From The Credo
The Virtue in Happiness
Eudaemonia is often directly translated into English as ‘happiness’, but this is not entirely accurate. The word derives from the ancient Greek eu meaning ‘good’ or ‘in balance’ and -daemon, ‘spirit’, and so, the word has a broader meaning of happiness as a state of a good spirit, and a state of being that is in balance. Arete is the other central concept of Ancient Greek ethics. Arete means broadly ‘excellence’ but has the particular meaning of ‘virtue’, especially in relation to knowledge. Eudaemonism is the moral theory that links arete with eudaemonia and therefore, describes ‘the virtue of happiness’. Socrates, Plato, Epicurus and, perhaps most importantly, Aristotle and the Stoic philosophers discussed the nuances of eudaemonism. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics,eudaemonia is considered the highest aim of human thinking and endeavour and is something that is achieved through action (of the psyche or soul). Aristotelian ethics was considered by Aristotle himself to be unique, in that it was practical rather than simply theoretical. The Stoics, also remarkably practical in their philosophy, described eudaemonism in their teachings as the ‘good life’ – one of action, and one that is morally virtuous.
A new Eudaemonism. Redux
I wrote about a ‘new eudaemonism’ many years ago in one of my very first books. The premise was simple; that ‘right action’ is that which promotes happiness and therefore what is ‘most right’ is that which promotes the greatest amount of net happiness. I described this as a code of ethics summarised into one simple sentence: That which is most right is that which creates the greatest net happiness, and that we can use a logical razor (Harvey’s razor!) to evaluate our actions, i.e. The ‘rightness’ of an action is determined by how much happiness that action creates.
Happiness vs Ecstasy
The question arises; if ‘right action’ is concerned with creating happiness, then does that mean we should be selfish and simply do whatever is best for us in any given situation?
The short answer, of course, is no. The reality we have all experienced is that selfishness and greed do not, in fact, make us happy. They may provide for some transient ecstasy but that is fleeting, and no real lingering happiness is left, and more often than not, quite the opposite. Lasting happiness does not occur for us on balance and more importantly, there is no elevation in the overall happiness of those around us (the victims of our greed). There is, in effect, a net loss in happiness when we are selfish due to the guilt and shame for the harm we’ve caused, and the unhappiness created in that very harm.
If we pursue transient states of ecstasy at the expense of more worthwhile and lasting satisfaction, we can find ourselves constantly seeking more and stimulation and in more novel forms. Materialism and greed are very much like drugs. Just as a junkie needs to have more and more of a drug in order to get the same fix, people who are addicted to ‘things’ need more and more of those things in order to try to achieve the satisfaction they are looking for.
For example, how many people remain satisfied with the same car for any length of time? Be it a Ferrari, a Porsche or a Toyota, there comes a point very shortly after taking possession when it becomes ‘just another car’.