What virtue adds to happiness

The absence of a robust account of the virtues is, arguably, the greatest weakness of modern happiness studies (MHS) which attempts to explain its object in an empirical, quantitative and predictive manner. I think this is due largely to having neglected philosophical traditions of inquiry, in particular, Aristotelian ethics.

I suggest that recovering Aristotelian virtue ethics can give a stronger foundation and greater coherence to many of the findings of MHS. It can also help explain various difficulties, for instance, regarding the objectivity or subjectivity of happiness, its precise measurement and correlations with a host of indicators such as income, hormone concentration, brain activity, character traits, consumption patterns, demographic markers, employment status, quality of political institutions and so forth.

Indeed, the picture of happiness that has emerged from MHS is one filled with paradoxes. For happiness, it claims, lies not in the abundance of material goods (money, pleasures), but in generous self-giving. It is achieved not when one concedes absolute value to freedom of choice, but when one learns realistically to accept limitations. Moreover, despite being proposed as the final goal of human life to be attained only when shared with others, it seems to be best pursued indirectly, almost like a supervening by-product of an “autotelic” or self-contained activity.

Something more, something else…

Due to its neoclassical economic origins and background, MHS has always understood happiness in relation to consumption. As a result, happiness has been commodified, transformed into something produced, sold and bought, ultimately, to be consumed. Consumption, then, becomes the activity through which individuals are supposed to achieve happiness, and consumerism is put forward as the best overall lifestyle.

In due course, a large part of MHS has documented the dysfunctionalities modern consumerism has produced, such as radical individualism (“me first” in everything), the absolutization of the freedom of choice divorced from reason and commitments, and the deification of pleasure, among others. Underlying these phenomena is a desire that has gone mad and self-destructive, because consumerism is not the desire of something, but the “desire of desire” above all. Indeed, as Cavanaugh (Being consumed) pointedly remarks, “consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else.”

And unfortunately, there will always be something else to be had. By inserting individuals into an endless cycle of working, selling and buying, only to work, sell and buy even more, consumerism has fallen miserably on the promise of happiness. Worse, it has even taken over the sense of identity, belonging and meaning in the lives of many, for consuming has become, not so much something we do, but who we are.

Virtue and freedom

Virtues, on the other hand, allow us to harness the power of desires such that they actually lead to happiness, keeping their destructive potential in check. Far from being inimical to freedom, virtues require freedom. Formation in the virtues through proper habituation and education —for Aristotle, the primordial task for legislators— only makes sense within the context of freedom.

Freedom exists on three levels. Physical freedom consists in an openness or capacity for activity in accordance with nature. Next comes psychological freedom or freedom of choice, the sovereignty of individual will. The third level of freedom is moral freedom. Unlike the first two which are “givens,” moral freedom is the result of a struggle or conquest. Physical freedom and psychological freedom are “negative freedoms,” from contrary physical forces and psychological determinants, respectively. Moral freedom is a “positive freedom,” directed toward a goal superior and greater than one’s natural condition. Moral freedom is achieved when one develops good habits or virtues.

Choosing the good

While physical freedom corresponds to a certain “power,” and psychological freedom, to a “power to choose,” moral freedom builds up on both as a “power to choose the good”; that is, a “power to choose that which perfects one’s nature and being.” Thanks to the virtues that constitute moral freedom, human beings are able to widen the scope of “natural freedoms,” increasing and intensifying them. Virtuous habits enable people to perform more good actions and perform them better, not only from the objective viewpoint of the actions themselves, but also from their own subjective viewpoint, in terms of the agent’s “moral skill,” pleasure or satisfaction.

Think of how one improves through practice in playing a musical instrument or engaging in a sport, until he becomes a “virtuoso”. Most importantly, virtues allow individuals to create and take part in the common good of happiness or flourishing within the political community.

Not having, but becoming

The consumerist model of happiness is built primarily upon having material things and doing with them whatever produces the greatest amount of pleasure for the individual self. This corrupts desire, exacerbating it instead of satisfying it. For in truth, happiness is not a commodity to be produced, sold and bought.

Thus, the virtue model goes beyond having and doing, and enters into the realm of becoming. It is based upon the rational use of freedom as the power to choose and do the good in a habitual manner. Virtues do not only improve objective or external results of an individual’s actions, but they also perfect the individual subjectively or internally, making him a better person.

Herein lies the superiority of the virtue model over the consumerist model. Happiness is not something one acquires or simply does, but something one intentionally becomes. First and foremost, it is a matter of being the right sort of person by developing the proper virtues of character.

Happiness as the reward of one’s own nature

Perhaps we could sum up Aristotle’s recipe for happiness (eudaimonia) in the following conditions. First, one needs to be born into the right institutions, including the family, intermediate groups and political community, something which to a large extent is, admittedly, a matter of luck.

Otherwise, one should be able to collaborate with others in successfully transforming these institutional contexts into properly functioning ones from the viewpoint of human nature. In second place —although equally necessary and important— comes a series of elements that depend more on the exercise of one’s free agency, such as having enough, doing good and becoming an excellent person by cultivating the virtues.

Only then could one reasonably aspire to achieve happiness (eudaimonia), not as right to be claimed against the State, but indirectly, as a gift or reward of one’s own nature.

Alejo José G. Sison teaches philosophy at the University of Navarre. He is the author of “Happiness and Virtue Ethics in Business. The Ultimate Value Proposition” (Cambridge University Press, 2015).


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