Morality and the Happy Life


Moonrise Over the Sea (1822) by Caspar David Friedrich (Alte Nationalgalerie)

As we have seen, impartiality is one of the central ideals in Kant’s moral philosophy. But it is not only within Kantian ethics that this notion is so highly stressed. Utilitarianism also places impartiality at center stage, with its principle of producing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Indeed, it seems that impartiality must form a necessary part of any systematic moral philosophy; at the very least, it is foundational to our intuitions about fairness. Nevertheless, the very concept of impartiality, and the systems of morality that are built upon this notion, is not without its critics. In this essay, I will examine Bernard Williams’s argument that a commitment to morality threatens the personal relationships that make our lives worth living. I will articulate why I believe this to be an error, by arguing that Williams’s challenge to morality rests on an overly shallow conception of happiness. Next, I will explore the ways in which Philippa Foot, Christine Korsgaard, and Timothy Scanlon each can be interpreted as offering the deep conceptions of happiness that I take to be necessary for any adequate account of the relationship between morality and the happy life. Finally, I will attempt to synthesize the arguments of Foot and Scanlon, and in so doing I hope to justify my conviction that the truly moral life and the genuinely happy life are one and the same.


I.   Williams’s Challenge to Impartial Morality

Bernard Williams holds that a genuine conflict between morality and happiness is possible, and he rejects the idea that moral considerations must always trump those of happiness. To be sure, Williams does not explicitly use the term “happiness”; instead, he speaks of “categorical desires” as the set of basic motivating forces which serve to give meaning and value to our lives (Williams 11-13). Williams conceives of these categorical desires as the “ground projects,” commitments, and personal relationships that we might appeal to when, in times of candid reflection, we ask what it is that compels us to keep living at all – what drives us to get up in the morning and go on through the day, in spite of whatever trials we might encounter. I submit that this is essentially what we mean by “happiness”, at least if by “happiness” we refer to that which all persons strive for, the ultimate human good which is the object of every act of will and choice (see Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1.7).

Williams worries that these categorical desires, the pursuit and fulfillment of which make a person’s life meaningful and happy, are threatened by a single-minded commitment to the authority of morality. In speaking of morality, Williams has in mind impartial morality, exemplified in the systems of utilitarianism and Kantianism (Williams 2). Such an impartial morality requires abstracting from particular, contingent facts about oneself, one’s situation, and the specific ties and relationships one has, for the sake of arriving at perfectly general and universal principles that would apply indiscriminately to any similarly situated agent (ibid.), and would give equal weight and consideration to the interests and ends of every person. It follows from this that the motivations which undergird moral actions differ radically in kind from the motivations of love and friendship. In deciding, say, not to lie to one’s friend, one cannot appeal mainly to the plain fact that they are your friend. Rather, one must refer to the universal principle of truth-telling, and dutifully apply that principal rationally and impartially, like a good judge, to the facts of that particular case (Williams 2).

A particularly troubling scenario is one in which the demands of morality seem to conflict with the value we place on our personal relationships. For instance, it appears to violate the demands of impartial morality when, in a situation where one must choose between saving one’s drowning spouse or a drowning stranger, one takes the special relationship one has with one’s spouse as a reason to rescue them (Williams 17). After all, impartial morality requires abstracting from such particularities. But it would be positively abhorrent if one were to flip a coin to decide whom to save. If such a disregard for one’s special ties is what impartial morality requires, then it “would rule out love and friendship altogether” (Scanlon 160).

In fact, even if a system of impartial morality could be fashioned in such a way so as to allow for preferential treatment towards one’s friends and family in situations like this, it would still be wrong to appeal to such a justification in deciding to rescue one’s own spouse (Williams 18). Williams is not entirely clear here, but I take it his reason for asserting this is that if some external, impartial principle must be appealed to in order to legitimate an action that would otherwise have been done out of sheer love for that person, then one would have alienated oneself from one’s relationship with that person, for that relationship would no longer have unconditional value. Rather than single-mindedly thinking, “I must save the one I love,” as one sprints to the water, one first submits this maxim to the legalistic authority of impartial morality, which, being impersonal, has no regard for your spouse, or for your relationship with them. Such an appeal ruins the purity of one’s motive, and constitutes “one thought too many” (Williams 18).

Or so Williams claims. I am unconvinced. If Williams is right, then morality and happiness can truly conflict, for morality would demand the sacrifice of – or at least alienation from – the personal relationships that constitute a happy life. But this cannot be right; I hold that any account that allows morality and happiness to come into genuine, intractable conflict has made some mistake. Either the conception of morality is inadequate, or else the conception of happiness is lacking. In this case, I believe that Williams has committed both mistakes.

Let’s take on Williams’s first mistake, that of misconceiving what impartial morality truly requires of us. Focusing specifically on his objection to Kantian ethics, I would like to suggest that Williams misunderstands the manner of impartiality that Kant demands. Williams seems to assume that Kantian impartiality involves abstracting away from all of one’s projects, commitments, and relationships prior to each particular action one performs. But, as R. Jay Wallace notes, a Kantian agent need not bring the Categorical Imperative to reflective  consciousness prior to every action they perform. Instead, a Kantian agent may have so internalized the content of the moral law that they immediately act according to its precepts without needing to deliberate about it beforehand. This point is supported by Kant’s own assertion that genuine possession of a good will involves a “revolution” in the will itself, so that it has become oriented towards following the precepts of morality, as opposed to the pull of inclination. That is not to say that the agent with a good will would never again be susceptible to the temptations of inclination, of course, since no human being has a “holy will.” But it does mean that a virtuous agent need not perform the decision procedure of universalizing one’s maxim before every action.

But it is not just Williams’s conception of morality that is mistaken; his challenge also rests on an overly shallow conception of happiness, one that regards it as the pleasant state of consciousness one feels when one’s desires are satisfied. To be sure, this is a fairly common definition of happiness, one that many people are likely to offer. But I will argue that it distorts the relationship between morality and happiness.

There are several clues that Williams tacitly presupposes this kind of shallow conception of happiness. For instance, there is his talk of “categorical desires” as grounding life’s meaning. There is also his view that any reason for action must stem from some pre-existing desire within one’s motivational set. The idea here is that one would have no reason to do one thing rather than another unless there were some passion or sentiment – say, some thirst, curiosity, or affection – that drove you in a particular direction of action. But if this is indeed the conception of happiness that Williams presupposes, then it is no surprise that he finds it at odds with the claims of morality, which require us at times to step back from our desires. What is needed is a conception of happiness in which we are not reduced to mere vessels of desires and sentiments.


II.   Towards a Deeper Conception of Happiness 

If Williams’s shallow conception of happiness distorts its relationship with morality, what alternative account is available to us? Here, Philippa Foot will lead us on the right path. Pondering the various ways in which we use the word “happiness”, Foot observes that in some situations we use it to refer to the enjoyment of an activity, such as when I say that I am happy being a philosophy student. Alternatively, “happiness” may merely denote a general state of contentment, the absence of the desire to change my situation, or even a non-directed feeling of joy or elation (Foot 83-85). These meanings of the term correspond to the shallow interpretation that I ascribe to Williams. However, these senses of happiness do not always seem able to capture fully what we mean when we say that a person is happy, or that a person has lived a happy life. Foot gives the example of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who is quoted as saying on his deathbed, “Tell them I had a wonderful life” (Foot 85). There is a sense, Foot insists, that Wittgenstein’s words are meaningful and true, in spite of the fact that this genious philosopher lived a life of great anxiety and torment – not one that was “happy” in any purely emotive meaning of the word.

What is necessary is a conception of happiness that identifies it with the “enjoyment of good things” (Foot 97), where “enjoyment” I interpret not as merely taking pleasure in these activities, but as active engagement with them, recognition of their value, and attainment of their ends (for one does not need to be feeling a present sensation of pleasure while reading a philosophy paper to be “enjoying philosophy” in the relevant sense. These “good things” which are the objects of deep happiness (a term I am borrowing from Foot) are the “things that are basic in human life, such as home, and family, and work, and friendship” (Foot 88). Understood in this way, a person can be said to be living a happy life if they actively cultivate and maintain their friendships, care for their family, and engage in work that summons their refined skills and talents, regardless of whether they are always feeling a conscious state of pleasure.

A further conception of happiness that goes beyond mere pleasant states of consciousness is given by Christine Korsgaard and Thomas Scanlon. Focusing specifically on friendship, doubtlessly one of the vital components of a happy life, Korsgaard and Scanlon each independently observe that friendship is more than just a set of feelings and sentiments, such as affection and desire. On the account of friendship that Korsgaard seeks to combat, being a friend is simply having a certain affection for someone, liking their personality traits, and desiring to spend time with them (Korsgaard 126-127). Although Korsgaard does not deny that these are components of a genuine friendship, she insists that such a sentimentalist conception misses the true core of what it means to be a friend. For Korsgaard, genuine friendship involves a “unity of wills,” where two persons make a reciprocal commitment to take “one another’s views, interests, and wishes into account” (Korsgaard 127). This certainly seems correct; a relationship grounded wholly in desires and affections, but without a mature commitment to respecting one another and valuing each other’s ends, is the paradigm of shallow sentimentality.

Similarly, Scanlon argues that a person with no sensitivity to morality, or who outright refuses to heed its demands, but who nonetheless has “strong ties of affection” to a particular person, cannot be said to be a genuine friend to that person (Scanlon 164). This is because being a friend to someone goes beyond merely “liking” them and for that reason doing good things to them or refusing to harm them. In an insight similar to Korsgaard’s, Scanlon observes that treating someone as a friend involves treating them as a distinct individual, with their own interests and aims, and to whom justification and respect is owed (Scanlon 164-165). If I am a genuine friend to someone, then my refusal to do anything that would hurt my friend cannot stem merely from the fact that I happen to like them, though it is of course true that I like them. Rather, it must be because I recognize their dignity as a person, and for that reason I value them. Again, this is strikingly intuitive. If how I treat my “friend” were dictated solely by my feelings toward them, without valuing their moral status as a person in their own right, and if my positive actions toward them were wholly contingent on me continuing to have those positive feelings, such that the only reason why I wouldn’t hurt them or treat them unfairly or disrespectfully is because I happen to like them (Scanlon 165), then my relationship to them would not be one of love but of possessiveness.

The upshot of these observations is that insofar as friendship is a vital component of living a happy life, and friendships are not reducible to affection or other moods and feelings, then happiness itself cannot be reduced to a mood or a feeling, such as the feeling one has when one’s desires are satisfied. And insofar as Williams’s challenge to morality rests on this kind of shallow conception of happiness, then the deep conceptions that Foot, Korsgaard, and Scanlon have put forward constitute a formidable first step in answering Williams’s challenge. But this negative argument is not yet enough. Simply demonstrating that Williams’s conclusions stem from faulty premises is not in itself sufficient for disproving those conclusions; they may yet be supported by different foundtations. Therefore, if I am to vindicate the unity of morality and happiness, I must provide a positive argument demonstrating the convergence of these two notions. It is this to which I now turn.


III.   The Unity of Morality and Happiness

I possess a deep-seated pre-philosophical intuition that the truly moral life and the genuinely happy life are one and the same. It will be my task in this part of the essay to justify this intuition. This will involve taking a look at what Foot and Scanlon have to say about the relationship between morality and happiness. In doing so, I will only be able to survey a small aspect of their respective philosophies, ignoring the many ways in which they diverge. My goal is only to extract insights common to both so as to provide a compelling answer to Williams’s challenge.

As I discussed earlier, Foot suggests a conception of “deep happiness” as the enjoyment of the good things “that are basic in human life, such as home, and family, and work, and friendship” (Foot 88, 97). This conception harks back to Aristotle’s idea of eudaimonia, or happiness as living well and flourishing as a human being. And similar to eudaimonia, this deep happiness is inextricably tied to the cultivation of the moral virtues (96-97). The idea seems to be that since the moral virtues are essentially traits we need, given the particular form of life we are (44-45), such that “human beings need virtues as bees need stings” (44), and since happiness is the enjoyment of the things “that are basic in human life” (97), in other words, it is the enjoyment of the things we need, then the moral virtues will be among the good things that humans must pursue, attain, and enjoy, if they are to be truly happy (97).

Let us focus on one such need that humans require to flourish, that of healthy social interaction and community. If we are to take seriously the idea that there is a deep sense in which we are social animals (Korsgaard 145), then the cultivation of the virtues and conditions necessary for a vibrant social life must be recognized as an integral part of attaining happiness. This is where moral values come into play. Scanlon wishes to brush aside the common picture of morality as being a repressive set of negative duties and constraints – a list of “Thou shalt not”s – corresponding to familiar feelings of guilt. Instead, Scanlon emphasizes the positive value of morality, the promise that living a moral life will lead to a community characterized by “relation[s] of mutual recognition” (162). This is a condition in which each respects all others as free and equal persons, sources of independent claims, and agents with their own interests, aims, and reasons. The promise of such a notional community acts as a “positive pull,” attracting the moral agent towards a life that fulfills their social nature (162). This form of motivation stems from what John Start Mill calls “the social feelings of mankind; the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures” (Scanlon 162). Unlike the utilitarian Mill, however, I do not explain this motivation as reducible to “desire.” Otherwise, we fall back into Williams’s shallow conception of happiness. Instead, this motivation proceeds from our awareness of our nature as social beings, such that in our very being we are constituted by our relationships with other human beings.

Seeing this, it is clear that Williams has made a further mistake; he has mischaracterized the nature of moral motivation. Recall that for Williams, morality involves the “rational application of impartial principle[s]” (Williams 2), seemingly devoid of feeling, personal devotion, or substantive value. For this reason, Williams holds that the motivations which undergird moral actions differ radically in kind from those of love and friendship, and accordingly he is skeptical of the possibility that a commitment to morality could serve as a ground project in his sense. But if we recognize the true motivating force behind morality, that of fostering relations of mutual recognition, then we will realize that “personal relationships are structurally just like moral ones” (Korsgaard 128). The point is not that moral motivation will now be reducible to the desires within one’s “motivational set,” as Williams might suppose. We have already seen that personal relationships are not reducible to desires, and so moral relationships, being structurally similar to personal relationships, are not reducible to desires either. Rather, the point is that adhering to morality’s demand that we act in such a way that we can justify ourselves to one another is precisely the kind of substantive value that can ground a meaningful life.


IV.   Conclusion

In summary, Williams raises the concern that morality, when conceived of as a system of impartial duties and obligations, can conflict with the categorical desires and ground projects which give our lives meaning. In such a scenario, he holds that we have no reason to sacrifice our own happiness for the sake of this impersonal system. However, I have shown that such a concern rests on a shallow conception of happiness, regarding it as the pleasant state of consciousness one feels when one’s desires are satisfied. When happiness is thought of in a deeper way, involving the pursuit of goods and activities that are basic to human life, this worry evaporates. In fact, deep happiness positively requires living a moral life, for such a life is necessary for fostering the relations of mutual recognition and affirmation that we need as distinctively social beings. Therefore, a life in which one strives to abide by the precepts of morality is a life in which one opens oneself to genuine happiness in the fullest sense.






_Foot, Philippa. Natural Goodness. Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 2010. Print.

_Korsgaard, Christine. The Sources of Normativity. Ed. Onora O’Neill. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.

_Scanlon, Thomas. What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2000. Print.

_Wallace, R. Jay. Ethical Theories. Philosophy 104. Undergraduate lecture course. UC Berkeley. Fall 2014.
_Williams, Bernard. “Persons, Character, and Morality.” Moral Luck. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1981. pdf.



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