Happiness and Morality

For many people in today’s world, the question as to whether they can live both a moral life and be happy is answered firmly in the negative.  However, if we turn to the beginning of the most famous sermon that Jesus gave, the Sermon on the Mount, and His beatitudes, He gives a different answer.  The Beatitudes are Christ’s definitive answer to the question of happiness.  All of the early Church Fathers and even up until the Middle Ages interpreted them that way.  It was not until around the Fourteenth Century that the question of happiness was set aside and the moral life became marked by obligation.  One of the tasks that John XXIII left for the Council Fathers of Vatican II to do was to make the faith more accessible to the world today.  Concretely, one of the ways to do that is to link the Church’s moral teaching back to the notion of happiness.  We see this expressed in the Catechism when it opens the section on the moral life with a discussion of the concept of happiness.  In doing this, the Church is implicitly making the connection between morality and happiness in an attempt to restore an “ethic of the good” or a “morality of happiness” (see CCC, nos.1716-1719).

In order to reconnect these concepts, we must first point out some obvious truths about humanity that may have been forgotten.  The first is that while each person is unique, we all have the same unchangeable human nature.  Times may change, circumstances may change, but there are certain things about mankind that do not.  For instance, the fact that man has a rational nature means that his actions are willed and proceed from calculation and deliberation.  In other words, man’s actions always have an intended purpose.

If then all human activity is end-oriented and we all have the same human nature then there must be a final or dominant end that governs and gives meaning to all other ends.  The Church, in agreement with many of the ancient philosophers says that this ultimate end is happiness.  St. Augustine said, “we all want to live happily; in the whole human race there is no one who does not assent to this proposition, even before it is fully articulated” in recognition of the universality of the desire for happiness.

When St. Augustine and his philosophical predecessors use the word happiness, they mean something different than we usually do.  To the modern mind, happiness is synonymous with contentment.  It is seen subjectively as a temporary feeling that is dependent upon chance.  That the word happy comes from the Old English word for “chance” is a perfect illustration of this.

Classically understood though, happiness is a translation of the Greek word eudaemonia.  Etymologically, it consists of the word “eu” meaning “morally good”, “daimōn” meaning “spirit” and “ia” meaning “state”.  Immediately it becomes obvious as to the connection between happiness and moral goodness.  As Peter Kreeft says, this definition of happiness is objective in that it does not rely merely on feeling, is a lasting state as a condition of the spirit or soul, and is dependent not on chance but on God’s grace and our own free choice.

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This definition of happiness captures the intrinsic link between happiness and morality.  But it is not just the word happiness that has been abused.  It’s counterpart—morality—has been distorted as well.  Webster’s dictionary defines it as “a doctrine or system of moral conduct.”  Notice how this seems to refer to a set of rules that reside outside the person.  Instead morality is best understood as the relationship between a human act and the use of man’s nature in fulfilling his final end.  In other words, it intrinsically tied up with what makes us thrive as human beings or what makes us happy.

That morality and happiness are bound is also in the mind of St. Thomas as well.  He says something about sin that only make sense if we keep them together.  He says that “God is offended by us only because we act contrary to our own good.”   Many people view God as the Eternal Killjoy, demanding us to follow His rules.  But as the author of human nature He knows what is best for mankind.  Recalling Augustine’s quote about the innate attraction we all have to the Good, He has given us reason in order to discover those things that make us happy. As Father and not merely Watchmaker, He reminds us of those things that should be done and those that should be avoided through Revelation and the Church.

There is a further implication that can be drawn from the fact that man’s actions proceed from deliberation and that is that his actions are done freely.  As the Angelic Doctor taught us, a correct notion of freedom is important to understanding a morality of happiness.  This idea of freedom  or what is called “freedom for excellence”, is the means by which, exercising both his reason and will, man acts on the natural inclination for truth, for goodness, and for happiness that is part of his nature.  Freedom properly understood then is not primarily the power to do whatever I want, but the power to act according to my nature and according to my true fulfillment.

Once we have a deeper understanding of our own nature, we can see how when we view the moral life through the lens of happiness we can easily move from a rule-centered morality to a virtue-based morality.  Viewed in this fashion the rules no longer seem as arbitrary impositions from the outside, but true prescriptions for human thriving.  This is precisely why the Catechism presents the virtues before it presents the Ten Commandments in its treatment of the moral life.  In maintaining this connection, Christ’s promise that in keeping His commands our joy will be complete is fulfilled. 

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