We all want to be happy. Ancient philosophers like Aristotle, the Stoics and Epicurus believed that “our reasons for action arise from our interest in [eudaimonia or] a happy life” (LeBar 2020). The pursuit of happiness is a fundamental source of motivation and a primary justification for acting.
While most of us identify happiness or the good life as our main goal, we nevertheless possess at best only a vague notion of what it means to be happy. We no doubt want to be happy, but we lack a clear sense of what a happy life looks like. Without a clear understanding of what it means to be happy, we end up making choices based on misguided, flawed assumptions.
Imagine, for example, a person who is bad with money. This individual might assume that his unhappiness, his suffering, is caused by his financial insecurity. The connection between money and happiness probably seems obvious to him in his situation. He believes his money troubles cause his suffering, and he imagines that he would be happy if he could overcome this one obstacle.
When we are unhappy, we tend to focus on one thing, whatever aspect of our situation is most dissatisfactory. We wrongly assume that we would be happy if we fixed our main source of dissatisfaction. Whether it is a relationship, a job/career, our physical health…we tell ourselves – “Once I fix x, then I’ll be happy.” Perhaps such a response to unhappiness is understandable, but it oversimplifies matters and causes us to miss the mark.
“Formula for our happiness: a yes, a no, a straight line, a goal…”
Nietzsche, like the ancient philosophers before him, valued happiness. He recognized that we need to define the terms of our life, we need to get clear about what matters to us. When Nietzsche says that the formula for happiness is “a yes, a no, a straight line, a goal…”, he emphasizes the importance of choice. We affirm our values in our choices. A choice is an expression of who we are and what matters to us.
When we use our “yes” and “no” we exercise our agency. Society teaches us to be agreeable, amenable, to conform—it teaches us to say “yes” to social norms, values, and practices and “no” to self-expression and realization. When we say “yes” to fit in, to conform, we say “no” to ourselves, we say “no” to expressing our own values. Happiness therefore involves a “yes” and a “no,” because we can only be happy when we identify what matters to us, what we value, and live in a way that affirms our values.
If we take choice seriously, we exercise our agency. When we know what matters to us, what’s important, we can live accordingly. We can walk our own path, one that is clear before us because we know who we are. In Nietzsche’s happiness formula, “a straight line” suggests having a clear direction, a clear path, because one knows oneself.
“the basic fact of the human will…it needs a goal—and it would sooner will nothingness than not will.”
The final component of Nietzsche’s formula is the importance of a goal. A goal can be a unifying force, a means by which we make sense of and understand everything else in our lives. Our goals allow us to prioritize, to justify our decisions and choices, and to live without the fear of regret. A goal is the expression of our highest values, and through these pursuits we create ourselves and live our own lives.
There are (roughly speaking) 3 main approaches in normative ethics:
(1) Consequentialism: this approach takes consequences to be the main source of normative properties and thus looks to consequences to determine norms for acting. Consequentialists think morality is about the production of “good” (here defined as general welfare, general benefit, happiness, pleasure…etc.). J. S. Mill is probably the most well-known consequentialist and refined the theory of utilitarianism (which has been very influential in contemporary ethics). Peter Singer is perhaps one of the most well-known contemporary advocates of utilitarianism (though a different version than Mill’s classic formulation). See my recent article, Imagination, Happiness, and Utilitarianism, for more information.
(2) Virtue: this approach takes character to be the main feature and factor to determine norms. For virtue ethicists, right action flows from right character. Virtue ethicists are therefore concerned with how we develop into a good person by developing the right character traits and dispositions. Most ancient Greeks followed some sort of virtue ethics. Some prominent figures in virtue ethics are Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics, and, for a more contemporary example, Friedrich Nietzsche. For some virtue ethicists, moral development is about self-perfection. For more information, see my articles: What is Virtue? & Happiness & Authenticity.
(3) Deontology: Deontologists think that morality is all about rules and duty (rules and obligations). They argue that what is right depends on the rule that determines the agent’s action. Immanuel Kant is probably the most well-known deontologist (though not the only one). Kant’s moral philosophy has been hugely influential in contemporary ethics. See my recent article, Reason and Autonomy – Kant’s Ethics, for more information.
Normative moral theories are moral theories that try to establish moral norms and principles. Generally speaking, when philosophers create a normative moral theory, the standard is to create a theory that any rational being could accept. This means the goal is to create an argument that any reasonable, rational person can understand and could accept based on the reasons and support given.
Normative moral theories deal with the way we should or ought to act and therefore with how the world should be. These theories deal with choice, agency, and what is up to the individual.
A Personal Development
Moral theory tries to present a coherent, reasonable picture of what could and should be. Putting theory into practice means asking difficult questions about how to apply a given perspective in real situations.
At the heart of moral theories lies individual development and transformation. I’ve always been interested in ethics and morality because of the emphasis on personal growth and development.
Whenever one tries to apply a moral theory there are challenges. It is rare that life—how the world is—matches or fits perfectly with theory—how the world should be. The point, however, is to keep working, to keep striving to be a better person. Remember, we are dealing with how we should be, not looking for justifications for how we happen to be.
Moral theory and evaluation are about trying to transform oneself into a good person and, ultimately, transform the world as it is into the world as it should be. Morality is not about forcing views and values on others, nor is it about passing judgment.
If you only focus on what others do wrong you are not working on yourself, you are not working on your own moral development. Instead, you try to raise yourself up at the expense of others, or perhaps you aim to justify your behavior, yourself, rather than reflecting on how you could improve and what you could do differently.
Most normative moral theories focus on the individual, on one’s own development and moral transformation. This is why, I believe, we so often see in normative moral theories a connection between the good person and the good life.
A moral life is all about personal development. Stive to be good and to live a good life.
Plato begins his dialogue, Meno, abruptly. Meno poses the following question to Socrates right at the outset: “Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught?” Meno believes he understands virtue and what it entails. He admits as much to Socrates: “I have made many speeches about virtue before large audiences on a thousand occasions, very good speeches I thought.”
After a relatively short debate with Socrates, however, Meno begins to doubt his own knowledge. He doubts whether he actually knows what he thought he knew.
“Socrates, before I even met you I used to hear that you are always in a state of perplexity and that you bring others to the same state, and now I think you are bewitching and beguiling me…so that I am quite perplexed…now I cannot even say what [virtue] is.”
In Meno, like so many of Plato’s early dialogues, Socrates is able to demonstrate to someone that they don’t possess the knowledge they thought they possessed.
Plato reminds us that all learning, all growth begins when we admit that we don’t know everything.
Socrates readily admits his own ignorance in Plato’s dialogues. I’ve always found this interesting and appealing. Socrates is not some divine authority with all the answers; rather, he is portrayed, as he is—a man who is curious, who wants to know the truth and who has committed himself to the search, but who by no means knows everything. (See my related article, The Importance of Exploration and Experimentation, here.)
If Socrates did know everything, what would be the point of pursuing truth, of engaging in all the interesting debates he gets himself involved in? He admits to Meno that he doesn’t know what virtue is and hasn’t met anyone who does. (Check out my article, What is Virtue?, here.)
“Not only [do I not know what virtue is], my friend, but also that, as I believe, I have never yet met anyone else who did know.”
All learning, all growth begins when we admit that we don’t know everything.
We take for granted that the world is a certain way, or that we understand how things are, and yet when we are pushed to give a clear account we fail to explain what we claim to know. Why do we so often refuse to admit that we don’t know something or that what we know is perhaps not the whole story?
Plato’s dialogues demonstrate the importance of admitting what we don’t know. They demonstrate the role curiosity and perplexity play in fostering a desire to know, to understand, and to explore the world around us. Learning, growth—really any sort of advancement or development—requires being open to new possibilities, new ideas, and a willingness to explore the world around you.
(To learn more, see my related article, Are Hobbies Important?, here.)
Our world expands when we admit we don’t know something. Conviction creates a narrow world, one where only one interpretation is permitted.
The road to truth is paved in trial and error, in experimentation, and requires an open mind to navigate it effectively. We should all learn to be a little less certain, to cultivate the wonder and curiosity that expands our world, and to rediscover the love of knowledge and learning that permits self-growth and development.
We should learn to get comfortable in a state of perplexity.
In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle asks how we can achieve eudaimonia or the good life—how can we live a successful, flourishing life. He identifies virtue (aretê) as central to a good life. Virtue or aretê is about pursuing excellence. Being virtuous is all about developing self-control, a strong character, and a strong mind.
Being virtuous is all about developing self-control, a strong character, and a strong mind.
Aristotle believed that we cultivate and develop a strong character and self-control by developing reason and our intellect. When we lack control, we are guided not by reason and intellect but by, for example, our emotions and appetites/desires.
Virtue, then, is all about finding balance or control. Aristotle thought that there are two vice-states for each virtue, namely: one of excess, and one of deficiency.
“Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect.”
What is Virtue? – Living a Virtuous Life
To be in either vice-state, to tend towards excess or deficiency, is to lack self-control. In contrast, the virtuous state is the mean between these extremes. It represents self-control, balance, and self-possession.
“Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean…being determined by a rational principle.”
To have a virtuous character is to have the strength of character to act in accord with the mean, to do what virtue requires. We lack control, a strong character, when we are led by our emotions or desires. In such cases we are not defined by reason and are not making an active choice.
Virtue is about taking possession of oneself, of defining oneself through reason and intellect. We define ourselves by making rational choices, by choosing the mean instead of losing ourselves to either extreme. (Check out my related article Stoicism, Self-Mastery, and Freedomhere.)
The virtuous state, the mean, is one defined by balance and control. The individual who is virtuous is able to flourish because he has possession of himself and will not be thrown off course by chance or the ups and downs that are a part of life. As Aristotle writes, “he will bear the chances of life most nobly.”
“he will bear the chances of life most nobly.”
Aristotle identified habit and practice as crucial to developing virtuous dispositions. In short, we need to practice doing what is right to help form the correct traits or dispositions that are in accord with virtue. It’s about making a rational decision to start living a certain way. To that end, we can each begin by making a choice to work on ourselves, to start cultivating a strong character and a strong mind.
Virtue, like anything else, is a commitment, it is a choice to start taking control of your life. When you decide to start exercising, for instance, you make a decision to start improving your physical health. At first, you may find it difficult to stick to a routine and meet your goals. As you progress and as exercise becomes a regular part of your schedule, your routine, you will find it easier and easier to do.
It makes sense that Aristotle thought the development of a strong character and self-control was essential for flourishing and success, because they are indicative of an individual who actively chooses what he wants and how he wants to live. Aristotle thought that a good life is an active life, and that the path to success and flourishing lies in self-development and the formation of a strong character.
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The Existential Stoic Podcast Episode 5 – What is Stoicism and Existentialism? Available now wherever you get your podcasts!
What is Stoicism? What is Existentialism? Danny and Randy explore the philosophies of stoicism and existentialism in Episode 5 of The Existential Stoic Podcast. Listen to learn main ideas, values, and principles associated with these philosophies. Find out how you can incorporate stoicism and existentialism into your life.
Listen now wherever you get your podcasts or access all episodes here.
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“And if someone compelled him to look at the light itself, wouldn’t his eyes hurt, and wouldn’t he turn around and flee towards the things he’s able to see, believing that they’re really clearer than the ones he’s being shown?”
Plato introduces the Allegory of the Cave in his work Republic to explore the effect of education on the individual. He describes a hypothetical where a group of people spend the entirety of their lives as prisoners in a cave.
The prisoners are restrained such that they are able to see only the wall in front of them. The cave itself is lit only by a single fire, which is used to project shadows on the wall visible to the prisoners. The shadows comprise the prisoners’ reality—it is all they know.
“Then the prisoners would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts.”
The prisoners live in a dimly lit world. The shadows that are their reality do not provide accurate representations of objects in the real world. Though they can communicate with one another and talk about what appears before them, their reality is far from true. Nevertheless, this shadow-world is the only world they know, it is the world they are familiar with—it is the world they have come to accept as given.
If a prisoner were suddenly freed, he would therefore have difficulties making sense of the things he saw. Confused, he would be tempted to return to the familiar.
Plato uses the Allegory of the Cave to explain how a philosopher is akin to a prisoner who has been freed and who has come to understand the truth of the cave. He realizes the reality he accepted as given was not reality at all.
We all start out like prisoners in the cave. We are taught about the world, we grow up believing certain narratives, and we take these for granted because they are familiar. Indeed, challenging the dominant views of society is difficult because those around us will likely accept the shadows as truth. For the individual who pursues learning, knowledge, and self-realization, the social world presents obstacles that are difficult to overcome.
What we learn from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
Plato’s allegory of the cave teaches us that if we want to pursue knowledge and self-realization, we need to be strong, we need to cultivate an open mind, and we need to challenge the views and beliefs we accept as given. It is important to explore the ideas and explanations we have adopted to determine which, if any, explain only a world of shadows rather than the real world.
We accept the world we are familiar with, and many of us never try to move beyond this. Plato’s allegory teaches us that we should, however, because failing to seek the truth means accepting a world of shadows, a dimly lit world where one lives by ideas one can’t even be sure offer an accurate account of reality.
“Slowly, his eyes adjust to the light of the sun.”
Is Plato right?
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“it seems strange, when one assigns all good things to the happy man, not to assign friends, who are thought the greatest of external goods.”
What is a true friend? Why is friendship important?
Aristotle explores friendship in The Nicomachean Ethics to address such questions. In his exploration, he distinguishes three types of friendship and provides a unique argument for the role of friendship in an individual’s life.
Aristotle calls two types of friendship “incidental” because the love that binds the friendship is based on what one receives from the relationship. In these friendships, it is either utility or pleasure that binds the two parties in the relationship.
Aristotle’s incidental friendships are more or less acquaintances. A casual familiarity exists between the two individuals, and both get something (utility or pleasure) from the relationship.
Imagine, for example, the relationship between an individual who frequents a local coffee shop and the shop’s employee. The individual and the employee become familiar with each other over time, and each gets utility and/or pleasure from the relationship. The employee is useful to the individual because she gets service and her coffee, and the individual is useful to the employee because he gets her business that his job depends on.
In cases of incidental friendship, neither party is too concerned with the other for the sake of the other. The relationship is maintained because it is beneficial to each person to an extent that makes it worthwhile.
For instance, the relationship between the individual and the coffee shop employee might end if the customer begins frequenting another shop or if the employee finds a different job. In either case, the relationship ends because the individuals no longer receive the benefit that made the relationship worthwhile.
Aristotle identifies a third type of friendship and calls it “perfect friendship.” In a perfect friendship the love that binds the friendship is based on the good or on the goodness of the characters of the individuals involved.
Aristotle believed that perfect friends wish each other well simply because they love each other and want each other to do well, not because they expect something (utility or pleasure) from the other. So, unlike incidental friendships where some benefit begets the relationship, in perfect friendship the characters of the individuals engenders the relationship.
“Now those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends.”
Perfect friendships exist between two people who are good with respect to certain virtues or between individuals who share certain character traits or dispositions. In such friendships, the individuals truly care for each other.
These relationships are marked by a deep familiarity with the other and mutual betterment or self-development. Aristotle believes each individual gains a deeper understanding of himself and will be more likely to improve himself because he sees his friend as another self and benefits from his friend’s perspective regarding his own development.
The Happy Person Needs (Perfect) Friendship
Aristotle argues that the happy man needs (true) friends because such friendship makes it possible for him to “contemplate worthy [or virtuous] actions and actions that are his own” (Aristotle).
In a perfect friendship, a good individual befriends another good individual. Insofar as the perfect friendship is a reciprocal relationship, each wishes the other well for his own sake and, in a sense, views the other as another self. This affords the good individual the opportunity to contemplate worthy actions that are not his own (i.e., they are his friends), while still thinking of these actions as in some sense being his own because his friend is another self.
On Aristotle’s account, we see a true friend as another self because we are truly invested in our friend’s life.
“to a friend we say we ought to wish what is good for his sake.”
We experience our friend’s success and failure in a certain sense as our own success and failure. Perfect friendships, then, afford us opportunities to grow and develop, to better ourselves, that we do not get from other relationships.
“A certain training in virtue arises also from the company of the good.”
Aristotle thought that we are more likely to praise or criticize another’s action appropriately, because we can view the action from a distance. It is more difficult, however, to assess our own actions because we are involved and, for example, our own modesty or sense of pride might cloud our judgment.
In the case of (true) friends, we can assess their actions better than someone we are less familiar with because we are aware of our friend’s strengths and weaknesses with respect to virtue—we know our friend’s character.
In perfect friendship, our friend provides perspective that helps us in our development. As another self, the perfect friend also contributes to our happiness because we get to participate in and experience our friend’s happiness as our own.
“friends…the greatest of external goods.”
What do you think of Aristotle’s account? Are true friends necessary? Do you agree with Aristotle’s distinction between incidental and perfect friendships?
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