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Philosophy Then

Living the Good Life

Peter Adamson ponders the ancient ethics of happiness.

These days, when students are first exposed to philosophical ethics, they are typically presented with three rival approaches. First, consequentialism, which says that moral life is a matter of determining which actions will produce the best results overall, and then performing those actions. Second, deontology, which involves discovering the rules or norms that guide good actions, and obeying those rules. Third, eudaimonism. This term derives from the Greek word eudaimonia, which had the connotation of being 'blessed’, but usually translates to ‘happiness’. Eudaimonism, then, says that ethics is about figuring out how to be happy.

What students may not be told is that for quite a long time all ethical theory in the European tradition was eudaimonist. It was the only game in town. The classical ethical schools had many disagreements, but they all claimed to have identified the best way to live – by which they meant, the way of life that makes us happy. This goes even for the ancient Skeptics, who thought that their methods for refuting all claims to knowledge would ultimately lead to ‘freedom from disturbance’ by curing us of anxious worry about whether our beliefs are true. It’s true of ancient hedonists too, such as the Epicureans. Their advice was to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, which sounds consequentialist; but Epicurus made it very clear that he too was teaching his followers how to live undisturbed, or as we might say, with peace of mind. Moreover, Epicureans are concerned with their own individual pleasure, not that of other people, at least in the first instance.

This brings us to an obvious objection to eudaimonism, which is that it is self-centered. How can an ethical theory focused on making me happy explain my moral duties towards other people? Certainly, I might want to ensure that my family and friends, or even my fellow citizens, are faring well, simply for my own sake. I don’t want to live amidst miserable people, after all. In fact, Aristotle, often credited as the central thinker of eudaimonism, spends considerable time explaining why the happy person will form friendships. It is harder, though, to say why a eudaimonist should care about the welfare of strangers. Furthermore, it seems strange that I should care about other people only as an indirect consequence of caring about myself. Scholars have thus often debated whether Aristotle’s arguments can give us grounds for genuine altruism.

Something similar is true of a eudaimonist tradition from another ancient culture, Buddhism. Not unlike Epicurus, the Buddha’s teaching focuses on freeing oneself from suffering. In the Buddha’s case, the advice is to let go of desire. That also doesn’t sound very apt for generating a caring attitude towards other people. Buddhists would say that it does, though. Since making oneself happy requires giving up on desiring things for oneself, it is the opposite of a self-centered philosophy. By giving up desire, one will even develop compassion for other people. But it is not immediately clear why a positive feeling of compassion should ensue from the negative state of lacking desire.

This is not to say that these ancient traditions cannot account for altruism, but it is to say that if they can accommodate altruistic attitudes, they will do so only indirectly, as a kind of by-product of seeking happiness for oneself. By contrast, the rival ethical theories put altruism front and center. Consequentialism tells me to think about the results of my actions for everyone, not just myself; and deontology lays down plenty of rules about how to treat others. This looks like a big philosophical advantage, but it does have a downside when it comes to the question of motivation. What if I don’t particularly care about maximizing utility for other people? Or if I don’t feel like following the moral law? Upholders of these theories might say that they’re just trying to say what morality demands, and not trying to persuade anyone to respond to those demands.

But eudaimonism can claim more here. If a philosopher can give you a convincing account of the happy life, you have an immediate motivation to adopt their prescriptions. After all, as Aristotle notes, it’s a banal truism to say that everyone wants to be happy.

This helps to explain why eudaimonism was for so long the only framework for thinking about ethics in the West. First and foremost came a question that is obviously pressing for everyone: ‘What is the good life?’ Various answers were given: a life of knowledge; a life of reason; a life of pleasure; a life of virtue… Altruism could then be extracted from these answers: it is pleasant to have friends; rational to treat people justly… So eudaimonists claimed that living the good life involves being good to others, although that was not their starting point.

If this is such a natural way to think about ethics, why did rival ethical theories arise to challenge it? A full answer would be a long one, but it would need to include reference to religion. Actually, eudaimonism clung on tenaciously within the Abrahamic faith traditions. Still in medieval times, Muslims such as al-Farabi, Jews such as Maimonides, and Christians such as Aquinas put happiness at the center of ethics – but other options were emerging. Theologians like the Asharites of Islam and the voluntarists of Latin Christendom were proposing that God simply decides what is good. The reason you shouldn’t murder people is that He told you not to. And who are you to defy the commands of God?

Of course one might ask, why did God lay down exactly these commands? I suspect that Western moral thinking diverged in part because of the different answers that suggest themselves to this question. Did He issue commands with an eye to maximizing some result, or because He discerned the most rational set of laws? Or was it, perhaps, simply because He wanted us to be happy?

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2021

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1-5, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

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