The Pursuit of Happiness—Mortimer J. Adler

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Dear Dr. Adler,

The Declaration of Independence proclaims the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable human right. Being unhappy is supposed to be a sin, and we all try to be happy. But what is happiness? Is it the fulfillment of material wants, peace of soul, being well thought of, or something else?

M. M.

Dear M.M.,

The word “happiness” has a wide assortment of meanings in everyday speech. But the great thinkers use the term with some precision. In the great books of moral philosophy, happiness is the ultimate or supreme good — the goal of all striving. It is in this sense of the word that the Declaration of Independence includes the pursuit of happiness among man’s basic natural rights.

The philosophical conception of happiness is radically different from the ordinary sense of the term. We hear people say, in a moment of satisfaction or joy, that they feel happy. Or they say that they are happy when they are having a good time. But, according to Aristotle and others, happiness is not something you can feel or experience at a particular moment. It is the quality of a whole life. The happy life is the good life.

Unacquainted with the philosophical conception, most people would say that children can be happy. But Aristotle argues that that is quite impossible. They can be gay or joyous but not happy, because they have not lived a complete life. In fact, Aristotle, following the wisdom of Solon, goes so far as to say that it is necessary to wait until a man’s life is finished before we can accurately judge whether or not it was, as a whole, a happy life.

One way of understanding happiness as the summum bonum, or the complete good, is to recognize that the happy life, as Boethius says, is one that is enriched by the possession in aggregate of all good things. The surest sign that a man is happy is that he wants for nothing. All his basic desires are satisfied; all the strivings inherent in his human nature are fulfilled. Obviously this cannot be done in a day or a year, but only in the whole course of a life. At the end of his life, looking back at all the real goods which he gradually came to possess, happy is the individual who can say to himself, “I did a good job of living; I lived well.”

What are the various kinds of goods which all together contribute to happiness? They include external or bodily goods, such as wealth, health, and bodily pleasures; social goods, such as honor, love or friendship, civil peace, and justice; and intellectual goods, such as understanding, knowledge and wisdom. Each of these goods corresponds to a real human need. The possession of each contributes to the fulfillment or perfection of man’s nature. Each, therefore, is desired not only for itself alone but as a means to happiness.

Happiness, on the other hand, being the sum of all good things, is desired for itself alone, and is the only thing we so desire. “I want to be happy,” goes the popular song, and it voices the universal desire of mankind; but if anyone were to say, “I want to be happy because…,” he couldn’t complete the sentence except by saying, “because I want to be happy.

I have briefly summarized Aristotle’s theory of happiness. There are, of course, other conceptions of happiness and the good life. Plato, for example, defines happiness as a harmony within the soul — the spiritual well-being of the truly virtuous man. He pays no attention to material goods, or the goods of fortune, as Aristotle does. For him nothing external can make a virtuous man unhappy.

At least one great thinker in our tradition denies that happiness should be our goal. Immanuel Kant regards the pursuit of happiness as selfish, setting personal satisfaction above the objective norm of duty and right. The moral law, says Kant, commands the performance of duty unconditionally, not just in order to attain happiness. Happiness should be the consequence, not the purpose, of moral action. We should strive not to be happy, but to deserve happiness.

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