The Truth about Virtue and Happiness

Deal W. Hudson
October 7, 2010

During four years of college and seven of graduate school, most of it in philosophy and theology, I heard only one lecture on virtue – the virtue of art. Thus I consider it miraculous that the language of virtue has returned to public discourse. But the virtues don’t tell the whole story about human life. We need once again to begin talking about happiness.

Our ideas of happiness, implicit or explicit, inform our judgments about the virtues. How else is it possible for someone to admire the courage of adolescent rebellion against parental authority? Or how can someone see justice being served by giving mothers a “right” to kill their unborn children?

We must admit that the actual content of virtuous behavior is open to differing, even opposite, interpretations. This is where happiness comes in, or should, but happiness thus far has been ignored in this debate. My old book Happiness and the Limits of Satisfaction demonstrates that the idea of happiness needs to be seriously reexamined and that the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness has led us badly astray. Jefferson’s happiness was much closer to that of the ancient Greeks than our own.

First of all, Jefferson would reject the identification of happiness with “feeling good” and “self-satisfaction.” This unquestioned assumption is running amuck ruining lives and institutions. Secondly, we need to rediscover the moral meaning of happiness, precisely where Jefferson found it, deeply rooted in the traditions of classical and Christian ethics.

It will certainly come as a surprise to most, as it did to me, that there was a time when you could call no one happy who wasn’t also making a serious attempt to be morally good. To call someone happy, even oneself, implied a moral judgment and was not simply a statement about someone’s apparent feelings.

So to be happy, in this ancient and Christian sense, requires the virtues. But the virtues also require happiness – because a person’s awareness of the final end he seeks determines his understanding, and actual content, of the specific virtues. This is why the same act can appear virtuous to one person and objectionable to another. This is why the present discussions of virtue are only the first step.

No doubt the revival of interest in the virtues reminds us that lives are not governed at every turn by a mental checklist of rules and commandments. Human beings will inevitably follow their dispositions – habits of thought, action, and emotion. Better lives and better communities will result from focusing on these wellsprings of action, rather than on clamoring for adherence to abstractions. No one, for example, who is incapable of temperance is capable of obeying a commandment consistently.

If the importance of virtue can be restored, why not make the restoration complete by addressing the meaning of happiness? People are reluctant to tackle the question of happiness for at least two reasons. Obviously, the idea of happiness itself has been discredited, and those who talk about it can appear like another huckster on the self-help market. But more important, to ask about happiness is to ask about the purpose of human life. And about this people clearly differ, sometimes quite bitterly.

It is easier, frankly, to talk at a level where people of totally different purposes can use an identical moral vocabulary and avoid public disagreement. Discussions of happiness expose these differences. They force people to reveal their bottom line, what they live for, what they are willing to sacrifice and suffer for.

Happiness and suffering – these are words that are rarely seen together. To an age so preoccupied with maximizing satisfaction and delight they will seem not merely unrelated but diametrically opposed. The moral meaning of happiness will be recovered only when our vision of the happy life is widened to include suffering. By this, I mean the suffering we undergo for the good and for God, and also the unexpected suffering that visits us as limited and vulnerable creatures.

This is precisely why thinking about happiness points back to the necessity of virtue. The virtues are those dispositions – those habits of the heart – that keep us on track when the soul and body are shaken. Without the virtues we cannot pursue true happiness; without happiness, we cannot recognize true virtues.

Let’s start telling the whole story.

This column originally appeared in the January 1996 issue of Crisis Magazine.