Maggie and Me (a philosophical dialogue): The Happiness Question, part 3


John: If you recall our September 2017 and October 2017 blog posts, we were discussing why we should be good people, rather than bad people.

Maggie: Yes, I remember. In order to answer that question, we first asked the question “What is it that people want most in life?” We decided that thing is happiness. You then gave us a sneak-peak at the answer: we should be good because being good leads to happiness.

John: Do you remember why this is the case?

Maggie: Sure, it’s because happiness is not a feeling or emotion. Rather, it is more like doing well or having well-being, and can be defined as (i) an activity, (ii) of the soul, (iii) in accordance with complete virtue, (iv) extending over a complete life, (v) with sufficient external goods. The third part of the definition is the most important part for what we are talking about, and it shows that we need to be virtuous to be happy.

John: Yes, that’s correct. And then we started unpacking the definition to provide more clarity. In the last blog post we discussed what it means to say happiness is an activity.

Maggie: Right, to be happy we have to actively practice our virtues. It is not enough to have the potential to be kind, or the characteristic of kindness, for example. We have to actually do kind acts. And you gave an example of an old baseball player named Edgar Martinez to illustrate this point. I asked around, by the way, and nobody my age knows who he is. You should have used somebody like Bruno Mars to make your point.

John: All right, your point is a good one: I’m old! I will try to find better examples. But Edgar is still the greatest hitter ever. And it’s my blog, so I am making this point!

Maggie: Okay, okay. I admit Edgar is great. But we are getting off topic. In this blog post we decided to discuss parts (ii), (iv), and (v) of the definition.      

John: That’s right. So let’s get to work.

(ii) Of the Soul: A person is made up of three parts, for purposes of our discussion: a physical part, an emotive part, and a rational part.

The physical part is concerned with nutrition and growth, and we have this part in common with plants and animals. The emotive part is concerned with our emotions and feelings, and we share this with other animals. The rational part is concerned with reasoning. The science is unclear on the extent to which we share this with other animals, but it is pretty clear that no other animals have the moral reasoning powers of human beings.

When we say happiness is an activity of the soul, we are talking about the rational and emotive part of the soul. To be happy we must actively use our rationality to ask the right questions, gain correct insights, make good judgments, and foster sound decisions. Our emotions, when properly trained, also help us do this; in fact, trained emotions make decision making even easier and more reliable.  For example, have you ever felt guilty about not doing something to help another person?

Maggie: Yes, yesterday I saw this young girl in my class crying and I felt guilty because I didn’t go over and try to help her.

John: It is good that you felt guilty. That means you have trained your emotions to feel guilty in those situations, which will assist you in making the right decision the next time.

Happiness requires that we put our reasoning and emotions to work. But don’t forget the third part of the definition: we have to put them to work “in accordance with complete virtue.” You can’t use your reasoning and emotions for wrong, immoral, or unlawful activity and still expect to be happy.

(iv) Extending Over a Complete Life: This part of the definition arises from the realization that tragedy can strike at any time, to any person, and we never know what our response to that tragedy will be. In the case of Job from the Old Testament, for example, he maintained his virtue throughout his extended tragedy. Hamlet, the young Danish prince, on the other hand, responded to tragedy with intrigue and murder.    

In other words, happiness is not something that you can measure at any particular moment in time, because you never know what life is going to throw your way or how you will respond to life’s tragedies. You can certainly experience the feeling of joy at any given moment, and that is a good thing; but happiness can only be fully measured over your complete life.  

(v) With Sufficient External Goods: To be happy, we need a few external goods: food to eat; water to drink; clothing to keep us warm; good health; and family and friends with whom to socialize and have conversation. We don’t need a lot of these external goods, but we need a sufficient amount to maintain our physical and mental health. This will enable us to have the time, energy, and inclination to pursue virtuous activities.

This does not mean we cannot be virtuous without external goods. Certainly we can. On the spectrum of happiness, a person can fall anywhere between the two extremes, including in the middle:

happy‹—›maintain virtue in tragedy‹—›wretched

But people who are required to spend all their time finding food and water do not have time to worry about doing good acts, nor should they. People who are shut-ins do not have others on whom to practice virtue. People who are sick do not have the energy to be active. These folks certainly can be virtuous, but few would call them happy.

On a side note, this is why we should provide food and clothing to the homeless, heath care to the poor, and friendship to the lonely. In doing so, we can facilitate their happiness and, ironically, our own.



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