ancient Greece, Aristotle argued that to live well is to achieve eudaimonia, a
life of virtue. Today, eudaimonia has become a central concept in value theory.
To achieve eudaimonia is to achieve a happy life. However, I will argue that
eudaimonia should not be assumed to be what everyone want and it might not even
be what a moral agent should strive for.
Eudaimonia is a term Aristotle used which
can be translated to “the good life” or “the happy life”. However, eudaimonia
does not refer good or happy in the way we would think today but more
accurately it means “the morally good life”. The eudaimonian life is a life of
arete, which is commonly translated to mean virtue. However, according to
Hursthouse, this somewhat misleading translation initially made it hard for
virtue ethics to get established as a true rival to other modern ethical
theories. (Hursthouse 62) Thus, a virtue can be taken too far. If one
establishes that it is a virtue to be honest, one could easily come up with
examples of when someone is too honest, which critics often remarked. However, Hursthouse
argues that excellence is the more accurate translation. We do not say that
something is “too excellent” which implies that we can strive to be excellent
but shouldn’t necessarily always strive to be virtuous.
Excellence should be seen as a
character trait where excellence of character not only includes acting in a
specific way but also acting for the right reasons. (Hursthouse 63) Meaning
that to achieve eudaimonia, it is not enough to simply to do the right actions
but it is equally important to do them for the right reasons. This is what an agent
with phronesis (Wisdom) does. In the same way as mathematical wisdom help you
solve mathematical problems, so will phronesis enable you to make good and
moral decisions about life. “The agent with phronesis has a true grasp of
eudaimonia, of “the good life” or how to live well”, Hursthouse says.
Hursthouse argues that eudaimonia is
an exclusively moral concept. (Hursthouse 69) Hence, it excludes many of the
things we today would associate with a happy life. However, Hursthouse argues
that if you are truly virtuous, only what is virtuous will be beneficial for
you and what is not virtuous will not contribute to you being eudaimon.
The premise for Hursthouse’s
argument is that the most perfect life a human can live is a life of
eudaimonia. However, this assumes that everyone’s main goal in life is to be
moral persons. Indeed, some might have this goal but far from everyone does.
Athletes who practice all day, artists striving for perfection or someone
trying to learn an instrument do not have moral perfection as their main goal.
Moral “good enough” will be perfectly okay. Thus, I do not agree that eudaimonia
should be seen as everyone’s ultimate goal.
One might argue that even though
eudaimonia might not be what everyone strives for, it is still the most morally
perfected life one could live. Thus, if your goal in life were indeed to live a
morally good life, it would be equivalent to eudaimonia. Yet, also on this
point, I object. Hursthouse’s moral exemplar does not only do the right things
but he/she also does them for the right reasons and with the right feeling. (Hursthouse
63) You may unwillingly do the right thing but if you are not doing so gladly
but because of other reasons this would, according to Hursthouse, mean that you
are not truly excellent. However, I do not agree that the unwillingness or not
being enthusiastic about an action takes away its moral value. At some times,
it might even give the action more moral value. If, for example, you take a
friend to the airport very early in the morning, the fact that you would much
rather stay in bed does not suggest you acted immorally. Indeed, Hourshouse is
not arguing that this action is unmoral, however, she is arguing that it is not
ideal. (Hursthouse 64) To act with excellence you would have to truly enjoy
taking your friend to the airport, not because you would get something out of
it, but because being virtuous is the only thing with meaning to you. In
contrast to Hoursthouse, I think that an action that is done even though it is
not enjoyable can sometimes have a higher moral value than one that is
enjoyable. We all have certain duties and obligations in life and even if it
would be favorably if we enjoyed them, the truth is that we will not always do
that. Helping a friend is morally right, even if it is with something you do
not enjoy. Your friend will know you are doing them a favor and the fact that
this favor is not enjoyable might even make them more grateful.
So, eudaimonia is clearly not a
universal goal. Many things can be important in life and even though acting
morally is certainly one of them, it is not the only one. Moreover, even if you
want to act morally, achieving eudaimonia might not be the best option. Thus,
eudaimonia focuses too much on the feelings involved in an action, which can
sometimes make a morally just action seem less virtuous than it is!