Philosophy and happiness

Philosophy and Ethics

Why is ethical behavior important?

Many people believe that there is a lack of clear moral thinking in society today. Aristotle's Ethics was written in the fourth century BC, but since then human beings seem to have progressed painfully slowly with regards to extending the application of ethical behavior widely in our society.

Aristotle said "a complete life" is required for happiness. The young are neither happy nor unhappy. We can only judge whether we have had a happy life when we reach the end of it. So it follows that how we behave on the way is crucial to our happiness.

If a man spends his life denying his wrongdoing by telling lies and distorting the truth, generally behaving unethically as typically do narcissists, as he ages and looks back on his life, will he be proud of his achievements? Will it bring him pride and pleasure? Will it make him happy?

The pleasures of the aesthetic are short-lived and unreliable, while the pleasures of the ethical are compassionate and long-lasting.

But at what point does unethical behavior make him unhappy? Is it a gradual process? Can he continue denying his wrongdoing until the very end of his life?

The problem is that at some point, sooner or later, he will have to start thinking about going to heaven or going to hell when he dies. He'll most likely deny that any decision has to be made, consciously; but we all have a subconscious. Will his subconscious be trying to make the decision? If it does, will this cause anxiety and pain?

In Either/Or, Kierkegaard identified three types of existence, the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. The aesthetic referred to personal, sensory experiences and involved living for the moment. It refers to a pleasure seeking, largely materialistic and hedonistic lifestyle, although it finds its highest expression in music, the theatre, and love. The ethical involved an obligation to living a social and morally proper life, fulfilling obligations, being honest with oneself and others. The religious life involved accepting the ethical ideals as part of a wider obligation to humanity and God.

The pleasures of the aesthetic are short-lived and unreliable, while the pleasures of the ethical are compassionate and long-lasting.

Aesthetics and ethics

Kierkegaard believed that dissatisfaction with the aesthetic and ethical elements of life was the cause of feelings of guilt and anxiety. The alternative was a religious existence.

But Kierkegaard didn't advocate a purely ethical or religious lifestyle; he recognized that human beings make choices motivated by both aesthetic and ethical reasons, recognizing the human need for pleasure seeking. However, he did believe that humans can only be sure of doing the right thing by trying to do God's will. Only by accepting that God is always right and by trying to do God’s will, can a person escape unhappiness.

On the other hand, Albert Einstein didn't believe that an ethical lifestyle should be linked to doing God's will. He said:

A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.

Einstein was a scientist, not a philosopher, albeit a brilliant scientist; but perhaps he had a point!

The point is that it doesn't really matter if God exists or not. It is the belief that you are doing the right thing, being honest, kind, and thoughtful to others. We need a direction to point towards. If pointing towards God enables you to behave in a moral and ethical way, and the by-product is that you lead a happy life, you don't need to prove God's existence; belief is enough.

Those human beings who spend their lives denying their wrongdoing by telling lies and distorting the truth, and generally behaving unethically may still claim that they are happy. But if they lie and distort the truth, can we believe them?

Many of the greatest thinkers of the last 25 centuries, including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kierkegaard, Epicurus and Mill, suggest that leading an ethical life will at least lay the foundation to relieve suffering of the mind.

For more information about philosophy, ethics and happiness, read Finding Happiness.