Moral Tragedy?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

MaskTragedy168It was probably Aristotle who first took careful notice of the special role that the concept of happiness plays in our thinking about how to live. Happiness, he argued, is the final end of human activity, that for the sake of which every action is performed. Although it makes perfect to sense to ask someone why she is pursuing a college degree, or trying to master chess, there is something decidedly strange in the question, "Why do you want happiness?" Aristotle saw that when explaining human action, happiness is where the buck stops.

Aristotle's insight seems undeniable, but nearly vacuous. To identify happiness as the ultimate aim of human action is simply to assert that we tend to do what we think will bring us happiness. It is to say that when we act, we act ultimately for the sake of what we take to be happiness. As appearances can be deceiving, all of the deep questions remain.

Perhaps this is why Aristotle affirmed also that happiness is the culmination of all of the good things a human life could manifest. He declared that the truly happy person not only derives great enjoyment from living, but also is morally and cognitively flawless. In fact, Aristotle goes so far as to affirm that the happy person necessarily has friends, good looks, health, and wealth. And, as if these advantages were not enough, he holds further that the happy person is invulnerable even to misfortune and bad luck. According to Aristotle, then, happiness is not simply that for the sake of which we act; it is also that which renders a human life complete, lacking nothing that could improve it. It is no wonder that Aristotle also thought that happiness is rare.

Few today subscribe to the view that complete success in every evaluative dimension is necessary for happiness. Surely a person could be happy but not especially beautiful or wealthy. It is important to note, however, that those who affirm this more modest view often take their insight to show that things like wealth and beauty are not really the incontrovertible goods that they often appear to be. That is, the claim that one might be happy in the absence of wealth and good looks is most often accompanied by the rider that these latter attributes are not especially valuable after all. Consequently, the core of Aristotle's second claim is retained, albeit in a moderated form: the happy life manifests not every good that a human life could realize, but all of the really important goods that a human life could realize.

This moderated version of Aristotle's second claim is undeniably attractive. It strikes many as obvious that success in living involves achieving a range of centrally important values; in order to be good, a life must manifest integrity, honesty, loyalty, hopefulness, kindness, determination, charity, trustworthiness, and much else. It also seems obvious to many that these success-making attributes must be manifest to the fullest degree. A person who only occasionally manifests integrity and determination, or who is sometimes disloyal and untrustworthy, is living a life that is to some degree failing from the moral point of view. He may of course feel satisfied with his life, but it is nevertheless unsuccessful.

To be sure, even on the moderated version, it is not easy to live successfully. The important goods upon whose manifestation success depends are not easily attained; one must work to achieve a good life. It is not surprising, then, that we live in a social world that inundates us with competing images of success, each promoting its distinctive conception of how all of the truly important values best can be realized and maintained. From automobile advertisements and fashion magazines to university websites, television preachers, and political candidates, the social environment is saturated with depictions of the good life, and, again, all but the most simplistic of these includes some program for achieving the right balance of all of the goods. The self-help section of your local bookstore tells the tale: success in life consists in having it all, making no compromises, missing out on nothing, achieving and sustaining all of the good things, all at once.

But what if it should turn out that success in this sense is not only hard to achieve, but impossible? What if the reason why it's so difficult to live a life that manifests all of the important goods to the fullest degree is that it is not possible to do so? Would it follow that we are doomed moral failure?

To get a better sense of the possibility we are raising, consider that our lives feature periodic episodes where we must choose not between a good and a bad, but rather between two or more goods. We sometimes can remain loyal to one person only by betraying the trust of another; in some circumstances, kindness requires dishonesty; and often seeing things clearly results in little more than a loss of hope. In cases like these, the achievement of one good requires the violation of another good. And, more importantly, it is not clear how one could determine whether in any instance the preservation of loyalty was worth the corresponding dissolution of trust. Hence it's possible that humans just can't have it all. Cases in which goods conflicts are common enough. What should we make of them?

One view claims that irredeemable losses involving important goods is an inescapable feature of human lives because strife among goods is built into the fabric of the moral universe. Another view is that the cases of strife are all due to limitations on human insight, knowledge, or imagination. According to the first view, there could be no human life without serious moral loss. That may sound harsh. However, this view offers something of a consolation: As moral loss is inevitable, it is in the end not clear how it could constitute a moral failure. The second view also seems harsh. It claims that moral losses have their roots in our limitations, and so it would appear that such losses are due to our shortcomings. However, there is consolation in the idea that finite beings are always subject to cognitive and epistemic limitations; such, after all, is part of what constitutes our finitude.

Both views at once condemn us to inescapable moral loss while offering a corresponding consolation that derives from the loss's inevitability. Both provide parallel doom and comfort in the thought that we are human, after all.

However, matters are more complicated than it might seem. We have identified only two accounts of the conflict between goods. There are other accounts, including a number that hold that moral loss is not inevitable. These views hold that every conflict among goods is resolvable either because there is always an overarching good that can adjudicate the conflict, or because the limitations on our moral understanding are surmountable. Thus, there is a conflict among two styles of thinking about moral conflicts. One holds that strife among goods is inevitable and irresolvable, and the other denies this. Can this conflict be addressed?

It matters how we think about conflicts among important goods. If we think that such conflicts are irresolvable, in the face of them we will see no point in agonizing over their resolution. In fact, agonizing over them and trying to think of solutions will seem only to their difficulty. If alternatively we think that all such conflicts admit of some resolution, then striving to find the right response might be obligatory. Consequently, the hasty inference from it being difficult to find an answer to there being no answer is not only a cognitive but also a moral error.

The trouble is that it is unclear that this conflict over how to think about moral conflict is itself resolvable. This second-order conflict is at least as vexed as any first-order conflict over goods like honesty and loyalty is. But if we don't know how to resolve the conflict over how to think about moral conflicts, a different and more thoroughly unsettling possibility looms.

According to plausible account, a morally successful life must be a life of moral reflection and command. One might say that in order to live well, one must achieve a certain level of moral understanding. One cannot live a successful life by accident; success must be in some way won by way of deliberate effort. But if we can't resolve the conflict among ways of thinking about moral conflicts, we lack a significant — some might say indispensable — ingredient of moral understanding. In the same way that we may lack real happiness if we fail to achieve some first-order good, it seems we also lack happiness if we lack this second-order good of moral understanding. Hence our lives might be condemned not only to imperfection, but tragedy too.