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.

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