In the light of what Aristotle says, we might offer ‘worthwhile life’ as the most appropriate translation of his word ‘eudaimonia’. For Aristotle, this ‘happiness’ must be an end rather than a means and it must be some good, or set of goods, that in itself makes life worth living. Aristotle suggests that there are three lives that might be classified as happy: a life of pleasure, a life of politics, and a life of study. In his lesser known, but more professional treatise, the Eudemian Ethics, he claims that the happy life must combine the features of all three of these elements.
Nature, training, learning, luck and divine favour all play a part in the acquisition of happiness according to Aristotle. In the centuries following Aristotle’s life, each of these elements has been seized upon by one or other later thinker as crucial.
All the thinkers considered in this chapter regard happiness both as a motive in advance of action, and as a benefit resulting from action, but from there opinions diverge. Different philosophers link these two features of happiness in different directions. Bentham and his followers start from utility as a satisfactory goal, and seek the means to achieve it. Aristotelians start from our desire to have a good life, and ask what kind of end state will possess the features that are built into our desire.
For many centuries the dominant account was that supreme happiness was a gift of God, obtainable only through divine grace. For Augustine and Aquinas, happiness demanded, in addition to moral virtues like courage and temperance and intellectual excellences such as knowledge and understanding, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, and these were gifts of God that might be freely given or denied. The happiness that was the reward of these virtues could be fully enjoyed only in the next life; on the other hand the imperfect happiness that attached to a life of virtue in this world was compatible with an almost complete lack of worldly goods. By comparison with Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, the utilitarians were much more optimistic about the possibility of achieving true happiness in the present life (which, for most of them, was the only life).
Again, while everyone agrees that happiness can motivate action, there are some who think that happiness is a necessary goal (every action is consciously or unconsciously aimed at happiness) while others think of it only as a possible motive, and not necessarily an ultimate goal. Related to this, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas all founded morality on a basis that is ultimately self-centred. To be sure, Aristotle admitted that a happy man would need friends, and that even a philosopher could philosophise better in company. Again, Augustine and Aquinas taught that we must love our neighbour, as we are commanded to do by the God whose vision we seek. But in each case the concern for the welfare of others is presented as a means to an ultimate goal of self-fulfilment. The first philosopher in the Christian tradition to break with this eudaimonism was the fourteenth century Oxford Franciscan, John Duns Scotus.
The disagreement between Aquinas and Scotus on the link between happiness and morality was replayed, in a different key, at the end of the eighteenth century between Bentham and Kant. Bentham, like Aquinas, made happiness the central concept of morality. Kant, like Scotus, thought that morality needed a different basis: he called it the sense of duty.
'The greatest happiness of the greatest number’ is an impressive slogan: but when probed it turns out to be riddled with ambiguity. The first question to be raised is ‘greatest number of what?’ A second question about the principle of utility is this: should individuals, or politicians, in following the greatest happiness principle attempt to exercise control over the number of candidates for happiness we have to strike a difficult balance between quantity of happiness and quantity of people. Third, if I am, in fact, predetermined in every action to aim at maximising my own pleasure, what point is there in telling me that I am obliged to maximise the common good? Happiness, Kant argues in his Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, cannot be the ultimate purpose of morality:
Suppose now that for a being possessed of reason and will the real purpose of nature were his preservation, his welfare, or in a word his happiness. In that case nature would have hit on a very bad arrangement by choosing reason in the creature to carry out this purpose. For all the actions he has to perform with this end in view, and the whole rule of his behaviour, would have been mapped out for him far more accurately by instinct; and the end in question could have been maintained far more surely by instinct than it ever can be by reason .
Because of the overwhelming influence of Kant, many moral philosophers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries lost interest in the study of happiness. The utilitarians, of course, continued to pay homage to the concept, but their interests began to diverge in two different directions. The philosophers among them were mainly interested in the relationship between utilitarianism and other moral intuitions, while the economists sought to explore what methods were available to measure utility.
In the Twentieth Century, the behaviourist account of emotions and feelings was a crude oversimplification that did not long remain popular with philosophers and psychologists. It lasted long enough, however, to infect the thought of economists who wished to offer an operational definition of utility. They sought for measurable behaviour that would constitute happiness in the way that, for Watson, crying, cooing, and gurgling constituted more basic emotions. Surely, in economic terms, the behaviour most indicative of satisfaction is the set of actual choices that a person makes in his market transactions. So economists such as Robbins and Samuelson developed the theory that utility was nothing other than the revealed preferences of those who purchased goods or services.
If we reflect upon the different accounts of happiness given in philosophical, psychological, and economic tradition, we may conclude that there are three distinct elements to be identified in human well-being. We may call them welfare, dignity and contentment. Welfare, in the most obvious sense of material welfare, consists in the satisfaction of one’s animal needs, for food, drink, shelter and the other things that conduce to bodily flourishing. Welfare is the least controversial element in well-being. Almost all philosophers who have considered the topic have considered it either a constituent or a necessary condition of happiness.
Dignity is a much more complicated notion to define. We may say initially that it involves the control of one’s own destiny and the ability to live a life of one’s choice. But in addition, it seems to be necessary for total well-being that one’s chosen way of life should have worth in itself, and should enjoy the respect of others. Contentment is what is expressed by self-ascriptions of happiness. It is not so much a feeling or a sensation as an attitude or state of mind; but of the elements of well-being it is the one that is closest to the utilitarian idea of happiness.
The three items that we have identified correspond to the unalienable human rights whose existence the American Declaration of Independence regarded as a self-evident truth: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. ‘Life’, broadly interpreted, includes the necessities that we have entitled ‘welfare’. ‘Liberty’ is the foundation of a career of dignity. And the ‘happiness’ that was to be pursed was conceived of by the founding fathers as a state of contentment, such as was soon to be given the name of ‘utility’.