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be good or be happy

Be Good or Be Happy? Evergreen Insight from Fr. Servais Pinckaers, OP

October 7, 2022


“Happiness is the death of morality,” the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant famously declared. Kant’s insight is a valuable one: if we decide to act morally only when it makes us happy (what Kant called a “hypothetical imperative”), then authentic moral action—action that is not merely self-interest in disguise—will be as rare as an icicle in summer. That’s why Kant calls us to locate morality exclusively within the realm of “duty” (what he calls the “categorical imperative”): do what is right without exception independently of your “happiness.”

That’s one solution to the problem of the relationship between being good and being happy. But what a drag—especially to the secular mind’s increasingly uncloseted hedonism: Do something that doesn’t make me happy? Deny my right to self-care? Are you kidding me? Yet if “duty” can’t justify and motivate moral action, what’s the alternative? Perhaps you could choose to be an honest cynic like the character Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic: appear to be good when other people are looking, but otherwise do whatever you want if you think you can get away with it. However, even if this option accurately describes many individuals’ default practice of morality, openly embracing cynicism is indistinguishable from endorsing a Hobbesian war of all against all: with morality divorced from an objective duty to be good, each individual and group has carte blanche to exploit weakness, which ultimately leads to those with the most power, and the least reservations about using that power, dominating others—until an even more ruthless alternative arrives. (Look to the cartels in northern Mexico, or the drug gangs dominating inner cities in the United States, to observe what this theory looks like in practice.) 

There thus appears to be a dilemma at the heart of morality: On the one hand, a morality of “duty”—doing good independently of what you desire—may provide individual and social stability, but it comes at the cost of not being able to do what you really want to do, that is, what makes you happy. On the other hand, having license to do whatever you desire, may, like Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island, make you feel happy, perhaps even intensely so; but that comes at the price of individual degradation and, ultimately, societal collapse. It seems, then, that we, individually and collectively, are forced to make an impossible decision: Should I do my duty? Or should I be happy? Should we live according to a moral law? Or should we let people do what they want? 

What if it was your duty to be happy? What if it was in your self-interest to be selfless?

Classical liberal and libertarian political philosophy thinks it has found a way to thread the needle on this predicament. Based on a conception of autonomy, the “solution” takes the following form: I get to do whatever I want to do provided I respect your right to do the same. The “we” in this model is reduced to the procedural: the only thing that binds us is a system of laws that prevent people from violating each other’s autonomy. Meanwhile, everyone’s free to do what they want, when they want, and with whom they want to do it, provided there is consent. 

This splitting of the difference between being good and being happy by saying all that being “good” means is not interfering with others’ pursuit of happiness is a tempting compromise. But it begs rather than answers a fundamental question: What should I do to make myself happy? The liberal/libertarian answer, is, “Do whatever you desire to do (provided you permit others to do the same).” But then comes the next question: But what should I desire?  To which liberalism/libertarianism self-assuredly responds, “You should desire whatever you desire to desire!” And it is here where the liberal/libertarian dream begins mutating into a nightmare, where the illusion that “happiness” means the endless feeding of insatiable idiosyncratic cravings fades into the realization that the most obvious thing in life might actually be the most mysterious: What makes me—what makes us—truly happy? 

The liberal/libertarian point of view grants each of us the power to create our own answer to this question, but with two catches: First, you must accept that, whatever definition of happiness you choose, it is entirely subjective, which is another way of saying it is devoid of objective truth. Your definition of happiness is thus yours; but it is also a fancy, a whim, the grasping of a moral phantom in the darkness of equally absurd possible preferences. Second, and consequently, you can’t tell anyone, not even your own children past the age of reason, that your definition of happiness is good because that would mean that you think that they should define happiness the same way you do—“should” here meaning “obligated to believe because it’s true”—which is tantamount to violating their autonomy. This liberal/libertarian compromise on the relationship between morality and happiness thus dictates that a free choice to live on the streets injecting fentanyl into your veins is just as “good” as a free choice to work as a lifesaving, Narcan-administering EMT; the choice to turn whole urban districts into open-air drug markets is just as “good” as the choice to build parks and install new playground equipment. It’s all just preference. And in the land where preference is king, there’s no complaining about what others, individually or collectively, choose to do with their autonomy so long as no one physically assaults you or violates a contract you’ve signed. This is the price of the “live and let live” compromise: when the definition of happiness is radically individualized (and thus utterly relativized) and morality is reduced to consent, you gain the right to define the meaning of life and live it out how you chose; however, you lose the right to believe your choice, or anyone else’s choice, is anything other than arbitrary and, therefore, objectively meaningless. 

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There is, however, a fourth option for how to relate being good with being happy. What if it was your duty to be happy? What if it was in your self-interest to be selfless? What if you could align your deepest desires with the goal of becoming an objectively good person, meaning that what you want most in life—by definition, what makes you happiest—is one and the same as what morally you should do? 

This, in a nutshell, is the Catholic vision of morality, and one of its greatest recent promulgators is the late Fr. Servais Pinckaers, OP (1925-2008). Fr. Pinckaers—after whom Bishop Barron named the Servais Pinckaers Fellowship in Catholic Ethics—is well known within Catholic circles for his brilliant, Vatican II–inspired work synthesizing the different strands of moral theology—natural law, Scripture, the Church Fathers, Thomism, the manualist tradition, the Magisterium, and spirituality—into a vibrant, cohesive whole. However, Fr. Pinckaers’s insights into the nature of morality and moral freedom hold great wisdom for non-Catholics as well. He writes in his book Morality: The Catholic View, “From our birth, we have received moral freedom as a talent to be developed, as a seed containing the knowledge of truth and the inclination towards goodness and happiness, an inclination diversified according to what the Ancients called the semina virtutum, the seeds of virtue.” This moral freedom, Fr. Pinckaers explains, is not a “freedom of indifference,” meaning a freedom whose only purpose is to show obedience to external commands and to fulfill subjective desires. Rather, this freedom is what he calls a “freedom for excellence,” which is the freedom to grow in virtue and thereby conform your life—your whole being: body, mind, soul, desires, emotions—to what is objectively good and, therefore, the only source of authentic happiness. As he explains, 

Freedom for excellence engenders a moral science that directly takes up the question of happiness and the absolute good. It is a science that regards the question of happiness as decisive for the integral ordering of one’s life and the formation of one’s character. This science is organized according to the principal virtues that strengthen freedom and refine human action . . . [and] is brought to completion in the study of laws in its educational role, a role that firmly brings together wisdom and love, and even constraint, which is sometimes necessary in the struggle against evil.

To be sure, there is much to unpack here, a lifetime’s worth. As a central part of my work for the Word on Fire Institute, I intend to explain and advocate for Fr. Pinckaer’s view of morality, which is synonymous with the comprehensive “Catholic” view. In other words, to be continued. 

Yet it is enough to say now that the choice between being happy and being good is ultimately a false one. As Fr. Pinckaers shows, we need not choose between the two. The trick is to see that, if “duty” means doing good no matter what, and what is truly good is living according to God’s will, and God’s will is that each of us freely become wholly and permanently happy, then it is our duty to freely become wholly and permanently happy—no matter what. Much more than a set of rules, in other words, Catholic morality is a recipe for joy.