Dear Bryan,

Eh. Hmm.


I think I agree with your general inference, as I read it: namely, that true human fulfillment (the Aristotelian “good life,” or eudaimonia) is more valuable and more desirable than what Jennifer Senior calls “happiness.” But I want to make two points in response to your post: The first is a cautious suggestion that perhaps your understanding of eudaimonia is thin on happiness. The second is a case for the imprudence of ceding the word “happiness” to those–like Senior–who fail to properly understand it.

As I read your commentary on Senior’s piece, it sounds to me like you’re saying something along the lines of: “Forget happiness! What we really want is eudaimonia!” I think, though, that a fully developed understanding of eudaimonia implies a lot of the same things that we find in the word “happiness” commonly understood, and even some of the things that Jennifer Senior means by it. Yes, Aristotle emphasizes communal life and responsibility, but he’s not a Stoic. As you very well know, the Greek eudaimonia means “good-spiritedness”–a concept that most of us intuitively connect, if not identify, with happiness. More than that, though, Aristotle’s good life is defined by the exercise of virtue. To live well is to live virtuously. And virtue, for Aristotle, is inextricable from pleasure; it is the state of finding pleasure in the good and displeasure in the bad. Sure, the virtuous person will frequently endure unpleasant circumstances, but Aristotle argues that virtuous action is the kind most likely to produce true happiness in the well-formed man. You allude to this with your point about learning to love parenthood and when you say “the best life will end up desiring the best things,” but I think a well-rounded treatment of eudaimonia requires stronger emphasis on the idea that a well-lived life is going to make man happier than any other kind of life.

This brings me to my second point, which may prove to resolve the first. As far as I can tell, you are using the word eudaimonia to refer to the Aristotelian good life and the word “happiness” in the same way that Senior uses it: interchangeably with things like “the experience of pleasure,” “the absence of any hardship,” and “the fulfillment of desire.” This may have been a strategic decision and one made solely for the sake of clarity, but I want to push hard for the proposition that it was an unwise one. If you accept an understanding of eudaimonia that bears any connection at all to a common-sense, everyday-language understanding of happiness (and if you don’t, I would love to hear why not), then allowing “happiness” to serve as a foil for eudamonia (e.g., “the fulfillment of desires may lead to happiness, but not necessarily eudaimonia”) is both misleading and incoherent. Doing justice to eudaimonia is essential for the success of any argument–like yours–that seeks to emphasize the value of the well-lived life over a shallow view of life as one big party. If you allow Jennifer Senior’s constricted understanding of “happiness” to co-opt the term that everyone understands as his ultimate goal, you disserve everyone: sociologists cannot see how their findings fail to answer fundamental human questions, your colleagues cannot understand your argument, and the average reader cannot understand that living virtuously will actually bring him happiness.


1 Comment

  • Bryan Wandel
    July 19, 2010

    Bryan Wandel

    Dear Miriel,

    Thanks for the thoughtfulness, and sorry of the late response, as I just noticed your post.

    Who doesn’t want happiness?! Of course.

    The question is how far that desire for happiness is going to guide our moral actions. Happiness is not acheived if pursued, so they say, for its own sake. But why? Well, at least part of the Aristotelian answer, as I mentioned, is that we don’t always want the right things. The fulfillment of wants will give some pleasure, which would certainly have to be called a kind of happiness. Will it be the best or the most happiness? Depends on the desires.

    A Christian understanding, though, is going to throw in not only the problems of sin and sinfulness – which add a new dimension of struggle, asceticism, and perniciousness to human life – but along with it a somber recognition of human limits, including the fact that the perfection of all things will not come until Jesus returns.

    But beyond this I have a further concern. And that is defining morality in terms of how I experience my morality, subjectively – how doing the right things will lead to my own happiness. Will they?

    Why do you help the old lady cross the street? For yourself or for the old lady? In fact, if you could be guaranteed that the action would never affect the rest of your life, would it still be right? Of course! This problem comes out more in the issue of dying for someone else’s sake. Or, to make an analogy, the most pure love that you can give is entirely for the sake of the other person.

    The “best life” should only be another way of phrasing “the right way to live.” If we love because God made us as loving people, who will really feel loved? But if we love because God made each other person capable of being loved, then that love is “other-centered.” Similarly, morality must focus on the ends of others.

    So, first, I would like to stress happiness as being ephemeral, and therefore an unworthy guide to moral activity, unless it is indirect. And if indirect, then what will lead us there? In that way, I am using eudaimonia to stress “the right life” over “the good life” – arguing in terms of the latter seems that it will always risk a shift of the argument onto terms that may not be beneficial.