Comparing Happiness In Moral Theories

The concept of happiness is often considered quite fundamental in moral theory, but is often defined differently, given the theory in question. What I intend in this article is to compare this concept as it is presented in three different kinds of moral theories. The first is Utilitarianism, both of the egoistic and universalistic varieties. The second is Natural Law theory. The third is Ethical Rationalism, as presented by Alan Gewirth in Reason And Morality (1), where he argues for the fundamental moral principle known the Principle Of Generic Consistency (PGC).

Preliminary Thoughts

We can begin by using a fairly loose definition of happiness as that which is perceived as good, or in some way worthwhile to pursue. The first challenge when considering happiness as a conception of ‘the good’, is the question of whether this good can be justifiably conceived as objective. It seems the perception that happiness is a good always occurs within the perspective of the agent involved, even if all agents experience the same thing subjectively. This experience does not seem to prove happiness is good in itself, it only proves we all perceive happiness as a ‘good in itself’, from our perspective. However since we all live within such a perspective, for all intents and purposes, from our perspective, we can say happiness is good in itself. We all find happiness to be an ‘intrinsic good’. But we must not lose sight of the fact that when we say happiness is good, we are really saying it seems good to us, and that we all have this same perspective on it because our natures are similar. So when we use the phrase ‘happiness is good in itself’, this is short hand for the fact that happiness seems good in itself, from our perspective.

But even given the fact we all do affirm happiness to be good ‘in itself’ from our perspective, this seems only to entail the logical requirement on our part to affirm that happiness would be inherently worthwhile or valuable to us. It does not seem in any way to entail an obligation to pursue it as an end of our actions. Although it is appears most natural for connatively normal individuals to desire to pursue something perceived in some way to be worthwhile, this does not seem to imply any clear perceived obligation to do so, or an obligation to will it for its own sake, irrespective of its relationship to ourselves.

We can certainly will it for someone else when we recognize its potential value to them, given our assumption they are relevantly similar to us in being able to experience it as valuable. But here also, there is no clear perception of an obligation to will happiness for others either, simply because they would find it valuable. We can also certainly see it would be worthwhile to them to be happy, and we may also perceive it would be worthwhile to us to see them happy, because the happiness of others is also a potential source of value to ourselves. Jesus, knowing the joy set before him, endured the cross. He had our good in mind in dying for us, but this was not done ‘disinterestedly’ on his part. He knew that our salvation would also bring him great joy. So even if we conceive happiness solely in terms of what seems good to us, we do not immediately perceive any obligation to pursue this potential value, either for ourselves, or for anyone else.

The Desire for Happiness

We can identify that everyone wants to experience things of value in their lives. This can be described using the general phrase ‘the desire for happiness’. Although we perceive that everyone wants happiness, it would probably be more difficult than we realize to suggest that the content of this desire would be the same for everyone. What people want is to experience things they find desirable in some way. But each person is quite unique in what they actually find desirable. There are many potential renditions of ‘the good life’. The intellectual’s idea of happiness would differ greatly from the philanthropist’s, or the botanist’s, or the artist’s, or the traveling evangelist’s. There are many areas where people can find value, depending on their unique tendencies and potentials. There does not seem to be one human good, in the sense of what can be found valuable.

On the basis solely of the fact someone can find these things valuable, it does not seem there is any straight-forward way to distinguish any of them as more or less valuable or ‘correct’. They simply are all different. And if a person chooses one such ‘good life’, he will inherently be saying no to some other kind of ‘good life’. The artist will not be able to be philanthropic due to his choice to pursue art instead of business. The botanist will not be a great painter or sculptor. The evangelist may actually depend on the philanthropic actions of others to enable his pursuit. So all people do not seem able to choose the same happiness as everyone else, and part of what makes the world such a rich, varied place is that we all do not choose the same source of happiness.

Self Defeating Actions

Along with the difficulty of distinguishing what ‘good life’ or form of happiness people desire, there is an additional question. If all people desire happiness, why do they sometimes choose courses of conduct that make them unhappy? We cannot say this is always due to a failure in knowledge, a failure of perceiving what would make them happy. Socrates suggested this. He assumed the desire for happiness was a constant in people, but ignorance led to wrongdoing. Man’s problem was not voluntary, but epistemic. We always seek our good, as we perceive it. We just need to come to see what is truly good for us. We must become wise.

No doubt in the objective sense this is often the case. We all make misjudgments of what is for our good, even though we are genuinely seeking it. But clearly this does not match the evidence all the time. There is certainly no question that people only pursue things they perceive in some sense to be good. But many people pursue things they perceive to be good in some limited sense, while they consciously recognize it is not for their overall and long-term good. The inebriate does not pretend that getting drunk one more time is for his best. He simply chooses to succumb to his desire for this short-term good, instead of act in his own perceived best interests.

Differences and Similarities

This distinction between a short-term good, and his best interests raises our discussion of the desire for happiness, and to what happiness entails, to a different level. In Utilitarian theories, where everything flows initially from the experience of pleasure and pain, or satisfaction and dissatisfaction, there is no way in the beginning to distinguish directly between a momentary pleasure and long-term well-being. All pleasures and satisfactions are inherently on a par. Where some sanity seems to enter the position is by the utilization of the maximization criterion. If I want to enjoy pleasure, it is suggested that I rationally ought to want to maximize it, rather than settle for a minimum of it. So in order to create this balance, one needs to control one’s pursuit of pleasure so as not to limit one’s long-term enjoyment of it. So happiness on the Utilitarian theory becomes the maximum experience of pleasure or satisfaction possible to the individual. The inebriate is failing to choose to act on this reasoning.

This leads to a Utilitarian form egoism very similar to Ayn Rand’s Natural Law based Rational Egoism. (2) Rand’s position is a modern rendition of Aristotle’s and the Stoic’s Natural Law theory. This theory was also advocated in a modified form by Aquinas, and forms the core of the Catholic church’s moral theology. Natural Law theory would define happiness as that which would fulfill one’s nature and capacities. Utilitarianism and Natural Law theory tend to converge quite a bit here. This is precisely because if one is going to maximize one’s own experience of pleasure or satisfaction as Utilitarianism claims one should, one must take into account and respect one’s nature and capacities as Natural Law theory claims, so as to achieve the mean between excess and abstinence. So although Utilitarianism conceives happiness as the maximization of satisfaction fulfillment, it requires that one observe the needs of one’s nature in one’s actions, resulting in the actual happiness pursued being quite similar to the happiness advocated by Natural Law theorists as the fulfillment of one’s nature and capacities. Charles Murray expressed this similarity between Utilitarian and Natural Law conceptions of happiness quite succinctly in his work, In Pursuit Of Happiness And Good Government.

Thus, briefly, some reasons for arguing that in the evolution of the concept of happiness an array of philosophers espoused quite different conceptual views of happiness that nonetheless had very similar behavioral implications. To borrow from V.J. McGill’s formulation in The Idea of Happiness: in Aristotle, virtue is the substance of happiness; in the post-Lockean revision, it is instrumental. (3)

In a sense what we are seeing here is the difference between happiness conceived as aspiration fulfillment, and happiness conceived as capacity fulfillment. The former is a more Utilitarian way of viewing happiness, while the latter befits a Natural Law approach. At this point the distinction between one’s wants and one’s needs comes into play. If one is going to maximize one’s enjoyment of perceived value (one’s aspirations), one must make sure one is not so excessive in its pursuit that one fails to ensure one’s basic needs are fulfilled (one’s capacities). In Natural Law terms, one must fulfill one’s nature in one’s pursuit of other goods, or one will not be able to pursue any goods at all. Aristotle advocated the golden mean of moderation in all things. If one pursues these goods, without attention to what is consistent with one’s natural good, one will cut short and limit one’s potential enjoyments of other values. One must also observe one’s nature if one hopes to discern what one could find truly valuable and personally fulfilling.

So in this way both Utilitarian reasoning (in its egoistic form) and Natural Law theory end up saying very similar things about what happiness is, though for different reasons. The Utilitarian believes one’s experience of pleasure and satisfaction entails that one should seek to maximize it, pursuing one’s aspirations. This leads to the need to observe one’s needs, and potentialities, and restrict one’s pursuit of pleasure and satisfaction when it becomes so excessive as to impede one’s natural needs, or when it does not coincide with one’s personal preferential potential for enjoyment, thus requiring a respect of one’s capacities. Otherwise one will not experience the happiness one seeks. In its universalistic form, Utilitarian reasoning seeks additionally to advocate that one generalize from one’s own perception of pleasure as valuable, to the belief that one should promote value disinterestedly, without direct concern regarding its reference to oneself. This latter move is more difficult to achieve logically from the starting point of one’s own experience of value.

Natural Law theory says one must fulfill one’s nature if one is to obtain real happiness, and this entails not pursuing things that would harm oneself by failing to adequately accommodate one’s physical and psychological needs and potential. As long as one’s pursuit of things perceived to be of value does not impede one’s obtaining the needs of one’s nature, and as long as one’s pursuits take one’s potentialities into account, they are valid pursuits, and lead to or constitute happiness. Rand defined happiness as the psychological experience of pleasure that comes as a result of fulfilling one’s natural potential.

Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy – a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction. . . . Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions. (4)

The Relationship of Value to Obligation

Both the theories we have been considering so far attempt to claim that the pursuit of happiness is an obligation. The central difference in these two system’s logic is as follows: In egoistic and universalistic Utilitarianism, the maximization of enjoyment and satisfaction (either by oneself or universally) is considered ‘obligatory’, whereas in Natural Law theory such maximization of value is considered valid, but not obligatory. What is obligatory in this latter theory is to ensure one’s nature needs and capacities are fulfilled.

Essentially all moral theories must provide a rationale for the relationship of value to obligation. In Utilitarian theories value itself obligates. Through one’s perception of things as valuable, one is said to intuit an obligation to maximize the valuable. In the case of Natural Law theories obligation only extends to one’s natural needs and capacities, since these are necessary characteristics of one’s nature. In the case of Utilitarianism, value must be maximized. In the case of Natural Law only specific values are perceived to be obligatory, but one is not obligated to maximize value per se.

The problem both these types of theories face is how to justify their initial claims that their particular way of conceiving happiness also entails the obligation to actively pursue and promote it. To achieve this claim, each theory must offer an explanation of how it intends to bridge the gap from the ‘is’ it observes, to the ‘ought’ it affirms. Utilitarian theories, whether egoistic or universalistic, must explain how we can move from the ‘is’ of our perception that things can be pleasurable or satisfying in some way, to the ‘ought’ of a requirement that we seek to maximize either our own experience of this, or the overall experience of this among all sentient beings. Natural Law theory must explain why the ‘is’ of the fact we have a nature with particular needs and capacities entails the ‘ought’ of an obligation on our part to fulfill these needs and capacities. In neither case is it clear how to logically bridge this gap. Utilitarians claim we ‘intuit’ the obligation to maximize happiness. Natural Law theorist like Rand tell us man’s life is perceived to be the value for which all moral values exist. She must assume we intuit that we ought to value life. Both theories have been notoriously lacking in substantiation for these intuitive claims.

Agency Needs and Obligation

We have seen that both Utilitarian theory and Natural Law theory ultimately are forced to make some claim that happiness involves protecting our basic agency needs. Natural Law theory sees happiness to primarily entail the fulfillment of basic needs and capacities, although it recognizes the legitimacy of the pursuit of other aspirations, provided these capacities are fulfilled and respected. Utilitarianism sees happiness to include such fulfillment of our capacities as a condition for the pursuit of other aspirations whose maximization is considered to constitute what happiness is. In this sense both theories can be seen to be very close to Alan Gewirth’s version of Ethical Rationalism in many respects.

Gewirth’s theory recognizes that an agent must seek his own freedom and well-being, as his necessary agency needs, for any purpose he wants to fulfill. As such, Gewirth’s theory would also recognize both aspiration fulfillment and capacity fulfillment as elements of happiness, although it would not require the maximization of the former. Where Gewirth’s theory exceeds both Utilitarianism and Natural Law theory is that it recognizes the initial pursuit of value cannot be obligatory and must already be in place, for any of the ensuing ‘obligations’ to arise. There is no clear way to justify an obligation to pursue value or happiness itself. Although the desire for happiness is virtually universal and hence the pursuit of some form of value will also be virtually universal, this initial commitment to pursue one’s happiness in some way cannot be argued as obligatory. But since the pursuit of some value is universal in the context of action, the obligations this pursuit entails are derivable from within that context.

The initial commitment to some perceived good on the part of the agent forms the condition of being required to affirm that he must secure his needs of agency. This is as Natural Law theory suggests, and as Utilitarian theories must ultimately recognize. But it is only in the context of such a previous commitment of pursuit that the logical requirement to affirm ‘oughts’ arises. Since this kind of committed pursuit encompasses the full context of all agency in general, an argument that flows from this context will be satisfactory if it shows us we logically must affirm certain ‘oughts’, given that context. If this can be done, it will establish deontic judgments that all agents logically must affirm. These will constitute categorical judgments since they are enforced through logical stringency. An agent contradicts himself if we denies these affirmations.

Differences From the Other Principles

Ethical Rationalism’s observation of the necessary context of prior commitment to some pursuit immediately eliminates the maximization principle utilized in Utilitarian theories. Since the initial pursuit of value cannot be logically argued for as obligatory, neither can the maximization of such value. The most we can say is that maximizing value would be a good thing and worthwhile. We cannot say we are obligated to do so. In this sense, Natural Law theory is a stronger viewpoint than Utilitarianism in that it allows the distinction between value and obligation, between love and justice, to be maintained. In Utilitarian theories these concepts become confused, because the maximization requirement entails that no good action can ever be acceptably less than maximal. But normal moral intuitions suggest there are such things as supererogatory actions. Both Ethical Rationalism and Natural Law theory show why this is so. This is because obligation only regards the conditions necessary for the pursuit of value, rather than the pursuit all values, or the maximization of personal or universal value per se. This does not mean maximizing value is a bad thing, or would not be very worthwhile. It simply means that such value maximization cannot be argued for as necessary or obligatory.

This also safeguards us from thinking that duty is the sole purpose or point of morality, a mistake that Kant fell into in his belief that only action from a motive to do one’s duty was morally admirable or good. Moral law only exists to protect the conditions necessary for the pursuit of the valuable. Moral law and duty is not an end in itself. Ultimately it is the good, not the right, that is the point of the entire moral program. Only necessary goods are obligatory to secure. These observations also require us to recognize that it is only in the context of the pursuit of some good, that obligations can arise. There can be no obligation to pursue any value in and of itself. But if one is committed to the pursuit of some value, certain deontic judgments arise, because there are goods that are necessary for the pursuit of anything perceived to be worthwhile.

Natural Law theory wants to make the securing of one’s agency needs an obligation, irrespective of one’s commitment to pursue things of value. It does not appear this can be logically argued. Gewirth’s Ethical Rationalism recognizes that given one’s commitment to one’s purposes, one must logically affirm that one must have one’s freedom and well-being, as the necessary conditions of one’s agency. But one need not affirm one must pursue any value initially.

The Essentiality of Egoism

It should also be clear from the above discussion that each of these theories begins in an essentially egoistic context. For the Utilitarian, it is the personal experience of pleasure and pain, and the possibility of various aspirations, that initiates the reasoning that constitutes the theory. For the Natural Law theorist it is the experience of one’s personal nature and its needs and capacities that suggests the appropriate course of action. For the Ethical Rationalist, he must begin from his own perspective, and from his recognition of those things he needs, if he is to pursue the purposes he is committed to. He recognizes that whatever aspirations he chooses to pursue, he must honor the needs and capacities of his agency. In all three theories values and obligations are first perceived as values to the individual. The move to a more universalistic valuation of moral, as opposed to simply prudential, deontic judgments must flow through the egoistic context. This is why a true ethic cannot ignore the essential truth in egoism, even though it must move beyond it. The golden rule that one should do to others what one wants done to oneself, and the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself, both acknowledge this essential logical foundation.

One’s neighbor is only worth loving if one is also worth loving. One’s neighbor’s good is only worth pursuing if one’s own good is worth pursuing. Equally, if it is not valid for one’s neighbor to seek his own good, one cannot do him good, since his acceptance of one’s act of goodness would entail seeking his own good. It also cannot be invalid for one to seek one’s own good, since one is a person like one’s neighbor. There must be a valid element of egoism in any other-regarding ethic. Pure altruism is self-defeating, as Rand has claimed. There is indeed a ‘virtue of selfishness’ in the sense of a valid rational self-interest, though her rendition of this fails adequately to affirm our other-regarding obligations, and the value of the supererogatory in this regard. A failure in this respect is inherent in how a Natural Law theory establishes its initial obligation. If one is obligated to seek one’s own good, how can it become valid to sacrifice this good for someone else? Unless one’s right to one’s own well-being is waivable, one cannot perform supererogatory actions.

Regard For Others

But the challenge remains, within the context that one is committed to the pursuit of some value, do moral affirmations to regard the good of one’s neighbor follow? From the above it can be seen that prudential deontic judgments follow from this context. Both Utilitarian reasoning, Natural Law reasoning, and the reasoning involved in Ethical Rationalism, recognize that if one wants to pursue things one finds valuable, one must respect one’s basic agency needs and secure these. But does the same logic that requires an agent to affirm he must have his freedom and well-being also require him to affirm he must respect other’s needs for freedom and well-being? This is what Gewirth’s theory attempts to prove. I have elsewhere sought to elucidate how this claim is to be worked out. (See Moral Foundations.)

It is clear that all moral theories in some sense address the concept of happiness and advocate its pursuit. Most theories additionally seek to advocate that a pursuit of happiness is an obligation. Even if the ‘good life’ cannot be conceived as having only one possible form of pursuit due to the varying aspirations and capacities of agents, it can be seen to require that certain basic agency needs be accommodated, whatever such life is pursued. Hence, although happiness may be a variable commodity in much of its details, it does seem to involve certain general characteristics in every case. Does not this common requirement that one’s agency needs must be secured for whatever ‘good life’ one pursues, also entail that one is at least obligated to pursue some such ‘good life’, and also possibly to promote such a life for others? This extended discussion has in part attempted to indicate this question must be answered in the negative.

The perception one can find something valuable and have aspirations to pursue some purpose, does not appear to entail any perceived obligation to pursue it, nor to maximize value for oneself or anyone else. That one has certain natural capacities and needs does not directly imply any requirement on one’s part to seek their fulfillment. To prove this we would need to be able to substantiate either Utilitarianism’s claim we ‘intuit’ the maximization of value as an inherent obligation, or to prove Natural Law theory’s claim we somehow perceive ourselves required to seek to fulfill our nature.

The fact one would find some kind of maximally valuable life worthwhile does not seem to justify the claim one is obligated to pursue it. The fact one has a nature that can potentially be fulfilled in some way, does not appear to imply one cannot validly fail to pursue such fulfillment. That we would find some kind of life worthwhile, and that this is so because that form of life in some sense fulfills inherent aspirations or capacities within us may, and no doubt does, explain why most connatively normal humans pursue such a life. This does not seem in any clear non-question begging way to entail an obligation on their part to do so. It also seems that if one was obligated to do so, this might not leave room for the validity of self-sacrificing actions, although these are normally considered to be of high moral value and respectability. Rand’s rational egoism denies the legitimacy of self-sacrifice for exactly this reason. Unless one is at one’s option whether to pursue one’s own good, one would not seem to be at one’s option to sacrifice one’s own good for the good of anyone else.

The Key Difference

The key to the apparent success of Gewirth’s theory’s is that the obligations that the theory affirms do not enter the picture until the actual commitment to the pursuit of some form of value, some aspiration, is in place. It is this commitment that entails the obligations that follow. Prescriptive oughts only arise in a context of some kind of prior value commitment. It is only when such a commitment exists that prudential ‘oughts’ to an agents basic agency needs arises, the requirement to fulfill one’s capacities, as Natural Law theory suggests. And this latter theory appears also to be correct in recognizing that what an agent needs to act as an agent is a function of the agent’s nature in its various specifics.

As long as a person is an agent with some sort of commitment to a purpose, he must affirm his obligations, both to seek his own agency needs as the necessary conditions for his pursuit of his purpose, and to affirm other’s rights to those same needs. Because Gewirth’s theory does not require us to attempt to argue an agent must make this initial value commitment, but solely argues from within the context of that commitment, Ethical Rationalism is able to overcome the is/ought gap, from within the standpoint of the agent’s perspective. Both Utilitarian and Natural Law theories fail to establish the initial obligation from which their whole arguments, for self-regarding and other-regarding obligations, are said to flow. Gewirth’s theory overcomes this obstacle.

Since Utilitarianism cannot prove happiness itself ought to be promoted, it cannot prove we ought to promote our own, or anyone else’s happiness. Since Natural Law theory cannot prove we ought to seek happiness by fulfilling our natures, it also cannot prove we ought to seek to protect anyone else’s needs. Ethical Rationalism flows from within the context of agency itself, where commitments to the pursuit of some value(s) are already in place, and argues what this context implies in terms of deontic judgments the agent must logically affirm, given his commitment to pursue his purposes, whatever they may be.

Hypothetical And Categorical Needs

If I commit to visit a friend in Singapore then I ‘ought to’ buy a plane ticket. This logically follows from my commitment to go and see him. But this ‘ought’ is hypothetical, based on the particular commitment I have. I have no obligation to have that particular commitment. But whether I am committed to go and see him, or to go work out at the gym, or give all my money to the poor, I must have my freedom and well-being if I am to achieve any of these variable purposes. So freedom and well-being are necessary goods that I logically must affirm as an agent, no matter what my purpose is. They are goods I must logically affirm my prudential ‘obligation’ to pursue, whatever my purposes.

Without this prior commitment to some purpose, no ‘oughts’ can arise. They are hypothetical without the commitment. Other things needed for some particular purpose are hypothetical needs, given my contingent purpose. Only the obligation to pursue freedom and well-being as the necessary needs of action itself are necessary goods, whatever purposes we might have. They are therefore categorical needs. Utilitarianism and Natural Law theory attempt to argue this initial commitment to pursue happiness or the good is categorically required. They do not appear to succeed in proving this. And only our generic agency needs are common needs no matter what our actual commitment is. Therefore it is only these that we must logically affirm we require, whatever our commitment is. How could I argue I ‘ought’ to be committed to go to Singapore, work out at the gym, give all my money to the poor, simply because I would find that valuable or it would be a good thing to do?

In the same way there appears no way to argue from the fact that all human beings desire happiness that they ought to pursue it, in whatever form they feel would be valuable. But given that they are committed to pursuing some value, we can argue that they ought to pursue their freedom and well-being as the necessary conditions of this pursuit. In the same way we can affirm that all others ought to have their freedom and well-being as the necessary needs of their agency also.


1. Gewirth, Alan, Reason And Morality (University Of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1978.)
2. Rand, Ayn, The Virtue Of Selfishness (The New American Library Inc., New York, 1964.)
3. Murray, Charles, In Pursuit Of Happiness and Good Government (Simon And Schuster, New York, 1988. pg. 40.)
4. Rand, pg. 29.

Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (

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