Recovering a Moral Happiness

Moral Happiness

(Partially adapted from Chapter 4 of Pursuing Justice)

There is a lot of talk these days about self-denial, doing justice, being radical and giving your life away. There are bestsellers on the topic urging us to forget ourselves and study after study deploring the state of our consumer-driven society and our need to focus less on self gratification.

To many, this seems, to cut against our pursuit of happiness.

The temptation might be to think happiness is all about ourselves, about me, about self gratification. As such, it would have little to do with justice and self-denial.

Justice, however, can be argued to have a lot to do with happiness. The book of Proverbs counsels us, “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” Likewise, Jesus himself said, “It is better to give than receive.”

Are these passages true? Do human flourishing, goodness and happiness come from selflessness and sacrifice?

If so, this would be antithetical to how we tend to use the word happiness in contemporary culture—as personal pleasure. Happiness, however, wasn’t always defined in this thin hedonistic way.

Aristotle defined happiness as the chief end of humans. In other words, everything else that we do or value is a means to happiness. Happiness drives ethics and character development because they are a way of fulfilling who we are designed to be: the right kind of virtuous people. As we develop character and become ethical, we begin to fulfill our potential and achieve a state of happiness.

Aristotle codified much of his thinking in a book called Eudemian Ethics. The central idea is the flourishing of human life and happiness and that virtuous pursuits are a necessary step toward that end. But in his other seminal book on ethics, titled Nicomachean Ethics, he wrote, “Both the many and the cultivated call [the good] happiness, and they suppose that living well and doing well are the same as being  happy.”1

Eudaimonia was a Greek word for happiness, and its parts actually mean “good” (eu) and “spirit” [daimon]. Can you imagine, happy ethics or the ethics of happiness? Aristotle sought to define what virtues led to the greatest flourishing and happiness of a person. These virtues, in turn, also produce good societies.

For Aristotle and many of the ancients, happiness was a state of being. They used happiness much as we would use the word joy. Aristotle’s unabashed use of happiness as a driving force for doing good or being ethical was readily agreed to and picked up by many Christian scholars all the way through the Enlightenment. Augustine also saw happiness, rightly defined, as the chief end of man, as did Thomas Aquinas and later Pascal. These theologians didn’t see a tension between happiness and living for God—indeed, they saw a unity.

Thomas Jefferson penned the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. He was borrowing from the English philosopher John Locke, who had developed theories on just governance and argued that all people had the right to life, liberty, and property. For Locke, life meant the right to live—to flourish without being killed or physically harmed by another person. Liberty meant the freedom to move about, to not have somebody artificially limit or put boundaries on me, unlawfully imprison me, and so forth. Pretty straightforward, right?

The most intriguing part of Locke’s phrase is the word property. By this Locke meant the right to have and to hold a place that would allow a person to fully develop his or her human potential. In an agrarian culture, property was the thing that allowed you to flourish. Land allowed you to be self-sufficient, pursue a good and stable life, and experience goodness and satisfaction.

We can even see the tie between property and human flourishing in the Old Testament: God promised the Israelites land—a land flowing with milk and honey. Land became a symbol for what was needed to be able to develop, grow, and flourish.

Thomas Jefferson wasn’t altering the substance of the phrase when he switched property to happiness in the Declaration of Independence. He was basically saying the same thing: that true happiness—in the tradition of philosophers since ancient Greece, not as merely a feeling of pleasure—was a human right and goal. The pursuit of happiness means the right to pursue the full development of human potential. (This is a philosophical analysis of Jefferson’s thinking in line with classical concepts, not a defense of him personally, as there were obviously inconsistencies and hypocrisies in his life.)

It wasn’t until much more recently, in our highly consumerist culture, that the word happiness was degraded to mean merely pleasure and license without regard to ethics, morality, or the human cost of that pleasure. This is why modern-day Christians have a hard time considering happiness in a positive light, never mind as something connected to righteousness and justice. How can self-serving pleasure be tied up with others-focused justice and righteousness?

Between these two extremes, however, lies the kind of godly happiness or satisfaction—moral happiness—that is a fitting and essential part of our relationship with God and the pursuit of justice.

Jesus gave us a picture of godly happiness in His Sermon on the Mount in what we call the Beatitudes. He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3–10)

The word Beatitudes is taken from the Latin word beati— meaning “power,” “blessed,” or “happy”—that appeared for fifteen hundred years in the Roman Catholic version of the Latin Bible. Beati is a translation of the Greek word makarios that was in the original version of Matthew, a word that also meant “happy,” “blessed,” or even “to be envied.”

It seems strange at first that Jesus’ words would be translated using the Greek word for happy, but put in context, it doesn’t seem so paradoxical. Those who are meek, merciful, peacemaking, and persecuted may not have pleasure in the moment, but they are going to find true happiness and blessing from God the Father, as well as from the human relationships they develop as they give their lives away.

We need to recover this sense of the word happiness. We have to learn that happiness is a vital part of the conversation about obedience, duty, and right living. Yes, there is a corrupted happiness that hampers justice. When I choose myself and my desires at the expense of community or my relationship with God, my momentary happiness is ultimately destructive. It is sin. Yet there is also a happiness that spurs justice onward, a happiness that brings community together and helps establish intimate relationship with God.

When we give our lives away, we discover that two of our primary desires—to make a difference and to be happy—are united. Happiness is the current that helps carry us along, and happiness, as strange as it may seem, provides a natural and godly motivation for doing good.

So what does happiness have to do with justice? A lot it seems.

May we all recover a moral and godly view of happiness.

  1. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. T. H. Irwin, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999), I.4.1095a17.




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