John: In the past three blog posts we have been discussing why we should be good people, rather than bad people. We concluded early on that we should be good because being good leads to happiness. We then defined happiness 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.
Are we on the same page here?
Maggie: Yes. We then spent time deconstructing (I like that word…) the definition of happiness. We concluded that happiness is an activity, rather than a feeling or character trait. This was the hardest part for me to understand, but it makes sense now. To be happy, we must actively pursue virtuous actions. Doing so benefits both us and others. It benefits us because it helps us maintain and develop our virtues and because it creates those feelings of joy in us that are derived from good acts. It benefits others because we do good acts for others in our families and communities.
We also concluded that happiness is an activity of the rational and emotional parts of the soul, both of which help us make good decisions; our happiness should only be judged at the end of our lives, due to the uncertainty of life; and, that happiness requires some external goods like food, clothing, and friends.
John: Good summary. In this final blog post on the happiness question, we are going to discuss the third part of the definition.
(iii) In Accordance with Complete Virtue: For purposes of answering our question—Why should we be good?—this is the most important part of the definition.
To be happy, our actions must conform to the virtues we are aspiring to achieve and maintain. More precisely stated, to be happy we must use the rational and emotional parts of our souls to help us ask the right questions, gain correct insights, make good judgments, and foster sound decisions, which then leads to virtuous actions.
Let me see if I can illustrate this. Let us suppose you walk into the lunchroom and you see this ninth-grade boy eating by himself. He doesn’t appear to have any friends. You have tried to sit with him before, but he is awkward and shy and a little boring. What do you think you should do?
Maggie: Oh, I know. First I ask the right question: “Should I go sit with him?” I also have to answer any further pertinent and related questions, such as “Does he want to be by himself?” Another important question is “What would a kind and patient person do?” This last question is important because it helps to make sure I am acting in accordance with virtue. After answering these questions, I have to make a judgment and decision about what I should then do based on these answers. Lastly, I have to act on my decision. Is this right?
John: Yes, that is exactly correct.
Maggie: I think I understand the mechanics of the process. My problem with this is that it seems very complicated and impossible to actually do in real life.
John: That is a very real concern, and I am glad you raised it. Let me see if I can address it.
Initially, the process is rather complicated and cumbersome. You have to force yourself to actually go through the steps. But, eventually the process occurs very quickly, for the following reasons.
First, as you gain more experience in life, situations will begin to repeat themselves. In these instances, you will have already processed the questions, answers, judgments, and decisions. So, your actions will appear to occur almost immediately. This is probably the case for most situations in life, as you begin to mature and age.
Second, as we develop virtues, those character traits begin to drive most of our actions. For example, kind people generally act with kindness by habit. They don’t have to give a lot of thought to the correct course of action, because their character helps them make those decisions almost instantaneously.
Third, when our emotions are properly trained to conform to reasonable judgments and decisions, they will greatly assist us in the process. How about some more examples? Have you ever felt joy after buying lunch for a homeless boy or girl? That joy tells you that you made the right decision, in the right place, at the right time. Have you ever felt sadness at seeing a young girl being picked on by other girls in the school hallways? That sadness can help you make a quick decision about intervening and helping the victim.
Maggie: Okay, I get it. It gets easier as we grow in virtue and experience. But probably not any easier for really hard decisions?
John: That is right. Some very challenging ethical problems still take me hours, days, and even weeks before I can make a good decision and act on that decision.
So let’s summarize everything we have said over the past four blog posts.
- We should be good people, because being good leads to happiness.
- What we mean by happiness here is not a feeling or a character trait. It is more like saying you are “doing well.” And the feeling we most associate with happiness—joy—comes when we are in fact doing well.
- We obtain happiness, or this sense of doing well, when we actively use the rational and emotional parts of our souls to make virtuous decisions and act in a virtuous manner.
- But, we also need to have some external goods to be happy, such as food, clothing, and friends. Without these, we won’t have the time or energy to even think about virtuous actions.
- And we shouldn’t judge our happiness until the end of our lives, because we never know how we are going to react to calamity in our lives.
Does this sound right to you?
Maggie: Yes, this all makes sense to me. I should be a good person because being good leads to happiness. It seems pretty simple when all is said and done.