John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 3, “Eudaemonism,” Introduction and Section 3.1: Does Morality Make You Happy?

INTRODUCTION: Recall the argument from justification in ch. 1. If we ask the normative question “Why should I be moral?” or “Why should I take the moral demand as a valid demand on me?” one answer we might propose is “because it will make me happy.” Another answer is “because it will fulfill my nature as a human being.” These are related because one theory about happiness is that it resides in the fulfillment of our nature. If either theory is sufficient, a divine command theory will not be needed for answering the normative question. This chapter is about the first answer, and the next chapter about the proposed derivation of the moral law from human nature.

Hare’s claim is that the first answer fails for two reasons. First, it is not strictly true, at least in this life. Second, even if it is true, it gives the wrong kind of motivation. Questions of justification and questions of motivation are different but linked on a Kantian account of morality. If the terminus of a person’s motivation is her own happiness, she is not following the moral law for its own sake, and therefore “because it will make me happy” fails as a justification of this kind of moral obedience. The claim that such a pattern of motivation is unacceptably self-regarding is the central topic of this chapter.

3.1: It’s not strictly true to say that morality makes you happy in this life, or that, if you act well, things go well. There are two reasons for this. The first is that you can be morally good and still be miserable, because moral virtue does not have the right kind of leverage to secure happiness. Consider people striving to be virtuous but are clinically depressed. Or consider that a great deal of happiness is dependent on our relations with other people. We live in a world in which many of the people we know and love are not doing whatever they can to follow the moral law, and in this way we become sources of unhappiness for each other.

The second reason it is not strictly true to say that morality makes you happy in this life is that morality not merely fails to secure happiness; it can actually decrease it. Virtue can make unhappiness worse if we think we deserve to be happy if we’re virtuous. Denial of opportunities in accordance with virtue can be very frustrating. Moreover, the more virtuous you are, the more acutely you will feel the sufferings of those around you and hate the injustice that causes it. Even more straightforwardly, morality may require a genuine sacrifice of this-worldly happiness. The key question is one of motivation and ranking. How do we negotiate the continual dilemmas in which one or the other seems to have to give way?

To say there is regularly tension between the two goals is consistent with saying, with RMH, that, if we were bringing up a child purely in his own interest, we should try to inculcate in him some reasonably demanding moral principle with the attendant moral feelings. His view was that virtue was necessary but not sufficient for a good human life. He thought an empirical judgment is that those committed to a life of virtue are generally happier than those who aren’t thus committed, but he conceded that occasions will arise in which the saints’ or heroes’ principles will require them to make very great sacrifices. So, if parents educate their children to admire and practice virtue, they may be bringing it about that in some unlikely contingencies their children have to pay a very high price. Even so, he thought, the parents should bring up their children that way, because it is usually the case that people who are so brought up are happier.

Recall in this context that the demand of Kantian morality is very high. We are to love enemies with what Kant calls “practical love,” for example, sharing their ends, as long as these ends are themselves morally permissible. Also, we have to share the ends of the poor in the rest of the world who could be helped by our lowering our standard of living and sending out the proceeds. This doesn’t mean we have to reduce ourselves to abject poverty; but, even though it is a complex question just how much to reduce, it is very likely that most of us in the developed world live too richly.

Even if it’s strictly true, however, that morality leads to happiness, perhaps mediated by the supersensible author of nature, this answer to the normative question would not give us the right kind of motivation for a justification. “Eudaemonist” is Kant’s term for someone who says that “happiness is really his motive for acting virtuously.” This is a single-source view of motivation; all our motivation derives finally and properly from our own happiness. Hare claims that this is unacceptably self-regarding. He looks at four proposed defenses of eudaemonism against this claim, and replies to each of them. The first three will end up compromising on the moral demand, and the fourth will compromise on the aspiration for happiness.

Some criticize Kant’s argument from providence by saying Kant defines happiness and morality too narrowly, the former as the sum of pleasures and the latter as the sense of duty requiring elimination of all singular reference. Hare replies that the argument from providence doesn’t in fact need these defective features of Kant’s account. All the argument needs is that happiness is essentially self-indexed, and that morality is essentially not self-indexed. If we want to hold that we are properly motivated by what is good in itself, independently of its relation to us, this requires a double-source view of motivation: We are motivated both by our own happiness and by what is good in itself independently of our happiness. Once we concede that point, we will see that there is no necessary coincidence between morality and happiness, and that assurance of consistency between the two requires a view about the governance of the universe as a whole.

The substance of this chapter will be an examination of four defenses of eudaemonism. The first is from the Epicureans. It starts from the pleasure we get in the pleasure of others, what Sidgwick calls “sympathetic pleasure,” and argues that there is a good sense of “for its own sake” where what is meant is “for the sake of the agent’s pleasure internal to it.” The second is from the Stoics. It’s the notion of reason that brings impartiality with it, and so our good as rational beings requires that we follow the moral law. The third is from a character Hare calls Aquinas-Porter, to whom is attributed an interpretation of Aquinas by Porter. On this representation, Aquinas has a way to reconcile Aristotle’s eudaemonism with the view that the distinctive mark of charity is loving God for God’s own sake and promoting the good of the neighbor for the neighbor’s sake and not our own. The key to reconciliation is to postulate a nested series of interests that’s necessarily harmonious and includes the agent’s own happiness within it. The fourth defense revises the third by dropping the nested series, and it proposes instead that an agent perfects herself by union with God, who is self-transcending. These four proposed defenses are not an exhaustive list, but they are among the most important.

Image: By Phillip Medhurst (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons