What is the ethics of happiness

What does happiness mean in ethics?

To understand happiness as a concept of moral philosophy is on the one hand near and on the other hand far. It is obvious because in ethics we talk about principles of human behavior and these cannot be meaningfully formulated without taking anthropological foundations into account. After all, one can only morally command what is actually possible. It would be simply absurd to say: “You are a bad person if you don't jump ten meters at least once a month!” You have to be able to do what you are supposed to do. And - in a way - want to do too. The question of what morality can be expected of people - bearing in mind their nature - comes into focus. The consideration of happiness in ethics is far removed, but for an equally convincing reason: morally, under certain circumstances, that which does not necessarily and certainly not immediately make you happy is also required. There are other reasons for morality than will: reason, necessity, revelation. A feeling of happiness does not always result from moral behavior. Hardly anyone wants to pay taxes, talk to the homeless or spend hours company with a stubborn, aggressive dementia patient. And yet we see that it is good.

If one now regards the pursuit of happiness as an anthropological constant and happiness as the target of personal fulfillment of life (and one must), the concept experiences its ethically relevant tension in the fact that such an individualistic compulsion to develop runs contrary to general moral imperatives. This is how the classic antagonisms of moral theory arise: “good life” versus “just life”, Aristotelian eudaimonia versus Kantian duty.

In the context of Prussian Pietism, Immanuel Kant developed his concept of a deontological ethics, which he established autonomously (categorical imperative) and did not develop its effect as a traditional heteronomous command (Decalogue). He thus takes into account his aversion to new eudaemonistic currents, which threatened to break into the continent with Bentham's early utilitarianism: duty and command instead of happiness and pleasure. The problem, however, is that not only do good and happiness fall apart, love and other virtues are also made a duty after they have been withdrawn from their Christian context, in which they also have a normative effect (Jesus' lex nova is also a commandment and not just a non-binding recommendation on how to live), but are basically a consequence of religiosity, insofar as man turns to God and then his love, the hope that he experiences in the relationship with God, the good that is given to him by God et cetera carries on.

With Kant they are no longer persecuted for their own sake and because of their revelation content (and thus their moment of happiness), but as a consequence of being faithful to the commandments. It is no longer valid: Become happy through a virtuous (= good) life, but: The commandments are good, it is your duty to obey them. Luck no longer plays a role, it is excluded from morality. A dangerous undertaking, because - as was assumed - we cannot live without the pursuit of happiness. We have to take this into account as an anthropological constant. On the other hand, we cannot live without mandatory morality - a real dilemma. In Kant there is still a trace of happiness in observing the moral law. Moral action is in principle out of duty, but it causes a deep inner emotion, a movement that Kant calls respect. This respect for the moral law, which everyone feels, builds a bridge to the teleological ethics of the pursuit of happiness. However, this bridge was built much earlier, more stable than with Kant, where it seems rather fragile and swaying, over the deep ravines of the motivational underdetermination of the categorical imperative. The natura humana, as it is described by Thomas Aquinas, paves a broad path for the understanding of ethics “from within” and thus complements the external aspect of command-oriented moral philosophy and theology. Even more: it becomes the law of life that precedes all virtues as well as all laws and commandments. The contradiction between virtue and duty in the basic concepts of ethics of aspiration and ought is broken when, with reference to this law of life, it is shown that the commandments of God correspond to human nature, i.e. the strivings of our soul, and that man qua natura to the good and the truth is aligned, which includes one's happiness and well-being. The pursuit of happiness and the accomplishment of the good are therefore - as Thomas claims - not in contradiction to one another, but they are mutually dependent. Three things are decisive for Thomas: 1. Happiness as the ultimate goal (he takes this from Aristotle). 2. The good as an expression of happiness. 3. The fulfillment of human striving for happiness in faith in God; Happiness consists in God: “For happiness is the perfect good which completely fulfills striving. Otherwise it would not be the ultimate goal if there was still something worth striving for. The object of will, that is, of human endeavor, is common good, just as the object of intellect is common truth. Hence it is clear that nothing other than general good can calm the will of man. This is not found in something created, but only in God, because every creature only has goodness through participation. Hence the happiness of man consists in God alone ”(Summa theologica, I-II q. 2 a. 8).

Thomas Aquinas brings freedom - understood as "freedom for good" - and happiness together by anthropologically justifying the Aristotelian connection between happiness and morality: The pursuit of happiness and the good are different expressions of the one human nature. The natural moral law is thus an internal one, it is written in the heart and mind of man, even if it can be expressed in external command form, such as in the Golden Rule. The nature of man awakens the virtues and thus provides the condition for the possibility of insight into the validity of moral rules, which could not be imparted, learned and obeyed if the decisive driving force for their recognition did not lie in man. The anthropological consideration and the awareness of what man is, precedes ethics.

As the foundations of the natural law, Thomas identifies the central tendencies of natura humana, the tendencies toward the good, toward the preservation of life, toward sexuality, toward truth and toward living in community. This shows what makes people happy in terms of content. Basically, a return to the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition of striving for happiness and the good and a renunciation of pietistic lawfulness can be stimulated for Christian ethics. However, this does not mean a naturalization of ethics or the abolition of moral theory by the fallacy from being to what is ought, but the need to clarify the image of man before a discourse on values ​​and morality, an awareness that the internalization of external law is only possible if that Law, in turn, is an expression of inner disposition, i.e. ultimately the recognition that the relationship between duty and the pursuit of happiness must and can proceed from the latter, since the desire for good and truth is inherent in every human being, just like the pursuit of it Luck. The striving for happiness, the good and the truth thus coincide in a harmonious triad, compliance with the law consequently happens from an inner drive, because one considers the action required in the norm to be worth striving for from one's own insight. The ought does not turn out to be a contradiction, but a coherent expression of the will, at least as far as the will is not limited to drives, spontaneous desires and inclinations, but reflects these feelings and is capable of far-sighted, mature decisions. Harry Frankfurt coined the term “volation of the first and second order” to differentiate the two types of will, which distinguishes the desire for immediate instinctual satisfaction from the critical-reflexive examination of the consequences of the wish's realization. For example, anyone who goes on a diet may, despite the great desire to reduce body weight, have the spontaneous desire to eat a piece of cream cake. This would be a first-order volation, that would be a second-order volation. In this respect, dutifully following the rules creates the deep joy that makes people happy and thus does justice to their natural striving for happiness. Only the observance of the law (ought) thus realizes the hope for one's own happiness (striving). Happiness can thus be described as a “correspondence between indicative and imperative determinateness of the self”, as Johannes Drescher puts it.

Interestingly, this image of man in Thomas ’natura humana is supported today in this sense by findings from psychology and neurobiology. While the concept of cognitive dissonance of the psychologist Leon Festinger describes a feeling of joylessness as a result of moral misconduct, which indicates that we are naturally predestined to act in accordance with our value convictions and that every deviation initially disturbs us, the sociobiologist recently noted Eckart Voland in a dispute with the theologian Eberhard Schockendorff: “Even without having read the Sermon on the Mount or Kant, people can save the lives of others at enormous personal costs. There are impulses in us that force us to behave. "

The rehabilitation of happiness in moral theory is one of the most important, but also one of the most difficult tasks in philosophical ethics. Important, because it doesn’t work without luck, difficult because it is easy to misunderstand if there is not a sufficiently precise distinction between felicitas and fortuna. Thomas Aquinas showed the way here.

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