What is the Meaning of Life? What is the Point of Life?
The Meaning of Life as Happiness in Terms of “the Greatest Happiness Theory;” The Point of Life as Happiness according to Aristotle and Other Philosophers: An Essay on “the Good Life,”the Pursuit of Happiness,” and Virtue Theory
We present a discussion on “the meaning of life as happiness,”the Greatest Happiness Theory,” “the Good Life,”the Pursuit of Happiness,” and Virtue Theory. In other words, we discuss “happiness” (as it relates to the mind, body, soul, and state), by explaining the theories of past philosophers from Aristotle and Epicurus to John Stewart Mill and Immanuel Kant.
The Greatest Happiness: Happiness as the Highest Good
In simple terms, the basic concept of this page can be translated to “the highest good (Summum bonum) is… the highest good (Summum bonum),” or, the greatest happiness is the ends of the highest good” (there are countless ways to phrase this).
This tautological bit of wordplay, rooted in Cicero’s term describing the Highest Good (Summum bonum), is meant to express the idea that the greatest virtue, the general “point of life,” is to do the most good for the most people (including one’s self), and to cause the least pain for the most people (and by extension to help people relieve pain).
This doesn’t disclude a life in pursuit of self-interest (happiness of the ego, simple earthly pleasures, and pleasure through vice), instead it very much includes it, in that it states that, “as physical beings, our self-interest is in earthly pleasures, but as intellectual and moral beings, our self-interest is in our own happiness as found in the pursuit of wisdom and other higher virtues, and as social beings our self-interest is in the happiness of others.” See Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Plato and Aristotle’s Vice and Virtues.
We can sum this up so far to say “the Highest Good, and the end of all self-interest, higher and lower order, is happiness” and, simply put, “the higher orders of happiness are GREATER than the lower ones.” Thus, a true path to happiness includes placing the virtue inducing higher order virtues above the lower order vice inducing virtues, on average, especially as a state (although, the spirit of liberty mandates that we ultimately let each do their own as long as they don’t HARM others; the Harm principle.)
TIP: From here on, if not said explicitly, happiness means “pleasure of all types and the relief of pain of all types.”
The Categories of Human Understanding and the Spirit of the Laws as they Relate to Happiness and Moral Virtue
With the above in mind, to say there is a highest good is to assume there are higher and lower orders of goods, and indeed this is correct.
There are different levels of goods, different levels of happiness, and generally a hierarchy to this whole theory.
When we discuss these concepts we can’t think too narrowly.
We need to consider everything from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and its pleasures, to the pleasures a Pope takes in reading scripture, to the pleasure a doctor gets from saving a life.
If it feels good, or isn’t pain, no matter the sort, it is happiness (and it is our self-interest to seek it).
We have to realize that the soul of a person, relates to the social circles of people, relates to the state, relates to the laws, while all relating to the natural and moral virtues, while all relating to the ends of a first principle (that of happiness; the Summum Bonum, true justice, the Highest Good).
In other words, we want to relate this concept to anything that can be experienced by humans, but that doesn’t mean we can’t order those Goods (it seems silly to put “saving a life” and “drinking too much” on the same level; and we don’t have to).
In a realist sense, saving a life is pure pleasure, but drinking too much comes with a hangover. The one that results in pain, the hangover, is of a lower order. Meanwhile, happiness through saving lives is a “higher Good.”
Here “the most good” (or “Highest Good”) can be understood as the pleasures that cause the most good and least pain.
Realism aside, in terms of metaphysics:
One way to frame this is to say, “The highest good can be understood as being those goods of the highest order in each of the four spheres of human understanding“.
These “Spheres” or “Categories” are, The Natural: physical (empirical), logical (reason, logic-and-ethics in-thought), and the Moral ethical (morals-and-ethics in-action), and metaphysical (pure metaphysic morals).
Here moral, logical, and ethical goods generally trump base-level “physical” pleasure seeking, but don’t disclude its importance.
A libertine may argue with this, but to the extent their anything-goes pleasure seeking causes pain, one can argue that they are simply (while in the right) seeking a “lower-order” happiness.
Furthermore, the embracing of “goods” is one type of pleasure (happiness), and the removal of pain is another type of pleasure.
Pain is thus understood to be the absence of happiness (where a doctor cures physical pain, a teacher cures mental pain, a spiritual guide cures moral pain, a psychologist cures mental pain, etc).
Or, put my theory aside, and on can also understand this how Plato’s Laws does, where he says,
“Now goods are of two kinds: there are human and there are divine goods…”
The Natural (Human) “lesser” goods: “Of the lesser goods the first [the highest] is health, the second beauty, the third strength, including swiftness in running and bodily agility generally, and the fourth is wealth…”
The Moral (Divine) “greater” goods: “For wisdom is chief and leader of the divine class of goods, and next follows temperance; and from the union of these two with courage springs justice, and fourth in the scale of virtue is courage. All these naturally take precedence of the other goods…”)
TIP: In other words the aspects of the physical, logical, ethical, and moral that relate to our lower human hierarchy of needs are “lower” goods (or virtues) and the ones that relate to our higher virtues (in the physical, logical, ethical, and moral) are “higher” goods. So far we have to just offered a few of many different models one can use to understand the Greatest Happiness Theory and its related moral virtues.
Here we can jump right to the heart of what me, Plato, Cicero, and Mill are all getting at. That there are different levels of categories of virtues, different levels of virtues within those categories, and the highest moral virtues are the most vital in our search for happiness (they are second to other more human and animal virtues).
Knowing this will help us to understand what we mean by “pleasure” and “pain” below when we consider the aesthetic and moral separately and in ranked order.
On Duty, Free-Will, Good-Will, Good-Faith, Utility; and Other Things
One one approaches duty with good will, and makes good faith efforts, and when this is paired with wisdom, courage, and justice, the ends of happiness are not far out of reach, and the actor who strives towards these is well on their way to a virtuous enlightenment.
Here we can note, just like we can consider many higher-order and lower-order forms of happiness, we can consider that there are many forms of duty, at least one form for each sphere (although we can at least consider higher moral duty and lower physical duty; see On Duty by Cicero).
We can, with this in mind, note that anything we can say here has generally already been said well by Mill in his introduction to Utilitarianism, including the idea that this “theory of happiness” is a first moral principle which second moral principles should be checked against.
Likewise, it was said well by countless others, like Plato who helps us understand the connection to Justice and Moderation, Kant who helped with categorization, and Epicurus who first laid down some of these ideas (but for now let that just be a note, as we cover this below).
Sure, free-will implies that some will translate the above principles into a justification of amoral pleasure seeking, but such is their right. If one wants to find pleasure by numbing pain, it may be our “moral duty” to guide them toward a better path, but there is no rule that says we must force them (in fact, many principles of the equally important liberalism suggest we should not do this).
The idea isn’t to judge pleasure and pain for others, but to understand for ourselves that the moral, logical, and ethical pleasures unique to humans, and our ability to heal others, are of a greater type of pleasure than the physical pleasures known to both animals and humans (to “beasts” and “man”). To know, is to know the difference between numbing pain with over stimulation, and reaching new levels of happiness in our journey toward wisdom.
Still, the point is, there is no shame in finding enlightenment within the aesthetic realm, say by being a good parent, being faithful, and doing service for the community, and there is no shame really in spending one’s life in a Opium den (a legal one at least), it is just that, from a 3,000 foot view, these paths are not fully equal. For one who would seek higher things, they are well advised to look beyond the base levels.
This is to say, our concern is not “what is the highest good for a given person”, it is “what is the highest of highest goods that we can strive toward” (as that is the sort of sommum bonum we want to take with us when thinking about enlightenment, forming the perfect state, formulating the best philosophy, or being our best selves).
Our goal isn’t to judge others, it is to define a theory of happiness.
The moralist knows what the philosopher knows, and that is the Highest Good is firstly moral, then next ethical, then next logical, then next physical, each having complex but well-defined relationships (and each having its own highs and lows).
Plato and most philosophers knew wealth was corrupting, but “who am I” to tell someone not to seek wealth? Again, forcing others is not enlightened.
If that sounds like a metaphysical answer to “what is the meaning of life”, it is, it is a metaphysical answer using pure practical reason and a little bit of empirical social science rooted in the history of philosophy.
This is to say, this is my attempt to sum up the Greek theory of Happiness and the theory of happiness of the Enlightenment philosophers.
The summarizing part isn’t as easy as one might suspect, but if you explore the keywords and concepts below you’ll be well on your way to understanding happiness from a philosophical perspective. In other words, you’ll understand the good life and how that relates to the state and soul (just like Plato tried to teach in his Republic).
Once you know, it is only a matter of repetition. A philosopher doesn’t gain higher levels of happiness in a day, they “become happier” as they follow their journey toward wisdom, by following a set of moral, ethical, logical, and physical principles, internalizing happier and happier states as they heal, question, and seek “knowing”. Something like that.
TIP: The theory is the same by any name, the relation of happiness, the Highest Good, and the “meaning” of existence is well worn area of philosophy touched on by the greats, below are some frames of reference for understanding this “virtue theory”.
Utilitarianism: Crash Course Philosophy #36.
Kant’s Summum Bonum (Explanatory Context). One way to describe the Highest Good is Kant’s way.
What Is A Good Life?: Crash Course Philosophy #46. One way to describe the Good Life is the Greek’s way, another is contained in the Greek term Arete which we explore below.
Aristotle & Virtue Theory: Crash Course Philosophy #38. The other related concept, virtue theory.
TIP: If happiness is emblematic of the highest good, and the good life is a life living in accordance with the highest good, and the best way to ensure that is a state which reflects the highest good, then the general theory presented here… “is good”.
Plato’s Chariot Metaphor: Plato’s Republic is essentially a metaphor for the ideas on this page. One good metaphor Plato uses is a the Chariot metaphor. The Chariot metaphor, in simple terms, describes how the higher-order “virtues” (morals, ethics, and logic) are meant to “steer” the lower-order ones (specifically the physical). The horses of the chariot represent the reptile and animal nature of man, and the Charioteer steering the wild horses the human and higher-order qualities. Or, like Wikipedia says, “The Charioteer represents intellect, reason, or the part of the soul that must guide the soul to truth; one horse represents rational or moral impulse or the positive part of passionate nature (e.g., righteous indignation); while the other represents the soul’s irrational passions, appetites, or concupiscent nature. The Charioteer directs the entire chariot/soul, trying to stop the horses from going different ways, and to proceed towards enlightenment.” Well said.
Happiness as the Meaning of Life and the Philosophers: The Highest Good, the Greatest Happiness, and Other Related Virtue Theories
Putting aside the idea that the meaning of life is “to procreate and survive“, and putting aside theological and ontological arguments, many philosophers have postulated that “happiness is the point of life”. Although not every philosopher held the same theory, many agreed that the ends (or the first foundational principle) of a moral theory was happiness.
Aristotle’s Ethics presents what is perhaps the original utilitarian theory regarding happiness and the state, and there is really nothing me or the rest of the great thinkers can say on happiness that Aristotle didn’t touch on. This includes differentiating between our base-level pleasure seeking to happinesses’ of the highest order which involve caring for others and perfecting the nation-state.
However, to cite many more greats regarding their happiness theories: Camus attests happiness is the point when he imagines Sisyphus happy pushing a rock up a hill, Epicurus’ social theory attests this when he speaks of medicine relieving pain (pain being the opposite of pleasure), Jeremy Bentham asserted “Happiness Is the Greatest Good” in his principle of Utility, John Stewart Mill named his happiness theory (AKA Utilitarianism AKA the Greatest Happiness Principle) after Bentham’s theory (where Mill stated that the most moral is that which offers the highest order and in the greatest quantity of happiness to the most people), Kant’s categorical imperative is this, and Kierkegaard’s spheres are a statement on the orders of happiness (aesthetic/animal happiness, to intellectual happiness, to the supreme spiritual happiness).
Even with these greats noted, there are still many others who have contributed to the history of philosophy and the social sciences, who, directly or indirectly, point to happiness as the point of life (or at least to it being the Crux of a moral theory). This includes Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle’s realist and idealist theories of essence, Descartes’ metaphysics, Locke’s life, liberty, and property theory, Montesquieu’s purpose of the laws, Rousseau’ general will, Smith’s moral sentiment, Marx’s alienation, Hume’s empirical approach, Nietzsche’s self reliance, and even the recorded teachings of Jesus and Einstein’s random quips about metaphysics.
This is to say, no, really, really, the great thinkers all essentially agree that “the ends is happiness”.
Kant & Categorical Imperatives: Crash Course Philosophy #35. The happiness theory is so deeply rooted in the philosophies that there are near endless examples, I dig Kant and Mill’s takes… and CrashCourse agreed enough to make a few videos on it. So lets start with these.
With the above said, the philosophers’ works don’t typically agree on a single definition of happiness, or a single theory related to it (heck they can’t even agree on a theory of utility), but they do tend toward agreeing it is the foundational “spring” of moral philosophy.
Although they don’t come to a specific consensus on a definition of happiness, we can roughly synthesize one as, “achieving happiness for ourselves, guiding others toward it, and relieving suffering in such a way that we generally do the most good and the greatest good for the most people over the long term” (selfless happiness that doesn’t ignore ones own senses, both a happiness of passions and tastes, both benevolent and self-interested, favoring man’s higher self, but not ignoring any of his aspects, etc).
Consider Aristotle’s quote, which can be roughly translated as, “The purpose of all human acts is to procure happiness” (from Nicomachean Ethics book 1, section 7. A book on moral virtue and ethics as understood by Aristotle; or see Aristotle’s Ethics and the Virtues).
Or consider Mill’s quote, “Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs.”
Or, consider David Hume’s epic An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, or Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals by Immanuel Kant, or Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/or, or Smith’s Moral Sentiment, or the Greek Concept of Areté… this keeps going, with empiricists, rationalists, essentialists, and existentialists agreeing on this, even when they can’t agree on much else.
Even the philosophers and thinkers that don’t agree on happiness as the point of life (or who distinguish “the point” from “the meaning of life”), generally take an agreeable stance when you consider the broad definition we present below (a definition which, for example, includes accepting at times our own unhappiness or the mundane while being in service to the happiness of others).
Let’s take a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson where he lists virtues like honor and compassion as the point of life, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” Considering our definition includes service to others, a type of selfish non-selfishness, Emerson’s “point of life” fits with ours.
Another argument against happiness as the point of life includes pointing out that acts like caring for children gives our lives meaning (even when we don’t feel happiness directly from it ). Again, we will argue this is a form of happiness.
As you may have already guessed, although many philosophers and thinkers from the Greeks to modern greats more-or-less agree that happiness is the point of life (a subjective conclusion often proved with reason, logic, and empirical evidence), they don’t all agree on a definition of happiness, or exactly how or if one should seek it, or exactly how important it is (as the existentialists, for example, will all tell you there is no deep meaning to it).
Instead of trying to argue viewpoints here, we will instead attempt to synthesize them to create an agreeable (although inevitably still subjective) unified happiness theory.
Below we discuss the types of happiness discussed by philosophers including those related to: aesthetic, ethical, hedonistic, empathetic, virtuous, vice-based, just, unjust, animal, intellectual, moral, amoral, immoral, sentimental, rational, etc happiness. We’ll also explore how we can achieve them for ourselves and others (and if it is worthwhile).
First, we’ll present a broad definition of happiness synthesized from the ideas on this page.
- Happiness: Relieving mental, physical, spiritual, and social pain in ourselves and ideally others (as unless we live in isolation, the pain of others affects us). This is ideally done through virtuous means (denoting ethics, morality, and justice), and involves moving away from sin and vice (an excess or deficiency of virtue) on aggregate. In this broad definition, seeking wisdom heals the mind, seeking friendship and treating others well heals society, and virtuous action heals the soul. This is all analogous to how a doctor heals the sick, and analogous to the physical gain and emotional reward the doctor feels from this just and moral action. The doctor doesn’t always enjoy his time at work, but her temporary unhappiness is outweighed by the lives she saves on aggregate. Generally in this theory mental and moral pleasures are of higher orders than physical pleasures, and that which does the greatest happiness for the greatest number of others is generally preferable (although this isn’t so simple, see a debate of the different types of utilitarianism). Lastly, this theory is meant to be proven from empirical evidence, not to be a thing of pure reason (although certainly pure reason, pure ethics, and pure metaphysics also matter).
How to be happy: the happiness equation revealed? Here is one way to look at it.
Of course, with a definition like that, it will now be the goal of this page to prove that such lofty ideals can fit in any sort of widely accepted definition of happiness. With that in mind, let’s hear what Plato’s Socrates has to say about happiness and living the good life.
We may define happiness as prosperity combined with virtue; or as independence of life; or as the secure enjoyment of the maximum of pleasure; or as a good condition of property and body, together with the power of guarding one’s property and body and making use of them. That happiness is one or more of these things, pretty well everybody agrees. – Aristotle’s Rhetoric Book 1 part 5 [note that Aristotle defines happiness and virtue in more than one place… and each time it must be translated. So not only do we have to look in both Ethics and Rhetoric, we have to account for differences in translations.]
PHILOSOPHY – The Good Life: Plato [HD]. Socrates will make a case for virtue and justice being the true cause of happiness. A case, as you’ll find in the Republic, for the moral ones being the happy ones (start at the end of Book I). Or rather, Plato’s Socrates will brow beat you into abandoning any other choice, such was his self admitted style. Fair warning: we may, as Socrates does, walk away knowing only that we know nothing at all.
How can we learn to be virtuous and/or happy? As Aristotle correctly stated [paraphrasing], virtue/happiness/arete is learned by experience. One’s character must be cultivated. We learn charity by being charitable, learn honor by being honorable, learn humility by being humble, learn to take joy in healing rather than vice seeking by experiencing the pains and pleasures of life. We can learn to “love wisdom” by learning. Etc. One can teach the theory, but one can’t instill virtue in another person.
The Philosophy of Happiness – A Unified Happiness Theory
Playing on the broad definitions above, let me sum up a unified happiness theory, a moral theory of everything, this time from a different perspective. This theory is simply a version of my own synthesis on the above theories (and is evolving over time), so i’d encourage you to contrast and compare.
Keeping in mind that the subject is not absolute, and is instead a matter of philosophy (see an overview of the branches of philosophy), my happiness theory goes something like this:
“The point of life is happiness. The key to happiness is experience. The key to experience is moderation. Through moderation and experience wisdom and knowledge are gained. Wisdom and knowledge allow a person to “be their best self”, and through this even more happiness can be obtained for ourselves and spread to others, creating a positive feedback loop.
When we act good (virtuous, just, moral, wise, charitable, etc), we make goodness a habit and inspire others, and as a consequence of this we increase the odds of goodness and happiness coming back to us and those around us (see neuroplasticity and the butterfly effect).
This is a principle of Lockean non-aggression taken to a point where it becomes not just about avoiding harm, but (in the style of Epicurus) about healing ourselves and others (mind, body, interpersonal relationships, society, and spirit). A quest toward happiness attained in a moral way, securing and ensuring future relief from pain and aggression; but not at the expense of a forced march.
One key to the above is that ideally the path must be accessed via free-will. Entering into a social contract falls within the bounds of liberty, and guiding someone gently is virtuous, but forcing goodness is not a goodness of the highest order itself. Forgiveness and understanding are tools of the healer, as are spreading wisdom and leading by example, while punishment is a last resort.
Furthermore, on free-will, we lack the right to tell anyone or even accept ourselves that complex moral pleasures trump simple animal pleasures. If our actions don’t hurt others (directly or indirectly), then seeking happiness in that path is just. A case can be made even for seeking happiness in an unjust or amoral way (“lower order” way), the concept being less about judgement of others and more about finding ones own path and guiding others toward a path of greater happiness.
We can summarize the overarching path to happiness (no matter where on the path our journey takes us) as the path of virtue, ethics, morality, and enlightenment. Or, we can just use a term the Greeks used: “areté“, referring to the “art” or “excellence” of things, things in their exalted state, a “goodness of the highest order”, sometimes called “moral virtue” or “the aristocracy of virtues”. Not just the areté of self, but the excellence of all things, in all times, as to what effect we can affect this.
So, in ways then, in the terms of the Greeks, the point of life is areté.
We know a form of happiness can be found in the most immediate of Aesthetic pleasures, but each higher, more empathetic, and more ethical form has a higher reward on aggregate, not just individuals but as a society.
It is happiness in its highest form (the kind that helps, not hurts, others) which is the true happiness, but even ‘the old master’ recognizes the importance of the basic childlike forms of happiness. Everyone has to take their own journey, and we can’t ask others, or even ourselves, to abandon vice simply for the sake of perfectly moderated virtue. Thus, the answer is balance and moderation, and the general wisdom and experience required to obtain all this.”
PHILOSOPHY – The Good Life: Aristotle [HD]. Aristotle clearly thought that happiness was the purpose of life, but what he meant by this is much deeper than it sounds. We explore his line of thinking with a modern lens.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: There is more than one way to understand the point of life, or the meaning of life, purpose of life, and even the term happiness (to say the least). Not only is this semantic, but it is also philosophical. Comments welcome.
How to Understand Virtue, Vice, and the Meaning of Life
Combining the moral philosophies of great philosophers and thinkers, we can conclude that the concepts of virtue and vice are central to happiness:
- Virtue: Virtue is possessing and utilizing “good” traits in a balanced way (with these traits sometimes being understood as the Christian virtues, or sometimes as Aristotle’s, although they aren’t limited to that). We can think of “the path of enlightenment” (which can be defined many ways, but can be summarized as the road to true happiness of mind, body, society, and spirit) as the gaining and spreading of happiness, experience, and wisdom through a virtuous path of altruistic intentions, goodness, knowledge, and ethics.
- Vice: Vice is a deficiency or excess of virtue. We can think of sin, vice, and “selfishness” as obstacles along the path of enlightenment (although they also lead to experience and wisdom as we “learn lessons”, and can have paradoxical effects in society).
When it comes to happiness, we can broadly say there are two types:
- Aesthetic: We can use our lower animal instincts and seek power, money, and sensual pleasure. Aesthetic pleasures.
- Ethics: We can use a more altruistic moral compass to guide us through life. We are naturally torn between these desires, and only through experience can we gain the intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual wisdom we need to temper them, employ our willpower, and avoid potential pitfalls.
We can also seek higher and lower forms of these:
- Moral: We can pursue virtue itself (sometimes called moral virtue or arete) through goodness, ethics, and morality, and attempt to guide others away from unhappiness, suffering, and pain. This is to say, we can seek happiness through a just and empathetic path.
- Amoral: We can pursue happiness amorally through vice and sin, driven by our animal instinct or drivers like greed, despite the potential effects on others. This is to say, we can seek happiness despite the effect our actions have on others (a sometimes unjust and immoral path).
We can also act out of emotion or reason:
- Sense: Do we let our reason guide us through life, we know the Age of Reason brought us enlightenment, but it also brought us insight into a deeper moral meaning. At what point does sense alone not make the cut?
- Sensibility: Do we act with our empathy as a guide toward higher or lower pleasures? Do we expect this from the state? Are the rules different at home? Are men or women more naturally attuned? how do we balance this?
TIP: Do we approach happiness as a matter of reason, from a strictly rationalist view? Or do we approach it from a empirical view? I’ll argue we do both, moderation and temperance (themselves virtues) are the key to both understanding and achieving happiness. See Kant on Hume’s Fork.
TIP: One important aspect to consider in regards to the above points is complexity. Is a simple pleasure more or less “good” than a complex one? Montaigne favored simplicity, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is challenging, and the Tao is about is simple as it gets. Is one more valid? Does something have to be “high-brow” to possess goodness of the highest order, or are simple pleasures in ways even more virtuous than complex ones?
TIP: Another important aspect of goodness and happiness is intention (in planning, action, and doing). Kant believed that people instinctually know the difference between right and wrong. He also believed that for something to be truly good it must have good intention behind it. Yet, as we will see below, even actions preplanned and executed with the best of intentions can have paradoxical consequences. See our page on why intentions matter, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for an in-depth breakdown, or learn more about Kant’s ethics.
QUESTIØN: Is happiness gained through A: aesthetic pleasures (sensual), either immediate or tactically planned, or are more B: ethical pleasures the key? Which one is more just, virtuous, and ethical? Either/ør is perhaps the best answer, although some like me claim ‘A’ and ‘B’, but only in moderation (B tempers A, and in older years especially ‘A’ can temper ‘B’). The question was pondered before Plato, Kant asked it, and today’s philosopher still debate it. what is the relationship between aesthetics and ethics?
PHILOSOPHY – Søren Kierkegaard. Can wine make you truly happy, was Don Giovanni happier with 1,003 notches than he was with 1,000? Is happiness found in our lower aesthetic pleasures, or in a more virtuous higher form of ethics?
Happiness Isn’t Just Seeking Pleasure for Ourselves; it is Relieving the Pain of Others
Isocrates thought the key to happiness was virtue through wisdom, rhetoric, free-will, and self-control. Epicurus described it a little differently. In Epicurus’ view, happiness was obtained by healing pain in ourselves and others, including society, and this ability was obtained through wisdom (sophia), ethics, virtue, and knowledge. Both these points of view are ones of moral and ethic philosophy, which is in a realm just beyond the physical sciences. It can hint the right path, but leaves itself open for debate, specifically the counterpoint that there is no intrinsic mission to relief the suffering of others, and no proof that this leads to greater good, or that the good caused from this would be greater than that which would be caused by pure selfishness. One could argue that pursuing vices is good, since this causes happiness in ourselves, but most important philosophers have a counterpoint to this.
PHILOSOPHY – Epicurus – Happiness according to Epicurus, happiness as a social responsibility.
We can argue that it isn’t that pursuing vices is “bad,” it is rather that they are the root of unhappiness in ourselves and our relationships) So, while pursuing and partaking in vice, may “feel good” or seem temporarily beneficial, it typically has an ancillary “butterfly effect” that is negative.
A vice can be the lesser of two evils, or even “the right thing to do” in some cases. Humans are complex, and the cause and effect relations of individual actions in society are even more complex. A celebrity can flaunt money and material possessions, but be driven by the acceptance of the community, influence young people to want “lower” things, and have a butterfly effect that propels many other vices and virtues, yet this drives consumerism, and thus ensures the velocity of money, which in turn ensures jobs.
With just one example we are left with a complex web only understandable through the lens of political philosophies, game theory, complexity science, economics, and other complex sciences. Adam Smith knew how to work with this, and so did our founding fathers. When it comes to discussing the meaning of life and happiness, we have to take a critical look at exactly what this means for all people (no matter what part of their journey they are on or how they choose define happiness). After-all, one concept that most agree is paramount is free-will.
How to Make a Country Rich. This video is meant to juxtapose the video above. Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, the foundation of classic economics. The concept was to promote the happiness of society, given the nature of humanity. This video explores the connection between happiness and the city state.
20. The Good Life: Happiness. YaleCourses on happiness and the good life from a philosophical perspective.
QUESTION: Does a laissez faire style work for governance, or does social happiness require active effort? Do we have to look past Smith to Keynes (the father of social liberal economics), who says justice requires a safety net, or are we simply misunderstanding Smith’s moral philosophy.
How to Use Moderation to Achieve Happiness – The Scales of Ethic and Aesthetic Justice
We can think of the technology with which to experience vices and virtues ourselves (if we seek enlightenment and a long life) as “moderation.” Moderation, although a virtue itself, speaks to finding the balance in all virtues. Kant said, and Aristotle essentially agrees, that an excess of virtue is perhaps even more of a vice than deficiency of virtue, and we can see the wisdom gained through experience as enhancing our perception, and thus allowing us to walk the path better and guide others along it.
All great thinkers seem to agree on free-will, morality, ethics, virtues, the pursuit of happiness, excellence, and knowledge being the point of life, and they realized this applied both to the individual and the city state. Thus, as Aristotle said, (paraphrasing his books) political science, friendship, rhetoric, and moral virtue are the keys to not only individual happiness but group happiness. This message has been mirrored by most of the great thinkers. (See an overview of Aristotle’s ethics)
We can sum up this whole concept by saying “happiness” is the point of life, for both individuals and groups, but the mechanics are complex. Below Kant gives his take on “the meaning of life” (which importantly includes the concept of the Categorical imperative (essentially do onto others as you would have them do onto you).
PHILOSOPHY – The Good Life: Kant [HD]. Kant’s individual and societal journey toward enlightenment explained. Kant saw virtue and happiness as separate. We are simply arguing that they both exist upon the same path.
Why Care About Morality and Virtue?
The reason we tie together morality, virtue, enlightenment, and happiness is that these things cause happiness to not only ourselves but to others. It isn’t expected that a person is ALL good or ALL bad. Humans are fallible by nature, and vice is expected. Our concern isn’t for individual vice, but for the ancillary negative effects of vice, especially in a city state. Of course, virtue can have its own odd wicked effects.
With this in mind, it is wise to avoid trying to over-correct vices or over-embrace virtues. If we go too far too fast, like Icarus, our journey ends prematurely, if we never aim for the stars, our journey never begins. If we judge other people too harshly or try to gain experiences without moderation, we are actually manifesting vices and not virtues.
With moderation we decrease the probability of literal death and negative impacts on others (“bad Karma”), so an early grasping of the virtue of moderation ensures we can continue our hero’s (or fools) journey. As we continue the journey, we inevitably reach the next climax, despite the time we spend in the Kafkaesque forests along the way (a reference to Franz Kafka’s the Castle, and “the Moon” Tarot card which represents our animal nature side-tracking us from our hero’s journey). Our experience, hardships, slip-ups, virtues, and vices we face along our journey lead to experience and thus wisdom over time as “we learn our lessons”.
It is said “the journey is the destination” (affiliate link), and this seems true. TIP: Humor is a virtue.
The Hero’s Journey (the Monomyth, see Joseph Campbell). If the pursuit of happiness is the key to life, then the hero’s journey doubles as a guidebook.
Although we know we aren’t perfect and maybe don’t want to be, we can still argue that the key to true happiness is a path of virtue (excellence, arete, ethos, goodness, etc.) One can’t effectively walk that path without some guidance (hence the importance of the ideal city state and loving thy neighbor, even if only out of self-interest as Adam Smith puts in regards to capitalism).
With today’s science we know, and don’t have to muse metaphysically anymore, “fill your life with positive and your life becomes positive; fill your life with negative and your life becomes negative.” This is a simple, but generally accurate, overview of how our brains work neurologically (neuroplasticity).
Neuroplasticity. How we learn.
This “happiness/unhappiness effect” butterflies to those around us, and as if we were all chained together on the ship of life, we sink or swim collectively and accordingly.
Both excess and deficiency of virtue can be described as vice, and therefore a vice is not a virtue. If we don’t practice moderation, the universe seems to almost take care of it for us by placing the next lesson in front of us. When we show cowardice, the universe almost may hand us an opportunity to prove our courage.
According to eastern philosophy, Karma is bad, and we relieve it by doing good things. In eastern philosophy the universe places lessons in front of us to learn. From this perspective, virtue is the learning of these lessons, and the point is relieving Karma through this.
Aristotle and the Point of Life – How to Understand the Virtues and Vices
According to Aristotle, the point of life is happiness, and this is achieved by to obtaining and spread virtue, and avoiding and helping others avoid vice. This can be described as the pursuit of excellence, which closely relates to the pursuit of happiness. To understand this, see Aristotle’s table of virtues and vices below (specifics aside, we can se the message is consistent with all major belief systems).
Aristotle’s Table of Virtues (source):
The Means Between Extremes – each virtue has two related vices, one is a deficiency of that virtue another is an excess of that virtue. The key is balance or “mean”.
|Vice of Deficiency||Virtuous Mean||Vice of Excess|
|Want of Ambition||Right Ambition||Over-ambition|
PHILOSOPHY – History: Aristotle on the Purpose of Life [HD]. Understanding Aristotle and Arete (moral virtue).
The virtues as listed above aren’t handed down from God; they are just Aristotle’s view of them. The Christian Virtues would be another, and Lord British’s virtues another. The underlying virtues have never been properly named. Specifics aside, Aristotle’s concept of deficiency and excess is one that I think rings true (and is mirrored by other philosophers and social sciences). To be overly virtuous is a danger which Aristotle recognizes.
Liberty, Free-Will, and Morality – The Freedom to Pursue Vice and Virtue
If you have followed me so far, you may feel that “a perfect state” is a state that guides it’s people toward happiness, virtue, and good-will. However, as also noted above, free-will (AKA liberty) stands in the way of simply directing people toward happiness with a forceful hand.
An older sibling that enforces virtue is less virtuous than one who leads by example. A younger sibling who has never known vice may not understand the importance of virtue. We can find musings like this simply spoken in Lao Tzu’s Tao (and mirrored by Smith and others).
EASTERN PHILOSOPHY – Lao Tzu
We must walk our own path, a guiding light can illuminate the path, but being forced down the path doesn’t work.
We may learn how to float down the river of life stoically and with little resistance, or we may master navigation, but how we react to those drowning and clinging to rocks defines the nature of our ship.
Do what thou wilt (manifest one’s true purpose via free will), as one once put it, or, let us simply revert to Aristotle’s concept of manifesting one’s purpose “telos” in regards to ethos (ethics), polis (the city state), and arete (virtue).
Everyone is at a different crossroads on the road to excellence, but everyone is walking the same path. Each step along the path can bare new fruit, and the new experience gives us chances at happiness, wisdom, and understanding.
The more people we meet, the more we realize that everyone is very similar. There are differences of culture, language, education, and classes, but the core drivers, virtues, and vices apply to nearly all. Thus, the more we understand about others, the more we understand ourselves.
Aristotle talked to people to learn about human nature, as did all the great philosophers from Jesus, to Descartes, to Smith (a big part of all their stories). These were some of the great social scientists, not just the great philosophers.
As Socrate’s Plato said (paraphrasing), “all I know is that I don’t know” or as Descartes said (paraphrasing), “we can’t trust what others say, we can’t even trust our own senses”. Einstein wasn’t satisfied with what science knew, so he opened new doors to understanding through questioning and thought experiment. Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” These ideas mirror the scientific method, and they are wise words. We know we don’t know it well enough, and thus we have more work ahead of us.
If we do a John Rawls thought experiment, and consider the Veil of ignorance, we see there is more work to be done. As we broaden our in-group, we can employ the powers of empathy to a greater effect, this helps open the doors of understanding like the aforementioned social scientists did when preparing their masterworks.
This won’t necessarily lead us to easy answers, the world is complex, but it can help us to ask the right questions, understand differences, and find commonalities.
The Rawlsian Social Contract – Moral Foundations of Politics (PLSC 118) – YALE
In the end, there is no one way to interpret the point of life, virtue, morality, or even fundamental agreed on principles like liberty.
We may know inequality isn’t virtuous, but we can’t eliminate every injustice in one fell swoop, we won’t always know where to take the next step, and we won’t always have the support of others.
Just as Icarus misjudged his flight, we have to understand the mechanics of the here and now and take one gentle step at a time. Best we work within the frame of an Einstein and Aquinas, rather than madly quoting Karl Marx or Baruch Spinoza. We all respect Nietzsche, Locke, Burke, Kant, and Hume, but we can’t exactly pretend like they have the same viewpoints on the meaning of happiness. We also can’t pretend like they aren’t important, as they are. Consider Nietzsche’s happiness theory summarized below.
PHILOSOPHY – The Good Life: Nietzsche [HD]. One can argue even an amoralist can have a moral compass. We all get to understand it our own way, but all signs are pointing to the same concept.
I find happiness to be a beautiful and simple answer to the meaning of life, and I think most of the greats back up my general understanding of what that means, but to really know is to know for yourself. To truly know the meaning of life, you have to take your own journey.
In the meantime, smiling and laughing are good for you, so why not partake until we have a more exact solution.
Philosophy – A Guide to Happiness: Socrates on Self-Confidence. Given the importance of the topic, this page will likely get updated for a long time to come. I’ll leave you with this series on philosophy as a guide to happiness.
- “Happiness” Plato.Stanford.edu
- “INTRODUCTION: ARISTOTLE’S DEFINITION OF HAPPINESS” Pursuit-of-happiness.org
- “There is More to Life than Being Happy[” Pursuit-of-happiness.org
- “The Differences between Happiness and Meaning in Life” blogs.Scientificamerican.com
- “Aristotle on Happiness” Psychologytoday.com
- “Pghilosophy of Happiness” Wikipedia.org
- the Pursuit of Happiness
- “Aesthetics and ethics” rep.Routledge.com
- “A Simplified Account of Kant’s Ethics” people.Morrisville.edu
"The Point of Life is Happiness" is tagged with: Adam Smith, Albert Einstein, Empathy, Essentialism and Existentialism, Ethics, Happiness, Liberty, Metaphysics, Morality, Plato. Aristotle. and Other Greek Philosophers, René Descartes, Self-Help, Virtue Theory