Happiness as Ethics

The problem with making happiness the goal in life.

by Gregory Koukl

HappinessI’m trying to give tools to think about ethical things. I’m of the persuasion that ethics, morals, values are among the most important distinctions you can make in this world. They are among the most important kinds of things. There is no lack of ethical conversations, but there is a lack of clear moral thinking in this country. There is some going on but most of it is not. Part of my goal in teaching a class or doing a show like this is to give my listeners some categories that allow them to navigate in the field of ethical decision making. I am really convinced that once you learn some things about ethics, you’ll see that most people don’t deal with moral issues on a very high plane.

I don’t suggest this to be an intellectual snob or look down my nose at other people who don’t think through issues quite as clearly. I say it for another reason entirely. Sometimes the issue of thinking clearly about issues is sport. It’s fun to banter and have repartee about opinions and things that people hold dear. But there are times when you’re dealing with particular issues that it goes beyond sport, you’re dealing with issues that are absolutely critical and valuable to life. In those circumstances, the banter may be sport but it goes much beyond that. That’s why when people don’t think clearly, and the issues are things that have no eternal significance or consequence, it doesn’t matter and we can abandon our conversation and talk about the Dodgers if we want because that just happens to be what we like. But there are other issues that are much, much more critical to our daily life and that influence us as moral human beings. And when we don’t think clearly about those issues, then we or others may be at peril as a result of that. It’s by way of stimulating your thinking so that you can be more sound in the way that you think about ethical things. My experience is that most people don’t think in a sound way when they come to ethics.

When you talk with people about ethical issues, you’ll find that the starting point for most of them is the same: they start with themselves and with what they want from life. And there’s one thing more than anything else that people want, at least in our culture. There’s one significant goal for everybody in our culture. If you ask the man on the street what he wants from life, what he wants for his children, he’ll give you one answer. He wants to be happy. The goal of his life is to seek happiness. And of course, I am of the opinion that "happiness is a serious problem" especially when people begin their ethical decision making from what really makes them happy. And this is where their ethical discourse begins. This is why I suggest that people don’t think very clearly about ethical issues. People first ask the question, "What in life will make me happy?"

Now people don’t always do this consciously; they don’t start out by saying, "I’m going to be self-centered and egoistic in my ethics." But a few moments reflection will reveal that this is true. They start out with what they want for themselves and then they attempt to reason towards some moral conclusions. I use the word "reason" very loosely and broadly, because most of what is going on is not rationality but rationalization. The thinking may be flawed, the rationale unsound, the applications ludicrous, yet people continue to cling tenaciously to their "ethics" and "morals", which much of the time is nothing more than thinly veiled self-interest. People’s deepest interest is not doing what is ethical and what is right; people’s deepest interest, characteristically, is doing what makes them happy. They find what will make them happy and then seek to rationalize it with ethical language.

That is the starting point for ethical decision making. What makes me happy right now? They start from that point and then try to justify their conclusions with some kind of bizarre, convoluted moral argument. That kind of attitude never results in morally sound conclusions because it’s starting from the wrong place, the self. Morals don’t work that way, as much as a lot of people today would like to think that. Morals simply do not work that way.

The most glaring example of this unsound ethical thinking is the pervasive belief in moral relativism, the idea that each person ought to act in keeping with his own moral code, that what is right for one person isn’t necessarily right for another person, and that each person has a moral obligation to be tolerant and not pass judgment on alternative moral viewpoints. This is probably very familiar to you as I describe it because it is the most commonly expressed position in the market place today. The view is expressed in more popular terms as, "You have your moral truth; I have mine;" or "Don’t push your morality on me;" or the even more vacuous, "You can’t legislate morality." The biblical description of this type of ethic is described in the book of Judges where "every man did what was right in his own eyes." That’s the depth of most people’s ethical beliefs nowadays, at least that’s what they hold.

This, by the way, is why much of the discussion of ethical issues in the market place today centers on the concept of rights. Have you noticed that? When we talk about ethical issues in the news, the discussion is not about morality, it’s about rights. "I have a right to choose; I have a right to experience my sexuality in any way I desire; I have a right to amass as much wealth as I can; I have a right to get a divorce if I choose."

Choose is little bit of a confusing statement, if I can give you an aside here. Choose is a relational term, it needs something else to relate to it. There is no such thing, technically, as a right to choose. It’s like saying something is to the left of. Well something can only be to the left of something that you identify. Being to the left of doesn’t just hang out in space there by itself. In the same way, choice doesn’t just hang out there in space by itself. We don’t have right to choose…anything. We only have a right to choose particular things. So the discussion about choice has always got to be about that thing that choice is in relationship to. Do I have a right to blow up a building if I don’t like their prices. Of course not. Do I have a right to choose a pen rather than a pencil? Yes I do. So the right to choose is not autonomous, it’s not an absolute right. It always depends on the object that’s in question.

Much consideration is given to the idea of what are my rights, but little consideration is given to the idea of what is right. Most of the attention focuses on what kind of people we are allowed to be; little attention is given to the question of what kind of people should we be. Is it possible for someone to have a right to do something, even though what they do may not be right? Or to put it another way, is it possible that something may not be right even though we have a right to do it? Why has our discussion been about what is legal instead about what is moral? I suggest it’s for one reason: self-interest. Morality plays against self-interest. We can always adjust what is legal to fit what we want. So we argue frequently as long as it’s legal, it is right and proper. We reduce ethical decision making to the issue of rights inste
ad of the issue of the kinds of people we ought to be. What kind of humanity should we be developing?

Now, to be sure, there are issues that individuals must decide for themselves based purely on individual conscience. Some issues by their very nature demand this kind of treatment. But as an over-arching ethical system, relativism is morally bankrupt.

I simply want to make the observation that most of what people are doing is not ethical thinking. It is rationalization. They seek to rationalize their own self-interest, their own desire, what would be satisfying to them…


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