

John: Yes, yes, you are correct.

Aristotle has a great definition of happiness. He says that happiness is (i) an activity, (ii) of the soul, (iii) in accordance with complete virtue, (iv) extending over a complete life, (v) with sufficient external goods.

We will begin deconstructing this definition in the next blog post. But I will give you a sneak-peak. The third part of the definition says that true happiness requires virtue, which is why you should strive to be a good person.  So you can be happy.

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