In this short essay an argument is made that reality exists independently of our consciousness and that we must apprehend it correctly if we are to flourish as human beings. It follows that reference to human nature is critical for an understanding of what constitutes a moral life. The distinctive human attributes of rationality, free will, and individuality are necessary to engage in ethical evaluation. An individual’s primary moral obligation and fundamental interest is to attain his mature state as a flourishing human person. Morality is a functional activity that exists for the sake of the purpose of living a flourishing life. Although there are necessary generic or basic conditions of human flourishing, there are many different ways for individuals to flourish. The possibility of self-directedness is required for any and all of these diverse agent-relative forms of flourishing.
The right to autonomy (i.e., self-directedness) applies to every person equally because of the universal human attributes of rationality and free will. This liberal conception of individual rights offers each person the opportunity to attempt to realize a distinctive form of flourishing. The law is properly concerned with rights as values that are universal and necessary. The law has the function of maintaining a political and legal order that simply protects the possibility of self-directedness. It should not be biased toward any particular form of personal flourishing. Rights are political principles that individuals ought to accept no matter what their views of the good might be. The possession of autonomy in no way guarantees that a person will live a good life and flourish. The right to liberty guarantees politically only the possibility of self-directedness which, in turn, maintains the possibility of personal flourishing.
Rights, as metanorms, are not part of personal morality and flourishing. Rights apply the ethical basis to law and guide the creators of a constitution. Ethics are not all at the same level. At the political level, rights regulate the conditions under which personal moral conduct and flourishing may occur. The aim of politics is peace and order. At the level of the individual human person, human flourishing is the telos of human conduct.
There are a variety of ways for humans to flourish. Flourishing requires the right use of reason with respect to the evaluative ranking, interpretation, and application of basic goods and virtues that are needed by every person, to some extent, to flourish. There is no universal formula for ascertaining the proper amount and application of each good and virtue in each person’s life. It is the task of each individual to develop practical wisdom and to use it to make proper choices for himself. The generic goods and virtues that make up and lead to human flourishing become real only when they are given specific form by the choices of each unique individual. Each person needs to attain and sustain goods and virtues in an appropriate manner over the course of his life in order to flourish and to be happy.
An individual acts when he is motivated to do so. For a human being, thinking and free will are involved in every stage of the action process. Human needs are the starting point of the motivation sequence, and they have, to a great extent, a biological foundation. These needs give rise to the necessity for a man to choose and to pursue values that are not separate from facts regarding human beings. Because values are objective, contextual, and relational with respect to a given person, we can discuss what would be actually good for an individual if he were to know about, choose, and attain that good. Each person must use his rationality to recognize, identify, and seek things that exist in reality that are potentially beneficial to him. There are things that exist, independently of anyone’s thinking, in a positive relationship to each person’s life and these things are capable of being known by human beings. It is imperative to apprehend such objective values correctly—a flourishing life depends upon the valid evaluation of, and attainment of, objective values. Value arises out of a relationship between human beings and what they require for their survival and well-being.
An individual’s needs, values, and knowledge contribute to his choice of goals to pursue. In particular, values provide a strategic underpinning for goal-setting. A man acts in order to achieve goals that result in his obtaining values. A man’s life is his ultimate value. Goals realize values and values satisfy needs. Values give purpose and meaning to a person’s goals. We could say that values are distinctive goals about what types of goals to pursue. Goals can be viewed as values implemented in particular contexts and circumstances. Both values and goals exist in hierarchical arrangements. Every individual value or goal can be thought of as an instantiation of a higher-order personal project. One’s life as a whole is the base for all other values and goals of an individual. A person needs to discover values which actually are of critical importance to his life. Various things are objectively good for an individual to attain even if he does not realize it or desire them.
To a certain extent, emotions are the automatic results or reflections of a person’s value judgments. Such emotions are rational and justified if they are based on objective values. Emotions are thus at times appropriate and, at other times, inappropriate. Strong emotions increase the chances of something coming to one’s consciousness. Of course, it is up to each individual to use his volitional consciousness to select his value and goal hierarchies. While conceptually distinct, values, goals, and emotions are practically integrated in each human being.
Emotions can be positive or negative incentives for action. In addition, emotions are related positively to the extent of goal achievement and inversely to negative outcomes. It is important for positive emotions to accompany objectively valuable activities and for negative emotions to occur conjointly with objectively nonvaluable actions. In this way, emotions can play a role in a person’s conscious assessment of his well-being.
An individualistic, agent-centered, perfectionist view of natural law ethics provides general principles in the form of generic goods and virtues that require practical wisdom for achieving one’s self-perfection. Human flourishing requires a person to combine a number of particular objectively identifiable generic goods and virtues. Of course, it is up to each person to use his practical wisdom to create the appropriate application of these given his specific circumstances and contexts. This requires the development of a person’s capacities for practical reason including the ability to reflect critically upon one’s good before he decides how to act. Thinking is initiated and maintained by choice. Correct actions lead to one’s flourishing and happiness. Each person must be mindful of the fact that he only has a given amount of time to allocate to his various pursuits.
Virtues are dispositions to act for right reasons that are developed by making choices. People value being virtuous because the virtues are necessary for, and partly constitutive of, one’s flourishing. The virtues are principles of action that enable individuals to attain values. Virtues may be viewed as proper perspectives toward generic goods such as knowledge, health, friendship, and so on. Proper actions are value-oriented and virtue-oriented. Virtuous activity is in harmony with a person’s thoughts, feelings, and objective values. This involves doing the right thing without having material contrary internal inclinations.
Virtuous activities can lead to one’s flourishing which, in turn, can lead to his happiness. Oftentimes, becoming deeply involved in one’s meaningful actions can be accompanied by a state of flow. This is a condition of focused and engaged involvement or absorption. The state of flow is positively related to a person’s existential condition of flourishing, to his experience of happiness, and to his positive emotions.
Wisdom involves the convergence of means and ends toward the achievement of one’s personal flourishing. Personal flourishing involves living in a manner that brings one happiness (i.e., flourishing leads to happiness). Happiness is the positive conscious and emotional experience that goes along with or results from one’s flourishing. A person can be authentically happy only if he lives in certain ways—his life must contain certain particular elements. True happiness depends upon objective facts about human nature and the specific circumstances of one’s life. Success in living makes people happy and this happiness motivates and prepares people for additional future accomplishments and happiness. Happy people are more likely to actively work toward achieving new goals. Success produces happiness and happiness leads to further success. Human persons enjoy the successful use of their realized capacities and their enjoyment increases the greater the extent to which their potentialities are actualized.
To aid the reader, the following diagram depicts the interrelationship among the various components of the motivation-happiness process.
The Motivation-Happiness Process
The aim of this summary essay has been to explain that happiness is not something subjective and that there are inextricable connections between human nature, human flourishing, and happiness. We have seen that happiness is an achievement on the part of the individual human person. Not only is happiness an achievement, we have also seen that a person’s achievements can lead to his happiness. The philosophical perspective taken in this article argues that there is an essential connection between objective ideas. It follows that systems-building is an important philosophical endeavor.
Philosophy provides the conceptual framework necessary to understand man’s behavior. To survive, a person must perceive the world, comprehend it, and act upon it. To survive and flourish, a man must recognize that nature has its own imperatives. He needs to have viable, sound, and proper conceptions of man’s nature, knowledge, values, and action. He must recognize that there is a natural law that derives from the nature of man and the world and that is discoverable through the use of reason.
A sound paradigm requires internal consistency among its components. By properly integrating insights gleaned throughout history, we have the potential to reframe the argument for a free society and elucidate a theory of the best political regime on the basis of man, human action, and society. This natural-law-based paradigm would uphold each man’s sovereignty, moral space, and natural rights and accord each person a moral space and natural rights. It would hold that men require a social and political structure that recognizes natural rights and accords each person a moral space over which he has freedom to act and to purse his personal flourishing. Specifically, it would consist of (1) an objective, realistic, natural-law-oriented metaphysics; (2) a natural rights theory based on the nature of man and the world; (3) an objective epistemology which describes essences or concepts as epistemologically contextual and relational rather than as metaphysical; (4) a biocentric theory of value; (5) praxeology as a tool for understanding how people act, cooperate, and compete and for deducing universal principles of economics; and (6) an ethic of human flourishing based on reason, free will, and individuality.
* Dr. Edward W. Younkins is a Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.