Personal Flourishing and Happiness:
A Case for the Minimal State
by Dr. Edward Younkins
Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia and author of Capitalism and Commerce.
An Aristotelian self-perfectionist approach to ethics can be shown to support the natural right to liberty which itself provides a solid foundation for a minimal state based on the principles of classical liberalism. This approach gives liberty moral significance by illustrating how the natural right to liberty is a social and political condition necessary for the possibility of personal flourishing – the ultimate moral standard in Aristotelian ethics interpreted as a natural-end ethics. A foundation is thus provided for a classically liberal political theory within the Aristotelian tradition.(1)
Personal flourishing (also known as human flourishing, self-actualization, moral well-being etc.) involves the rational use of one's individual human potentialities including talents, abilities, and virtues in the pursuit of his freely and rationally chosen values and goals. An action is considered to be proper if it leads to the flourishing of the person performing the action. Personal flourishing is, at the same time, a moral accomplishment and a fulfillment of human capacities, and it is one through being the other. Self-actualization is moral growth, and vice-versa.
Not an abstraction, human flourishing is real and highly personal (i.e., agent relative) by nature, consists in the fulfillment of both a man's human nature and his unique potentialities, and is concerned with choices and actions that necessarily deal with the particular and the contingent. One man's self-realization is not the same as another's. What is called for in terms of concrete actions such as choice of career, education, friends, home, etc., varies from person to person. Personal flourishing becomes an actuality when one uses his practical reason to consider his unique needs, circumstances, capacities, etc., to determine which concrete instantiations of human values, virtues, and goods will comprise his well-being. The idea of personal flourishing is inclusive and can encompass a wide variety of constitutive ends such as knowledge, the development of character traits, productive work, community building, love, charitable activities, allegiance to persons and causes, self-efficacy, material well-being, pleasurable sensations, etc.
To flourish, a man must pursue goals that are both rational for him individually, and also as a human being. Whereas the former will vary depending upon one's particular circumstances, the latter are common to man's distinctive nature – man has the unique capacity to live rationally. The use of reason is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for human flourishing. Living rationally or (i.e., consciously) means dealing with the world conceptually. Living consciously implies respect for the facts of reality. The principle of living consciously is not affected by the degree of one's intelligence nor the extent of one's knowledge; rather, it is the acceptance and use of one's reason in the recognition and perception of reality and in his choice of values and actions, to the best of his ability, whatever that ability may be. To pursue rational goals through rational means is the only way to cope successfully with reality and achieve one's goals. Although rationality is not always rewarded, the fact remains that it is through the use of one's mind that a man not only discovers the values required for personal flourishing, but also attains them. Values can be achieved in reality if a man recognizes and adheres to the reality of his unique personal endowments and contingent circumstances. Practical reason can be used to choose, create, and integrate all the virtues and goods that comprise personal flourishing.
Virtues and goods are the means to values and enable us to achieve human flourishing and happiness. The constituent virtues such as rationality, independence, integrity, justice, honesty, courage, trustworthiness, productiveness, benevolence, and pride (moral ambitiousness) must be applied, although differentially, by each person in the task of self-actualization – so must goods such as friendship, health, and knowledge. Not only do particular virtues and goods play larger roles in the lives of some men than others, there is also diversity in the concrete with respect to the objects and purposes of their application, the way in which they are applied, and the manner in which they are integrated with other virtues and goods. Choosing and making the proper response for the unique situation is the concern of moral living – one needs to use his practical reason at the time of action to consider concrete contingent circumstances to determine the correct application and balance of virtues and goods for himself. Although virtues and goods are not automatically rewarded, this does not alter the fact that they are rewarded. Personal flourishing is the reward of the virtues and goods and happiness is the goal and reward of personal flourishing.
Since a large portion of an individual's potentialities can only be realized through association with other human beings, personal flourishing requires a life with others – family, friends, acquaintances, business associates, etc. These associations are instrumentally valuable in the satisfaction of nonsocial wants and desirable for a person's moral maturation including the sense of meaning and value obtained from the realization of the consanguinity of living beings that accompanies such affiliations.
Men are necessarily related to others and they can determine to a great extent the persons they will be associated with and the ways in which they will be associated. Each person is responsible for choosing, creating, and entering relationships that enable him to flourish. Voluntary, mutually beneficial relations among autonomous individuals using their practical reason are necessary for attaining authentic human communities. Human sociality is also open to relationships with strangers, foreigners, and others with whom no common bonds are shared – except for the common bond of humanity.
A person's moral maturation requires a life with others. Charitable conduct can therefore be viewed as an expression of one's self-perfection. From this viewpoint, the obligation for charity is that the benefactor owes it to himself, not to the recipients. If a benefit is owed to another, rendering it is not a charitable act – charity must be freely given and directed toward those to whom we have no obligation. Charitable actions may be viewed as perfective of a person's capacity for cooperation and as a particular manifestation (i.e., giving to those in need) of that capacity. Kindness and benevolence, as a basic way of functioning is not an impulse or an obligation to others but a rational goal. Compassion is not charity and sentiment is not virtue. This non-altruistic, non-communitarian view of charity (and the other virtues) is grounded in a self-perfective framework under which persons can vary the type, amount, and object of their charity based on their contingent circumstances. Other contemporary concepts of charity rely on adherence to duty expressed as deontic rules or as the maximization of social welfare.
Happiness and Its Pursuit
Happiness can be defined as the positive conscious and emotional experience that accompanies or stems from achieving one's values and goals and exercising one's individual human potentialities, including talents, abilities, and virtues. In other words, happiness results from personal flourishing. Although happiness resists measurement, it is more important than anything that can be measured. Desired by all, happiness can be interpreted narrowly or comprehensively, foolishly or wisely, and may be either a conscious goal or an unconscious desire. The pursuit of happiness is something real, individualized, contingent, highly personal, diverse, and self-directed through the use of practical reason. Material wealth may provide the means of achieving happiness, just as it may represent the condition itself. Happiness is always being attained and is never totally attained – the pursuit of happiness is a goal that continues to the end of life with new contingencies, problems, and opportunities always arising. Happiness can be consistent with crisis, pain, grief, and struggle and is generally not possible without them.
Happiness in a comprehensive sense applies to one's life taken as a whole and thus arises from having a coherent, rationally chosen stance regarding the proper way to spend one's life. This is not the happiness we experience when we have obtained a particular goal or object. Rather, such meta-level happiness is evident through the holding of rational values with respect to the kind of life that is worth living and is characterized by a feeling of tranquility regarding the way one has lived and will continue to live his life. Meta-level happiness and object-level perturbation are compatible. Happiness at a meta-level provides a stable framework within which activity and striving are situated. A man who holds rational values and who selects ends and means consonant with the nature of existence and with the integrity of his own consciousness has achieved his values – not his existential values, but the philosophical values that are their precondition.(2)
Self-esteem (including self-efficacy and self-respect) is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of happiness. Self-esteem, the best predictor of happiness, is the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the fundamental challenges of life and as worthy of happiness and success. A person of high self-esteem believes himself to be entitled to assert his needs and wants, achieve his values, and enjoy the fruits of his efforts. Self-esteem correlates with rationality, realism, independence, creativity, ability to manage change, willingness to admit and correct mistakes, purposeful and conscious living, intuitiveness, self-responsibility, self-acceptance, self-assertiveness, personal integrity, benevolence, and cooperativeness.(3)
Self-Direction Requires a Minimal State
Self-direction (i.e., autonomy) involves the use of one's reason and is central and necessary for the possibility of attaining personal flourishing, self-esteem, and happiness. It is the only characteristic of personal flourishing that is both common to all acts of self-actualization and particular to each. Freedom in decision-making and behavior is a necessary operating condition for the pursuit and achievement of human flourishing. Respect for individual autonomy is required because autonomy is essential to personal flourishing. This logically leads to the endorsement of the right of personal direction of one's life including the use of his endowments, capacities, and energies.
These natural (i.e., negative) rights are metanormative principles concerned with protecting the self-directedness of individuals thus ensuring the freedom through which individuals can pursue their personal flourishing. The goal of the right to liberty is to secure the possibility of human flourishing by protecting the possibility of self-directedness. This is done by preventing encroachments upon the conditions under which human flourishing can occur. Natural rights impose a negative obligation – the obligation not to interfere with one's liberty. Natural rights, therefore, require a legal system which provides the necessary conditions for the possibility that individuals might self-actualize. It follows that the proper role of the government is to protect man's natural rights through the use of force, but only in response, and only against those who initiate its use. In order to provide the maximum self-determination for each person, the state should be limited to maintaining justice, police, and defense, and to protecting life, liberty, and property.
The negative right to liberty, as a basic metanormative principle, provides a context in which all the diverse forms of personal flourishing may co-exist in an ethically compossible manner. This right can be accorded to every person with no one's authority over himself requiring that any other person experience a loss of authority over himself. Such a metanormative standard for social conduct favors no particular form of personal flourishing while concurrently providing a context within which diverse forms of personal flourishing can be pursued.
The necessity of self-direction for human flourishing provides a rationale for a political and legal order that will not require that the flourishing of any individual be sacrificed for that of any other nor use people for purposes for which they have not consented. A libertarian institutional framework only guarantees man the freedom to seek his moral well being and happiness as long as he does not trample the equivalent rights of others. Such a system is not concerned with whether people achieve the good or conduct themselves virtuously. The minimal state is only concerned with a person's outward conduct rather than with the virtuousness of his inner state of being. Since rights are metanormative principles, rather than normative ones, they cannot replace the role of the constituent virtues. A political and legal order based on the metanormative principle of the right to liberty allows people to act in ways that are not self-perfecting. Its purpose is not the direct and positive promotion of human flourishing – it is simply to allow persons to pursue their moral well-being on their own.
The good of the individual person is thus inextricably related to the common good of the political community which involves the protection of each man's natural right to liberty through which he can self-actualize and freely pursue further actions. Therefore, the legitimate purpose of the state, the protection of man's natural right to liberty, is procedural in nature and is the same as the promotion of the common good of the political community. In other words, the common good of the political community involves a set of social and legal conditions based on a man's natural rights.
It follows that the minimal state is only concerned with justice in a metanormative sense – not as a personal virtue. Whereas justice as a constituent virtue of one's personal flourishing involves an individual's specific contextual recognition and evaluation of people based on objective criteria, justice in a metanormative sense is only concerned with the peaceful and orderly coordination of activities of any possible person with any other. Justice as a normative principle is concerned with exclusive (i.e., selective) relationships and requires practical reason and discernment of differences of both circumstances and persons. On the other hand, justice as a metanormative principle is concerned with nonexclusive (i.e., open-ended and universal) relationships that do not assume a shared set of commitments or values. Although both types of justice are concerned with the social or interpersonal relationships, justice as a constituent virtue deals with others in much more specific and personal ways than when justice is considered as the foundation of a political order that is concerned with any person's relationship with any other human being. Therefore, metanormative justice (i.e., the basic right to liberty) provides the context for exclusive relationships to develop and for the possibility of personal flourishing and happiness.