An argument for “happiness” as opposed to “flourishing”

There is a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction among Anglophone Aristotelians and Thomists over rendering the Greek eudaimonia or Latin beatitudo as “happiness”. Happiness, so the argument goes, is an English term for a sense of pleasant living, reasonable adjustment to one’s circumstances, and freedom from depression or anxiety. Whatever value there might be to such a state, it does not indicate that one is doing what he ought or is to be set forth an an ideal for human life, both of which are elements in the A-T account of eudaimonia/ beatitudo. It certainly doesn’t make sense to have a happiness phone survey on the A-T account of things, at least unless the survey asked some objective questions about what degree of virtue was attained by those being called.

Initially, happiness tends to mean something more or less easy to get – within pretty broad limits, if you do anything long enough you’ll come to see what you do as important and valuable, and in this sense you’ll get some sort of satisfaction and even fulfillment from it. In this sense happiness just involves routine. In an even looser sense, we consider ourselves happy if we’re not depressed or afflicted with some sort of crippling mental illness, which makes everyone usually happy in the same way that everyone is usually not bedridden.

Happiness in these senses is just doing of some meaningful task. We cannot, however, make things meaningful just by doing them, and so there is a logical necessity to question whether the meaning we derive from our activities is genuine. This first happiness is therefore necessarily interrupted by the question whether this sort of happiness is substantial or just a facade

And so the sort of happiness that basically everyone has – freedom from mental illness with a daily routine – logically implies the question of genuine happiness as soon as we realize that we can’t make something meaningful just by deriving some sort of enjoyment or fulfillment from it. Sain another way,  the foundational question of “Le Sens du sens” arises in the face of the run-of-the-mill happiness that everyone can get, which means it must raise the question of exactly that sort of happiness we want to target in A-T ethics. 

In fact, happiness has a two-tier structure to it, where there is a general and common sense that points to a more fundamental sense. It is similar to the term want in the sense that if we see someone doing something stupid or harmful we can tell him “you don’t want to do that”, even when there is no question that they want it. Just as we want what “we don’t want” so too we are happy with what doesn’t make us happy.



1 Comment

  1. thenyssan said,

    December 13, 2013 at 11:47 am

    It’s mid-term time over here, so I’ve got my juniors hashing through this question now. They have to come up with a good explanation for the happiness that we get from misapprehended evils (evils we think are good).

    It is surprisingly hard to get them to drill into this. Some are content to tell me there’s a difference between “perceived happiness” and “real happiness” without telling me what the heck “perceived happiness” is. The other case is more alarming: how readily some give up on the idea of happiness. They are perfectly willing to believe happiness is nothing other than the satisfaction of doing what you set out to do, even acknowledging that sometimes we get exactly what we want and it doesn’t make us happy. They are simply (in their stated opinions) indifferent to the question of happiness.

    This is the point every year where I think Aristotle was right–I can’t teach ethics to the young. I’m stupid enough to keep trying though.

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