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Commentary: Do You Deserve To Be Happy?


Do you deserve to be happy?  In this segment of FM89's commentary series The Moral Is, Fresno State philosophy professor Dr. Andrew Fiala discusses the pursuit of happiness and the question of what we ought to do to be worthy of happiness.


Scientists have developed a variety of ways to measure happiness, including measures of positive attitude, social networks, physical health, and so on.  Using these measures, The World Happiness Report recently concluded that citizens of northern European countries are the happiest.  A related Gallup Poll found that Midwestern American states are happier than Southern states.  I wonder, however, whether people in Nebraska or the Netherlands deserve to be happier than those in West Virginia or Syria.  

Our culture views the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right.  If that’s true, then Syrians deserve to be as happy as North Dakotans.  But does each person really deserve to be happy?  Criminals don’t deserve happiness—or do they?  And those who deserve happiness—saints and heroes—often fail to find it. 

The fact that morality does not guarantee happiness can leave us feeling—well—unhappy about morality.  It’s not fair that good people suffer while evil people thrive.  This problem often seems to require a theological solution.  Reward and punishment in the afterlife are thought to equalize the imbalance between goodness and happiness.

But without appealing to the afterlife, we can argue that morality make happiness more likely.  Moral habits provide social, emotional, and intellectual stability.  Morality helps us avoid guilt.  And those who are virtuous can safely say they deserve the happiness they enjoy.

The link between morality and happiness is as old as Aristotle, who told us 2500 years ago that virtuous activity was the key to wellbeing.  However, unlike today’s scientists who study happiness, Aristotle also asked whether we deserve to be happy. 

To pursue happiness without morality is to put the psychological cart before the moral horse.  A single-minded pursuit of happiness will often fail to achieve its goal.  The direct pursuit of happiness often leads to moral collapse in egoism and narrowly focused hedonism.  Ethics is not about making ourselves happy—it is about making ourselves worthy of happiness. 

Happiness should properly result from virtuous activities done for their own sake.  We don’t love our neighbors so that we can be happy.  That’s not love.  But when we love others for their own sake, we find happiness.

Some view morality and happiness as absolutely opposed—as if good people have to stoically do their duty without any joy.  But virtue does not demand misery.  It’s OK to enjoy loving your neighbor or to be proud of your virtues.  Nonetheless, the focus of morality cannot simply be self-satisfaction.  There are some things we ought to do, even though they do not result in our own happiness. Happiness may follow morality.  But the reward is usually only found when it is not directly intended.

So while we are busily pursuing happiness, we ought to consider whether we are worthy of the happiness we seek.  We also should develop compassion for those who remain unhappy despite the fact that they’ve done nothing to deserve their misfortune.  

The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.

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