Greek Virtue, Self-Actualization, and Happiness
To the ancient Greeks, happiness is the end goal of life. Virtuous behavior contributes to moral excellence. Moral excellence can contribute to a happy life.
Thus, being a moral person is essential to living a life of happiness. A person achieves happiness by possessing the dispositions (i.e., tendencies) to make the right choice at the right time in the right way.
Morality applies to one’s personal beliefs and choices in life. Ethics is a set of rules that contribute to leading a moral life. We can view ethical behavior as a pathway to achieve a moral life; hence, a happy life.
Ethics can be loosely defined as a set of values that contribute to the betterment of one’s life – i.e., honesty, trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, and being a person of integrity. Ethics if often thought of as a set of principles to guide one’s actions and behaviors. Application of those principles in our daily life should lead to happiness.
A few caveats underlie my thesis about ethics and happiness:
- The pursuit of happiness is a worthwhile goal.
- Knowledge, judgment and wisdom are essential ingredients in making the right choices in life and lead to happiness.
- To be truly happy, people should act from a “moral point of view:” they are willing to place the interests of others ahead of their own – at least sometimes.
- Each of us possesses the necessary courage to withstand pressure to deviate from the right path.
- What is right and what is wrong is not limited to a set of general rules of behavior but, more so, to developing the traits of character (i.e. virtues) that lead to a life of excellence.
We all face moral dilemmas in life. For Aristotle and Plato, the founding fathers of virtue, we cannot use a general principle to determine the right course of action. Instead, we need to look at what good and virtuous people would do, as these people would be able to really understand a situation and see what is best to do.
Aristotle defines human happiness (which can only be sought via virtuous means) as being different from sensuous pleasures (which he describes as what we know now are vices. Our function as human beings, he says, is not to pursue pleasures such as sex, money, and rock and roll [my words; Aristotle thought more in terms of animal desires], but instead to pursue virtues such as knowledge, courage, and temperance.
A good person has good character traits – such as generosity, friendship, and kindness – and will use these traits in making moral judgments and decisions. They will take pleasure in sacrificing their own comfort for the good of another.
Altruistic behavior is all around us. Some people take pleasure in charity work and doing acts of kindness. Others believe in the philosophy of “paying it forward.” Still others sacrifice their own health and welfare for the good of humanity. Mother Theresa is a shining light of sacrificing for the good of others. Soldiers do so every day they are on the battlefield.
Happiness depends on ourselves. Aristotle saw it as the central purpose of human life and a goal in itself. Aristotle believed that a genuinely happy life required the fulfillment of a broad range of conditions, including physical as well as mental well-being.
Today, what most people want from life is the realization of fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities, especially considered as a drive or need present in everyone. We seek to fulfill our purpose in life. We devote time and effort to what Maslow called self-actualization, the highest human need and one that leads to happiness. Self-actualization is a state in which people are at their very best.