This is an old essay from one of my first philosophy units. It’s a bit formal and academic for a blog, but I wanted to post it anyway.
Ancient Greek philosophers such as the Stoics and Aristotle have connected living a happy life with living an ethical life. They argued that in order to achieve happiness, one must live an ethical life. I agree with the argument that one cannot be happy unless they live an ethical life. In saying this, a number of key definitions need to be made and the reasoning for this connection must be explained. I will outline these key definitions based on Aristotle’s approach to virtue ethics and my own views. I will describe Aristotle’s argument for the link between an ethical life and a happy life. I will then put forward my own arguments as to why I agree with the theory. I will argue that there is a direct link between an ethical life and Eudaimonia, and a person cannot live a truly happy life (achieve Eudaimonia) unless they are living an ethical life.
The core terms of the argument must be defined. It is easy to confuse having the emotion happiness with living a happy life. The emotion happiness is temporary, it is not a permanent state of being. Some might make the mistake of believing that to live a happy life you must almost always be in this emotional state of happiness. While this emotion, as well as all other emotions, are an integral part of a happy life, it is not a happy life in itself. My position is that a happy life is one that arises when a person achieves Eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is most accurately translated as human flourishing, but has also been translated to mean happiness or fulfilment (Kraut 2016, Cottingham 1996, 492). To live in Eudaimonia is, in my view, to live a happy life. Next we need to define an ethical life. Essentially, to be ethical is to be virtuous, because a virtuous person is trying to find the supreme good that is the happy life (Cottingham 1996, 493). But now we must define a virtuous person. To define this and look further at the relationship between these terms, I will outline Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics.
Aristotle’s first premise is that all humans desire Eudaimonia, because we never pursue it as a means to an end (Aristotle and Ross 1999, 10). Eudaimonia is always the end goal (Aristotle and Ross 1999, 10). Aristotle argues that because reason is unique to humans and all humans reason, reasoning must be the function of humans (Aristotle and Ross 1999, 11). If the function of a harpist is to play the harp, a good harpist will play the harp well (Cottingham 1996, 493). Equally, if the function of a human is to reason, a good human will reason well (Cottingham 1996, 493). Just as a good harpist becomes good by constantly practicing playing the harp well, a good human becomes good by constantly practicing reasoning well (Cottingham 1996, 493). Reason can recognise patterns of virtue that make for a happy life (Cottingham 1996, 492). For example, a person can reason that they are being cowardly if they often miss out on opportunities, or they may find that they are foolhardy if they often put themselves in danger. A virtuous person will seek out the mean between these using experience and reason; the virtue courage. A virtuous person therefore engages in this reasoning process well to discover the mean, and also has the continual disposition of character that desires to find the mean and act in accordance with it (Cottingham 1996, 492). Being virtuous allows a person to flourish, because it is a state of excellence and is inherently pleasurable (Aristotle and Ross 1999, 13, 26). A virtuous life thereby allows a person to achieve Eudaimonia; a happy life.
Some may disagree with the link between a virtuous life and an ethical life. A virtuous person will do what they believe is right. But a consequentialist might argue that what makes something right is not the thinking of the person who acts, but the consequences of the action (Sinnot-Armstrong 2015). If we look at the previous example [*Note: I reordered this paragraph during editing, the example I refer to is detailed 3 paragraphs down*] – if the friend who is told their partner is cheating on them takes this news badly, they might become depressive and suicidal. The virtuous person believed they were doing the right thing, but the consequences of their action were terrible. According to consequentialist ethics, this was the morally wrong choice. From this standpoint, virtuous actions are not always ethical. However I would argue that the character of the virtuous person is more important than the consequences of their actions. The ethical nature of an action can only be judged by what the actor had control over. Since one can never be in full control of consequences but can always be in control of their own actions, it is in the virtuous disposition behind the action that ethics sits, not in the consequences of the action. If one acts with a virtuous disposition, the act must be ethical.
Considering self-love as a virtue demonstrates an intuitive link between virtuous behaviour and a happy life. Most would agree that no one can flourish if they do not have the capability to treat themselves well and with compassion. People who practice self-love are more likely to lead a happy life. We can think of self-love as a mean between two vices: self-hate and narcissism. If one tends towards self-hate, they will end up very unhappy. Someone who is narcissistic will have a false image of themselves as being perfect and will therefore any flourishing will also be false. Meanwhile, a virtuous person will reason their way towards self-love and thus achieve a happy life.
Someone could note that this virtuous behaviour appears very much self-centred. They could argue that ethics extends beyond the individual to other people as well. This is true, humans are social creatures and empathy is intrinsic to all humans. This empathy can be nurtured and developed through reason and as such can be considered as a mean between two vices (excess and defect of empathy). Virtuous behaviour therefore involves developing a healthy amount of empathy and care for others and while it does focus on the Self, it still allows for the social nature of humans.
Perhaps someone could argue that living an ethical life does not lead to a happy life. They may disagree that flourishing, or Eudaimonia, forms a happy life. They might instead think that a happy life consists mostly of pleasant emotions and experiences, such as happiness, contentedness, comfort, friendship, love and enjoyment. They may argue that being virtuous does not always lead to this state of being. Being virtuous may lead to difficult choices. For instance, a person may need to weigh up the virtue honesty against a valued relationship. They may believe they need to tell a friend that their partner is cheating on them. However if the friend does not want to know the truth and is very unreasonable, the virtuous person may feel great sadness if their friend rejects them or casts them out of their life. In this case the person acted ethically, with virtue, but the consequences caused them sadness. If a virtuous person is making decisions throughout their life that they believe are right but their decisions often, unluckily, result in this outcome, their life may not consist mostly of pleasant emotions. However such a person has acted virtuously and is therefore a good person, who has the disposition required to create a happy life for themselves. To be able to enrich this happy life with pleasant moments, a virtuous person can always counter the sad consequences of their choices with self-love. An ethical life may not always lead to positive experiences, but to be virtuous is necessary to achieve what we all desire: to flourish and live a happy life.
Aristotle argued that Eudaimonia is the ultimate goal of human beings (Cottingham 1996, 492). Since the unique function of humans is to reason, a good human will reason well to achieve this goal (Cottingham 1996, 493). A virtuous person uses reason to find the mean, a state at which excellence is found (Aristotle and Ross 1999, 27). A virtuous person therefore flourishes and achieves Eudaimonia; a happy life (Cottingham 1996, 492). It may be argued that a virtuous life is not an ethical life because consequences are the way in which behaviour can be judged to be ethical or not (Sinnot-Armstrong 2015). Yet whether or not an action is ethical must lie in the disposition of the actor, since that is all a person is able to control. To act with a virtuous disposition means that the action is ethical. A useful example of the link between virtue and a happy life is self-love, as this demonstrates a strong link that is intuitive. While this formula for a happy life is centred on the Self, a person must also show care for the wellbeing of others if they are to be truly virtuous. Being virtuous may not always lead to emotionally happy situations. Indeed, it may sometimes result in sadness. However, being virtuous is necessary for a happy life. In order to be truly happy, humans must live an ethical life.
Aristotle, W.D. Ross. 1999. Nicomachean Ethics. Kitchener: Batoche Books.
Cottingham, John. 1996. Western Philosophy: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell.
Kraut, Richard. 2016. Aristotle’s Ethics. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition). https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/.
Sinnot-Armstrong, Walter. 2015. Consequentialism. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition). https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/.