Should your priority for living be happiness or virtue? Is it better to be a happy person of mediocre character, or noble and melancholic?
I believe this is one of the biggest questions you can ask yourself. Not only because it guides so many life decisions, but because it changes your approach to life. The person who lives solely for happiness takes a completely different attitude than someone who lives out of duty. Neither I feel are ideal.
Living Well and Living Good are Not Mutually Exclusive
For the most part, these two aims aren’t in conflict. If I wanted to be a doctor, I’d need to work hard to achieve my position, and once achieved, my work would likely help a lot of people. I’d say that’s a strong sign of living good.
Doctors, on average, are also paid well, and have positions of high status. A sign of living happily.
The same is true of most goals. Gaining anything personally satisfying usually requires employing a lot of effort and virtue along the way, and it often benefits other people in the process. Most modern economies are based on the principle that happiness and virtue work together.
But as much as the two goals overlap, there are certainly conflicts we face every day:
- Should you illegally download music which will boost your happiness but isn’t terribly virtuous?
- Should you take a long beach vacation, or volunteer at a homeless shelter?
- Should you become a vegetarian out of conscience, even if you love meat?
- Should you devote your life intensely to a calling, even if it sacrifices your private life?
Even if you rule out extreme decisions that sacrifice happiness or goodness for the other, you’re still left with a decision. Whatever you put first changes how you evaluate any choice in life, and perhaps more importantly, it changes how you evaluate life itself.
Virtuous Living Doesn’t Mean Traditional Values
I’ll never forget one lesson my father shared with me. He told me the story of a church minister who sold him an oven, and tried to swindle him on the price. The moral was that religiosity or preaching to particular values doesn’t make you a good person, only your actions do.
I think about this story whenever I think about the dilemma of living happily and living good. Mostly because, as a secular person, I worry that certain groups hijack what it means to be a good person, so much so that the discussion is tainted.
Instead of talking about being fair in dealings with other human beings (which the oven-salesman in this case, was not) it becomes about anti-profanity, whether you show up to church on Sundays and many other “traditional” values that aren’t the same as living good.
As one reader commented on this blog:
“As an atheist I struggle with the idea of happiness not being the point.”
I can’t speak for this particular reader, but I worry that this reaction is partially due to the large public confusion between living a religious life and living a good life.
The Trap of Happiness-Oriented Living
Utilitarianism is happiness-oriented living applied to society as a whole. So whatever raises not just your personal happiness, but society’s in aggregate, is the ideal choice.
Although I’m not a utilitarian, one thing I find interesting about this philosophy is it can be self-defeating. That is, if a philosophical mindset other than utilitarianism tended to produce greater aggregate happiness than if everyone became utilitarians, utilitarianism would suggest switching to that mindset.
Put another way, if everyone following a rights-based theory of justice resulted in greater aggregate happiness, a strict utilitarian would suggest we follow a rights-based theory. Even if utilitarianism were 100% correct, it may not be the best approach to take if a simpler philosophy resulted in better happiness-increasing decisions.
I believe that utilitarianism’s self-defeat is magnified when done on a personal basis. If happiness is your utmost priority for living, that can become self-defeating at a certain point.
Think of a situation of depression. If you feel momentarily depressed, with happiness as your gauge for life, you’re now not only depressed, but also a failure. Thinking you’ve failed at life makes you more depressed, and the cycle continues desperately downward.
In contrast, the person who places virtue (which in some senses, is easier to control) before happiness may be depressed, but can take solace in the fact that he or she can still work hard and try to do the right thing.
So even if you believe personal happiness is the #1 metric for life, you may end up being happier by not having it as the top priority.
My Answer: Virtue Matters More, but Happiness is a Virtue Too
My answer to the dilemma faced between happiness and goodness is that goodness must come first. It is better to live a good life, than a happy life, if those are the only two options.
However, those are never the only two options. Happiness, I feel is a virtue as well, and any decision that in the long-run, impairs happiness cannot be completely noble. Just as an entire life that was productive to many but relied on consistently stealing from someone wouldn’t be entirely noble.
Virtue is important. Living solely for happiness, while putting nothing higher, is a shallow way to live. It results in increasing depression during moments of unhappiness, and it results in lack of fulfillment in moments of triumph.
But happiness is also a virtue. Completely sacrificing your personal ambitions, desires and needs just because society tells you that you “should” do something neglects that your life is an end unto itself as well.
What are your thoughts? Have you ever felt pressure to take on a decision (such as which career to follow) because you were told that it would benefit society the most? Have you ever fallen into a negative spiral by prioritizing happiness in moments of depression? Please share in the comments.
Image courtesy of Mr. Kris