Part 2: Is there an Ultimate End for Human Action?


A Brief Introduction to Ethics



  • Is there an Ultimate End for Human Action?
  • What do We Mean by “Happiness”?
  • Terminal and Normative Goals
  • The Definition of Happiness

Is There an Ultimate End for Human Action?

We have already said that unless there was something for which everything else is willed, nothing could be willed or done at all. It is difficult to see how we could always be willing something for the sake of something else. It would seem that there has to be some ultimate goal toward we direct our actions or else we would not be able to do anything at all. There would simply be an endless series of means with no end.

We can consider some obvious things and see if any of them could be proposed as an ultimate end for our actions. We all seek money, for instance. But we have to ask: What good is money if it isn’t used to purchase something? Purchasing something, whether it be a car, food, retirement savings, or whatever, are ends related to earning money. We want money because we can purchase things. So money is always a means and not an ultimate end.

What about political or economic power? A lot of people seem to seek after these. But can either of these or both be considered an ultimate end? Why do some people want political or economic power? It always seems that they want power in order to achieve some other end; this could be security, the accumulation of wealth, or just the satisfaction of being able to order others around. Power is the means to whatever end or ends these people desire. We want power because we can order people around or be secure or whatever.

There are many people who seem to think that sensuous pleasure might be the ultimate end. Actually there’s a whole school of philosophy that thinks so called hedonism or epicureanism. This philosophy has been around for a couple of thousand years so it’s not anything new. But can sensuous pleasure be an ultimate end? There are a number of problems with thinking so.

The first problem is that sensuous pleasure does not completely satisfy us all the time as whole human beings. It may temporarily satisfy part of us for a short period of time, but it is usually short-lived and transitory. Besides, any sensuous pleasure is necessarily restricted and limited. You can try if you want to come up with any sensuous pleasure that can be continuous, but don’t be too disappointed when you fail. The pleasures associated with intoxicants, good food, and sex, for instance, don’t last very long as we all know.

For any other good, or object of desire, it seems we can always say that we desire it for the sake of something else. We want wealth, power, pleasure, health, knowledge, freedom, honor and so forth because they are means to some other good beyond themselves. So is there really such a thing as an ultimate end or ultimate good?

Our answer is yes. There is one good, one thing we desire above all else and for which we always act. That good is “happiness.” Any other good we name is something that, once we obtain it, leaves other goods to be sought. Each of them, wealth, power, pleasure, and so on, is one good among others. But happiness is not one good among others, it is the complete or total good in itself.

Try this little experiment and it may help you see why happiness is the ultimate end or ultimate good for all of us.

Try to complete this sentence: “I want to be happy or want happiness because….”

It can’t be done, can it? There is no further end, goal, or good to complete the sentence. Happiness is not a means to anything else. It is the end itself.

Now see what you can do to complete this sentence: “I want wealth (or power or health or honor or a good reputation) because….” You can do it, can’t you? You can always complete the sentence with some good, or end, or goal. “I want wealth because I will have power.” “I want power so I can be secure.” “I want a good reputation because then I can be elected president.” “I want to become president because I can then become wealthy!” Get the point?

We can now see that happiness is the ultimate end of all our actions and the ultimate good for which we strive. And happiness must also have something to do with living well. But what do we mean by happiness?

What do We Mean by “Happiness”?

First of all, we need to make an important distinction here because we tend to use the words “happy” and “happiness” in a loose way in everyday life. There is a psychological meaning to the word happiness that we use in our ordinary conversations. I achieve some goal and I say “I am happy.” I make a million dollars and I say how happy I am. It should be clear we are not using the word “happiness” in this way.

Happiness in the above examples really means “contentment.” It is a psychological state that exists when the desires of the moment are satisfied. This is not what we mean by “happiness” in this discussion about living well or living a good life.

Contentment is fleeting, transitory, and changing from day to day, from one situation to another. If happiness is nothing more than the contentment we experience when we have satisfied a desire, then happiness can be achieved by all individuals regardless of their being morally good or morally bad. Furthermore, what brings happiness to one individual might not bring happiness to another. Happiness could not then be the ultimate end of our actions or the ultimate good we seek.

There is an interesting argument that can be presented as to why happiness should not be identified with contentment and why it should be treated as a separate concept. This is a very practical argument and it may help to illustrate the point I’m trying to make here.

There is a phrase in the American Declaration of Independence which speaks to the Pursuit of Happiness. A government that is just should aid its citizens in this endeavor, that is, it should promote the pursuit of happiness. But consider what happens when we identify the term “happiness” as used in the Declaration of Independence with the term “contentment.” As we’ve already noted, we are content when we satisfy a desire. As a result of obtaining some good we want, we experience contentment. Our contentment results from getting what we want.

Now it is obvious that our individual wants can come into conflict. I want more power over you in order to control you and this will interfere with the freedom you want. I want millions of dollars and this want may interfere in your getting a million dollars which you want. No government faced with these conflicting individual desires can secure for its citizens the conditions necessary for the pursuit of happiness if happiness is identified with contentment. Happiness has to mean something other than the mere satisfaction that comes from getting what we as individuals want.

If happiness is not contentment, what is it then? Well, we know it is the ultimate end toward which all our actions are directed. We know it is the goal toward which our life is striving. From these statements we can say that happiness is not something we can ever cease to strive for as long as we live. Furthermore, it is not a state of affairs, like contentment, and it seems to be the case that we can’t know if we have achieved happiness until the end of our life.

Let’s see if we can’t clear up some of the difficulties many of you may have with this idea that we don’t know if happiness is achieved or not until the end of our life. To do this we need to make a distinction between a terminal goal and a normative goal.

Terminal and Normative Goals

You and I decide to make a vacation trip to Hawaii. We spend a lot of time planning the trip, we purchase the airplane tickets, make our hotel reservations, and so forth. Finally the day arrives and we fly to Hawaii. For two weeks we do all the things that tourists do and really enjoy ourselves. Hawaii in this example is a terminal goal, the immediate end toward which all our plans were directed. Our goal was achieved by our arrival in Hawaii. For two weeks we experienced contentment, the satisfaction involved in achieving our desire and enjoying ourselves resting and relaxing.

The weekend after you and I return home, we attend a football game at the local university. At halftime you turn to me and say: “It’s a good game, isn’t it?” Now I know the difference between a terminal goal and a normative goal. So I put on my philosopher’s cap, look you in the eye, and respond: “No. The game’s not over yet. It’s becoming a good game. If the players do as well in the second half as they did in the first half, it will have been a good game when it’s finally over.” This is an example of a normative goal. We don’t really know if the game was a good game until the end of the game, until it is finally over and we can evaluate the whole experience.

A terminal goal can be enjoyed from minute to minute. On our Hawaii trip we could say we had a good trip when we arrived at the airport in Honolulu. At the end of each day, we could say: “It was a good day and I really enjoyed it.” A normative goal exists only in temporal wholes, not from moment to moment or at any given minute. The football game must be evaluated as a whole and it is only at the end of the game that we can say it was a good game, not at any moment during the game. Our determination that the game was a good game and that the normative goal was reached will usually be based on our being able to say: “The football players played well.”

Happiness is a normative goal. We don’t know if happiness has been achieved in our life until the “game of life” is over. Then, and only then, if we have “lived well,” can we say: “I have lived a happy life.” In short, it could be said that a happy life is a life which has a good ending. It seems obvious then, at this point, that happiness if the result of “living well” and the real problem we face in our life is how to go about living well.

We now know that what we call happiness is the ultimate end or final goal in life and that the way to achieve happiness must be by living well. But we still haven’t defined the word “happiness” exactly even though we know that happiness is the normative goal toward which all of us are striving. Without further fanfare, therefore, let’s do just that and then discuss what the definition means.

The Definition of Happiness

Generally speaking, we can say that human happiness consists primarily in a whole life ordered by reason, lived in accordance with virtue, and secondarily a life accompanied by a moderate possession of wealth and all other goods that are ours through the blessings of good fortune. This is quite a mouthful and we need to take this definition point by point so we really understand it. The definition also directs us toward what is meant by “living well.”

The first thing we need to notice is that happiness refers to a whole life. This is why happiness is a normative goal; we won’t know if happiness has been achieved until our life is over and our whole life has been evaluated. If we have “played” the game of life well, we will have achieved the final end of happiness and experienced much contentment along the way.

The phrase “ordered by reason” simply means that we should use our intellect and will to guide and direct our lives. We shouldn’t use “instincts” or reflexes to guide our lives. We also shouldn’t depend on our emotions to guide our lives. This does not mean that an emotional element never plays a part in guiding our lives; it does mean that our emotions should be under the guidance of our intellects and wills in so far as it is appropriate. Emotions can be very powerful and need to be handled with care.

A happy life is a life lived in accordance with virtue. The word “virtue” has been much misunderstood in the modern age and it is high time to bring the term back into discussion with its original meaning. The virtues are extremely important to living well; indeed, in many ways they form the very foundation of a happy life.

It seems obvious to most of us that a happy life must include some goods such as food, shelter, clothing, health, knowledge, and so on. Some of these goods are external or outside of us and others are internal or inside of us. Let’s consider one way to classify the different “goods” we find in our lives in order to clarify these ideas.

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The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at Self-Educated American. Self-Educated American has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.

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