Happiness, Ethics and the Occupy Movement
I teach my accounting students about the Greek philosophy of ethics because I believe it provides a roadmap for living the good life. Today’s students are searching to find what will make them happy. However, they all too often look in the wrong places. Most turn to social media to connect with others and hope that it leads to happiness, or at least self-satisfaction. Some go looking in a bottle of beer, wine, hard alcohol, or drugs. Many will grow up believing the attainment of wealth will make them happy. Others will look for fame perhaps by starring in their own reality television show.
The point is young people today lack the moral compass to know that happiness comes from actions taken and goals achieved that benefit others as well as oneself. It’s a feeling that you did something good; helped someone out; achieved success in a worthy endeavor; fought for a just cause; or found the right person in life. Happiness is something fulfilling not something we happen to desire or want. We of course desire to be fulfilled, but the point is not every desire that occurs to us will necessarily fulfill us. Desires must be examined and tested. Happiness is an internal good not something we measure in dollars and cents or the achievement of power or fame.
According to the ancient Greeks, happiness is the highest good and the end at which all our activities ultimately aim. Aristotle defines the supreme good as an activity of the rational soul in accordance with virtue. Virtue for the Greeks is equivalent to excellence. A virtuous person is someone who performs the distinctive activity of being human well. And this is why virtue eludes so many in today’s society. To achieve excellence through virtue and gain happiness a person must have a strong work ethic. A person must be willing to work hard to achieve a worthy goal even at the sacrifice of self-gratification. The decline in the work ethic of young people has been discussed before and readers might be interested in my take on the issue.
Happiness is a “contact sport.” It is difficult to achieve the state of happiness when we’re too busy texting, tweeting and updating our Facebook page. We need to be engaged in direct communication. We need to be involved with others in a community of like-minded people. We need to take positive actions to achieve happiness. This is why I believe the “Occupy” movement is spreading rapidly to all parts of the world. It gives people who feel disenfranchised an opportunity to speak out with members of their community.
The just man is happy, and the unjust man is miserable,” Plato declares in The Republic. A noble thought, to be sure, but Socrates’ most famous student didn’t have data to back up his belief. Harvey James, on the other hand, does. The University of Missouri economist finds a relationship between life satisfaction and low tolerance for unethical conduct. He discussed his findings with Miller-McCune staff writer Tom Jacobs.
“I found a correlation between how people responded to ethics questions and their satisfaction with life. As part of the 2005-06 wave of the World Values Survey (which examines attitudes around the globe), respondents were asked in face-to-face interviews: On a scale of 1 to 10, how satisfied are you with your life? There were also four ethics questions that ask how acceptable or unacceptable they felt a particular practice is: claiming government benefits to which you are not entitled; avoiding paying your fare on public transportation; cheating on taxes; and accepting a bribe.
James found that people who believe that these particular ethical scenarios are not acceptable also tend to indicate they are more satisfied with life. That’s with controlling for other factors that scholars have shown are also correlated with happiness, including relative wealth. James concluded from his study that happiness is derived from doing well, and from meeting psychological rather than material or hedonistic needs. He states that “While income, personal characteristics and societal values play a role in affecting happiness, so do personal ethics.” James believe that “if the goal of public policy is to improve subjective well-being, and if subjective well-being increases when people are just, then efforts to improve the moral behavior of people will also improve overall societal well-being.”
This is the problem in America today. We do not recognize the importance of ethical behavior to achieve a just, better society for all. We are fighting against the traditional capitalistic ethic that all of society will benefit by allowing corporations to pursue their own best interests guided only be the “invisible hand” of the marketplace. However, the pursuit of self-interest by corporations has brought misery to many and that is why we have the Occupy movement. The answer is not more government regulation. The answer comes from within each of us to commit to being a good person; to treat others the way we want to be treated; to engage in civic virtue; and to act in a way that betters society. I often ask my students: When you die what do you want to be written about you on your tombstone? Is it that you were a powerful, wealthy person who achieved materialistic success? OR: Is it that the world is a better place for your having been in it?
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 7, 2011