On human happiness or flourishing

What’s your goal? I don’t just mean today, this week, or even this year, but over the course of your life? If you try to imagine yourself reflecting back on your life towards its end, what achievement will cause you to think that your life has been good? And I purposely said ‘goal’ and not goals, even though I know that we all have many of them.

I ask because recent conversations have caused me to revisit work I was focussed on a few years ago regarding virtue ethics, and in particular its potential value as a green ethic. Environmental ethics has, to a large extent, been dominated by a utilitarian approach, an approach that focusses on ends rather than means. In attempting an impossible calculation of the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ it often seems to justify very questionable means of achieving that good. The other main approach to ethics, one adopted by many ‘hard line’ campaigners for animal rights, focuses instead on the means, and largely ignores the end. Under this approach certain acts are quite simple wrong, irrespective of context and consequences. My gripe with such an approach is that it is impossible to explain why such acts are wrong without taking into account context and consequences.

Virtue ethics, whilst taking into account both means and ends, instead focusses on the character development of the person making the decision. Under such an approach no act is good or bad, right or wrong, in and of itself – such an assessment is impossible to make. But through trying to develop certain virtues or character traits, and through the development of good habits, over the course of their life a person becomes more and more skilled in making good decisions. The character traits developed are those we think necessary in order to achieve the main goal in life. Hence my opening question. For Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher who is credited with developing virtue ethics, this goal was happiness or flourishing.

Aristotle reasoned that everything we do, we do for a reason – to achieve a certain end. But when we examine those ends we then find that they, in turn, are simply means to some further end. And when we examine this further end…you get the idea. If we follow this line of thinking through to its conclusion we arrive at a final end, what Aristotle thought the greatest good. This he termed eudaimonia, a word that is often translated as ‘happiness’. However, as his notion of happiness was not as laden with the same degree of subjectivity as our modern day notions, an alternative and better translation is flourishing.

Take my act of writing this blog for example. Why do I do it?  I often ask myself this. Very few people people read this blog, so what is the point? Well, I do it for a number of reasons: writing helps me to organise my thoughts, and having my thoughts organised helps me to explain my thinking in more pressured circumstances, and being able to do this (hopefully) allows me to persuade other people that certain decisions or courses of action are more beneficial than others. I can arrive at the same end if I follow the thread of another reason for writing, that by doing so I may engage with the thinking of others through the written word. Why do I want to persuade other people to adopt certain courses of action? Because I truly believe that these courses of action will be for the common good.

At an individual level, as an aspiring politician, to flourish I need to be able to respond to any situation with a measured, well through through and considered argument. I need to be able to get others to take my views and comments seriously, and persuade them to at least consider them, and possibly act on them. But circumstances change, and events often confront us unexpectedly. So, in a wider sense than just politics, my individual flourishing is not (and cannot be) a specific state or response. It has to be a dynamic response to circumstance, to what ever life throws at me, a response that keeps me ‘in a good place’, a place in which I am as able as possible, both physically, emotionally and psychologically, to form effective relationships with my fellow citizens and physical environment.

But no man is an island, and what applies to the individual applies to the community as a whole. A community, at any level, flourishes when it is able to respond to circumstances in such a way that it maintains healthy internal relationships between its members, and externally with its physical environment in which it is nested and upon which it is dependent for so many essential life giving elements. To my thinking, flourishing is this ability to respond and maintain healthy relationship with out fellow humans, non-human life, and the planet Earth. And if, at an individual level we are able to do this, we develop a sense of happiness. But, having arrived at some comprehension of what the greatest good (the common good, the Good) might be, how do we get there? Aristotle’s answer is by developing certain character traits, or virtues. To be continued.

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