Virtue and the Pursuit of Happiness

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

We are all faced with having to choose between one activity and another, with having to order and arrange the parts of life, with having to make judgments about which external goods or possessions should be pursued with moderation and within limits and which may be sought without limit. That is where virtue, especially moral virtue, comes into the picture. The role that virtue plays in relation to the making of such choices and judgments determines, in part at least — our success or failure in the pursuit of happiness, our effort to make good lives for ourselves.

The distinction between perfections of all sorts (of body, of character, and of mind) and possessions of all sorts (economic goods, political goods, and the goods of association) carries with it a distinction between goods that are wholly within our power to obtain and goods that may be partly within our power but never completely so. The latter in varying degrees depend on external circumstances, either favorable or unfavorable to our possessing them.

However, not all goods that are personal perfections fall entirely within our power. Like external goods, some of them are affected by external conditions.

For example, the way we manage our lives affects our being healthy and vigorous, but our being so is also critically affected by our having a healthy environment, having adequate access to medical care, and by other external conditions and opportunities. So, too, our being knowledgeable and skillful in a wide variety of ways depends upon our own efforts to think, learn, and inquire, but it also depends in varying degrees on our access to educational facilities in youth, to opportunities for continued learning after all schooling is finished, and especially on our having enough free time at our disposal to engage in leisure activities that involve learning of one sort or an other.

The only personal perfection that would appear not to depend upon any external circumstances is moral virtue. Whether or not we are morally virtuous, persons of good character, would appear to be wholly within our power — a result of exercising our freedom of choice. But even here it may be true that having free time for leisure activities has some effect on our moral and spiritual growth as well as upon our mental improvement. Only in a capital intensive economy can enough free time become open for the many as well as for the few.

It is necessary to remind you that I am using the word “happiness” in its ethical meaning, not its psychological meaning.

When most people use the word, they have the latter meaning in mind. The word then connotes a mental state of satisfaction or contentment that consists simply in getting whatever one wants. Some times we feel happy because our wants at that moment are satisfied; sometimes we feel unhappy because our wants at that moment are frustrated or unfulfilled. Accordingly, we change from feeling happy to feeling unhappy from day to day, week to week, or year to year. In that meaning of the word “happiness,” as the word “feel” that I have italicized above indicates, happiness and unhappiness are psychological phenomena of which we can be conscious and have experience.

Not so, when the word is used in its ethical significance. Then the word connotes something that we are never conscious of and cannot experience at all. It also connotes something that never exists at any one moment of our lives, and does not change from time to time.