Other Philosophers – Variations on a Theme (Part 2)

In my previous post, I mentioned the first philosopher whose work on happiness is worth considering beyond the four ancient philosophers mentioned in my book.   John Duns Scotus, a contemporary of Aquinas, accepted the works on happiness in this life of the philosophers before him but with one twist.  The twist is that he placed acceptance of the moral law on the same plane as the pursuit of individual happiness as the aims of life.  He believed that we are not just driven to achieve our own happiness but that we should be mindful of the happiness of others – the moral law.  I mentioned that the narrative of the road to happiness in my book addresses the flourishing of others around us by virtue of the Adventure.  Without a successful Adventure, individual happiness is not reached nor do those around us flourish.

Continuing along this concept of goals in life being other than happiness, another more modern influential philosopher worthy of consideration is Kant (1724-1803).  Kant disagreed with most of the philosophers before him (including Scotus) that the meaning of life is to achieve happiness (and a moral law).  He believed that happiness is too vague of a term and too subjective and that it is worthless to try and define an ethical approach to life in which happiness is the aim.  Nonetheless, he did believe that happiness is important but that something else is more important.

He believed that the best moral position was not to pursue happiness through the exercise of the virtues, but to act out of duty without consideration of the outcome that such actions might have.  The duty, acted with good will, is the proper action for obedience to a law.  This action of duty places the final aim of life above individual happiness.  The actions of duty not only lead to individual happiness, or at least contentment in a job well done, but also the the happiness of others, assuming that the duty is done out of a good will.

His moral system could be defined as the means justify the ends.  According to Kant, so long as your decisions are based on your duty, you were acting ethically and you could eventually move towards happiness, whatever that means, and help others along the way.  To put it differently, we are all motivated to act morally out of a sense of moral duty, rather than to achieve individual happiness (which Kant had a hard time describing). For example, a doctor will feel a duty to treat his/her patients.  Kant believes that the doctor’s actions are not born from some desire to achieve happiness, but from a desire to perform one’s duty, even if this will be detrimental to the doctor’s happiness.  The motivation of the doctor is not self-interest but duty to help others.

In summary, Kant went one step further than Scotus by removing happiness from consideration.  According to Kant, happiness is not bad, but it is not the aim of life.  The aim of life is acting according to one’s duty and having a good will to make the right dutiful decisions.  A sense of satisfaction is found in performing one’s duties in a moral way and not only does the individual reach a sense of contentment or satisfaction in performing a job well done, others benefit as well.  He believed that those individuals with a proper sense of reason would make the correct moral decisions by following the laws before us. While Kant was unique in his thinking, he still resembles the ancient Stoics. The Stoics believed that the virtues, and only the virtues, would provide the proper knowledge and reason to understand those actions necessary to achieve happiness.

Kant’s very confusing system gets around the problem of how an individual can be moral if their only concern is achieving their own happiness and not helping others to flourish.  The narrative of the Adventure presented in my book answers this dilemma without forgoing the human motivation to seek one’s own happiness.  I find it hard to see how one is motivated to perform one’s duty with a sense of good will towards others unless there is some aim to the whole process.  If the aim is the be a good Christian or viewed positively by God, then the philosophy becomes one of religion and the aim is more than something found in this life.

For all the above reasons, I view Kant, while original, to be a twist on the themes presented by the ancient philosophers presented in my book.

More in my next post!


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