Making A Man Happy Is Quite Different From Making Him Good”
(Reflections on the study of happiness by Ibtisaam Ahmed)
Thus wrote Immanuel Kant in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals first published in 1785. Kant was using the term “happy” in its eighteenth-century sense, as pleasure or good feeling and asserted that doing good (living virtuously) did not always mean feeling good (being happy). In this way Kant demonstrates a radical departure in thinking from both the Christian concept of happiness that had shaped the world he lived in, as well as from the ancient Greek world whose philosophy had been re-discovered during the Renaissance some centuries before.
“Of the ancient Greek schools there were, strictly speaking, only two, which in determining the concept of the highest good followed one and the same method insofar as they did not let virtue and happiness hold as two different elements of the highest good and consequently sought the unity of the principle in accordance with the rule of identity; but they differed, in turn, in their choice of which of the two was to be the fundamental concept. The Epicurean said: to be conscious of one’s aim leading to happiness is virtue; the Stoic said: to be conscious of one’s virtue is happiness. For the first, prudence was equivalent to morality; for the second, who chose a higher designation for virtue, morality alone was true wisdom.”
Simply put, Kant did not believe that virtue and happiness are the same thing and that there would always be a tension between moral duty and happiness. This was a radical departure from previous ideas about happiness and is in keeping with the values of the Enlightenment which ushered in the notion that the attainment of a worthy life was linked to happiness. But the questioning of older traditions and the start of individualism began earlier with Reformation and Martin Luther’s radical claims that one could have a personal relationship with God rather than faith being mediated by priests and within a church hierarchy. These changes provided the groundwork for “the truism of modern historiography that this shift from the happiness of heaven to the happiness of Earth was a product of the Enlightenment, the consequence of its assault on revealed religion and its own validation of secular pleasure.”
Yet, while the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope proclaimed, “Oh happiness! our being’s end and aim!” these new values were something of a double-edged sword. Peter Staerns notes that “On the one hand, it was now perfectly legitimate to seek happiness. On the other, not being happy, or at least not seeming to be, was a problem to be avoided.” Furthermore, the new impetus for individuals to purse their faith and well-being in their own way led to what we might think of today as a ‘right’ to happiness.
At first this sounds like a leap forward for humanity — Thomas Jefferson certainly thought so when he included in the American Declaration of Independence (1776):
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with unalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
But if virtue is no longer a component of happiness as Kant suggests, what responsibilities do we have in order to exercise any right to the pursuit of happiness? In reflecting on the changes taking place in the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, we are able to see the origins of our current idea of happiness, as an individual pursuit, separate to virtue and enough to live a ‘worthy’ life.