ETHICS 101. THE TERM PAPER THAT CHANGED MY LIFE.

To give you a little back story... When I went to school at the University of Georgia, I took an Ethics class where we discussed...ethics. All semester long we read the great philosophers...Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hobbes, Hume, etc etc. For months we debated and argued "Why be moral, why be ethical?" From what we read and discussed it SEEMED that most philosophers agreed that the reason we should be ethical was so that we could be happy. But they could never agree on what happiness is, because it means different things to different people, groups, nationalities, sexes, et al. And there's the question of "If you are ethical to gain happiness...who are you trying to make happy? Yourself? Your family? Your particular group that you are a part of? Your God? Your country? All people of your race? Who?" What brings one person/group happiness does not always satisfy another.

So, for our final term paper, my professor assigned the question "Do you agree that happiness is the goal of ethics?" After MUCH deliberation this was my reply:


Do I agree that happiness is the goal of ethics? That is quite a question. It sounds good at first, and even second glance. After giving it a lot of consideration, I have to disagree and say that there is too much about that idea that falls short. To begin with, happiness is defined as: "the quality or state characterized by or indicative of pleasure, content, or gladness." Happiness, therefore, is a state of feeling. Moral philosophy is a rational discipline and, as such, I don't think it makes sense to say that the goal of ethics is something as mysterious and intangible as a feeling . Instead, I would start out with a statement that Michael Wagner made in 'An Historical Introduction to Moral Philosophy' -- that "Moral philosophy (or ethics) literally refers to a love of wisdom pertaining to our conduct or chosen actions." Therefore, it makes more sense to me that wisdom is the goal of ethics. I think it is no coincidence that many, if not most philosophers emphasize reason rather than emotion when building their arguments. If happiness truly was the goal of ethics, I think that would be different. How can we chase a feeling with the language of logic? Happiness is a temporal thing, and any theory based on the premise that we can be consistently or even mainly happy if we just follow XYZ is bound to have serious problems. If any of these theories actually did bring happiness, I believe that humanity would have latched on to them already. I know that most philosophers (at least the ones we've read) believe that happiness is the goal of ethics, but when I really look at their positions, their arguments either fall short or point elsewhere. Though they may be arguing for happiness, their means of doing that often seem as if they are actually arguing for wisdom as the true goal.

When you first assigned this essay, I wanted to ask you to change it to focus on reason instead; but now I'm actually grateful that you asked what you did. Once I really started to explore this question, I began to see some of the philosophers (and their arguments) in a different light. In Euthydemus, [*note: a book by Plato*] Plato began by asking "Do not all men desire happiness?" Instead of considering this the thrust of his argument, as I did, I now see it as being the hook to get people's attention. Plato builds his case like this:

  1. All humans desire happiness.
  2. Doing things right (being ethical) is what brings happiness.
  3. Wisdom is what makes us able to do things right.
He takes us from "You want happiness, right?" to "If you make wisdom your goal, you'll be able to do things right and then you'll be happy." If we want happiness, we should make wisdom our goal. Happiness seems to be the proposed outcome of wisdom, not the goal itself. Under this premise, I had to ask myself why Plato didn't come out and say that, why finagle and sneak wisdom in the back door like that? In trying to understand this, I think it's important to be realistic about how people are. If you give a person the choice of two doors, one marked "How to Be Happy" and the other "How to Be Wise", most people would jump at the "Happy" door. Plato must have known this, for he began by saying, in effect, "Go ahead, open the Happy door, we all want to !" From there he leads his listeners, slowly and deftly, to the conclusion that behind the "Happy" door is a sign that says "See Door of Wisdom". At the end of of his book, Plato even says: "Seeing that all men desire happiness, and happiness...is gained by a...right use of the things of life, and the right use of them...is given by knowledge, - the inference is that everybody ought to by all means try and make himself as wise as he can." We may think that happiness is the ultimate goal, but since (per Plato) wisdom is "the only good" then it stands to reason that it can be the only goal. I found the same kind of thing in Augustine's [*note: another philosopher*] perspective. Augustine equated happiness with fullness, and fullness with wisdom. He believed that knowledge and wisdom is what satisfies the soul. Why NOT just say that wisdom is the goal? If we are happy when we are full, and we are full when we are wise -- then happiness is an offshoot of wisdom, not the other way around.

One of the main faults I find with the idea of happiness being the goal of ethics is that on a practical level, it doesn't work. When I think of the most ethical people I know or have heard of, not only have their lives often been difficult (for them, those around them, as well as for the world in general), but their lives often end in tragedy. Sadat, Rabin, Martin Luther King, Gandhi (etc) were all shot to death precisely because their ethical efforts towards peace and change were seen as a threat. On a personal level, some of my wisest choices and most ethical behavior have lead to some of my most miserable times. All this would seem to indicate that ethics and ethical behavior does not necessarily lead to happiness. Since that is true, how can we realistically say that happiness is our goal? Say what you will, but I don't think you can legitimately claim that happiness is the goal of ethics when there are so many cases where that is clearly not so. As demonstrated by the lives and deaths of people like MLK (et al), a personal and/or cultural dedication to ethical behavior creates a lot of problems for and dissension among other people. It often requires an examination of one's own beliefs and actions, as well as willingness to change or admit ignorance. Most people would rather avoid these things at all costs. It causes stress, anger, confusion, and frustration... the antithesis of happiness. Yet, the most unethical and destructive people in history have typically been the ones who refuse to put themselves through this type of pain. There is a word used in psychology called "denial". Denying what is true, wise, and real. Denying that something needs to change. I know from my own life, as well as from the lives of other people, that denial feels a whole lot better than being honest, but I can in no way say that denial is more ethical or preferable than the truth. Coming out of denial is very painful and doesn't actually lead to happiness, but some choose to do it, not for happiness' sake... but for wisdom's.

There are too many choices, difficulties, and challenges in life to consider happiness the ultimate goal. If we do, we are destined to be miserable when we are not consistently happy. One of the paradoxes we talked about in class is that if we make happiness our goal, we will never find it. J.S. Mills said, "Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so." ..."but the rational is endurable" (Epictetus). How can philosophers ignore the truth of that and proclaim that happiness is the goal of ethics? If happiness is our goal, then we rob ourselves of the benefits of pain and disappointment. There is a quotation from William Saroyan that I think is apropos: "Good people are good because they come to wisdom through failure." I don't know anyone who would equate failure with happiness. Yet often, those unhappy experiences are much more beneficial. What OF all those times and circumstances where being ethical produces pain instead of happiness? Epicurus [*note: another philosopher*] addressed this by saying that all pleasure is good, but not desirable; and all pain is evil, but not necessarily to be avoided. Then he leaves it up to us to figure out which is which. I have the same problem with this as I do with Utilitarianism. [*note: the ethical doctrine that says our goal should be to make the biggest group of people happy.*] Both assume that we can and will know what the future holds, that we can weigh, measure, and predict with a high degree of certainty. I agree that we can predict some things to some extent, but to base a whole belief system on that assumption is ignorant... even dangerous. We may be wise, but we should not overestimate our wisdom. I think it is much wiser, though not as comforting, to agree with Socrates..."I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance." From that stance, we will not put ourselves in the position of having to pretend we know something when we do not... or of having to settle for an incomplete or inadequate belief system.

Another problem I have with happiness being the goal of ethics is something we have asked continually throughout this quarter... "Happiness for whom ?!" We have debated this again and again and there still seems to be no agreement. Happiness for everybody, happiness for the most people, happiness for my particular group, happiness for me. Not only can philosophers not agree on who gets the happiness, but at a more fundamental level, they can't even agree on what happiness is. It is defined differently by different people. It's a matter of degree, of opinion, of personal interest. "Happiness is the only good in and of itself." No, it's "singleness of mind." It's pleasure. Oh no it's not ! Okay, it IS pleasure... but you know that there is qualitative and quantitative... OY ! Philosophers can't even come close to agreeing to what this supposed goal of ethics actually means ! They don't seem to have any such problem with wisdom, another reason to consider wisdom the true goal. Unlike happiness, wisdom is something that everyone may have and strive for without robbing someone else of their wisdom. Wisdom can transcend culture, convention, and personal taste. Happiness is a fickle master with a different face for every person, culture, and era. Provided we accept that we are slouching toward wisdom and not fully possessing it, wisdom is something that builds over the centuries, to be added to and influenced by different perspectives. That seems a lot more tangible, lasting, and realistic than happiness. When wisdom changes faces, it can be seen as a natural progression... "We didn't know this, now we do. GOOD !" But when happiness changes faces, it seems disconnecting and disconcerting... "This USED TO make us happy, but now it doesn't. What now ?"

I see a lot of potential benefits if we consider wisdom our goal. In the cases of Hobbes and Hume [*note: 2 more philosophers, surprise surprise*] (who agree on what we are doing as a society but not on why we do it), I think their positions would be significantly more realistic and encompassing if wisdom was their focus. Neither Hobbes' (it's all out of self interest) nor Hume's (we are just brimming with sympathy) extreme view is practical in and of itself. Wisdom would take everything into account and incorporate the reality, existence, and importance of both sentiment and self-interest instead of foolishly trying to prove one point at the expense of the other. It seems clear to me that humans are both selfish AND sympathetic. Though some people (philosophers included) are willing to stick with an incomplete or faulty argument just because they would rather live with those discrepancies than with the discrepancies of other arguments - if wisdom were our goal then we would not have to (or want to) buy into something that is full of holes.

Philosophers have been debating what would make us happy for thousands and thousands of years and mankind is STILL not happy. Evidently, happiness as the goal of ethics doesn't bring happiness. If humanity changes its approach, admits we are not as wise as we wish, and begins to make wisdom our goal - perhaps we will begin to find the peace and happiness we wanted all along. It can't POSSIBLY hurt to try. Kant said, "Morality is not properly the doctrine of how we make ourselves happy, but how we make ourselves worthy of happiness." I think that is what wisdom truly does. It certainly doesn't assure that we will be happy, but it leads us to worthiness. I hope that attitudes and imagined goals change with time because, as evidenced by the world around us, pursuing happiness as the goal of ethics has not worked for humans. Maybe it's time we changed our goal.




So, that's the paper. What I realized (much MUCH later) was that writing this paper caused me to change the whole way I look at life. I reread it recently and was shocked to see how much I have taken from this paper. That's how I live now, always looking for wisdom. I stopped being overly concerned with how happy I am... and am a LOT happier, (saner, better off generally) NOW than I ever was. It's really hard to explain... but it actually works that way !! (My boyfriend liked it so much he said "You GOTTA put this on your website !!") I HIGHLY recommend living this way... think about it, will you? It may just save your life, too.