Which is Basic in Ethics: Happiness or Obligation

In life, people do things for different reasons; however, all these reasons boil down to two broad issues viz. happiness and obligation. A person will either do something to achieve happiness or as a duty. Nevertheless, regardless of the motives behind one’s actions, the actions will be a means to an end or the end itself. Therefore, in this context, happiness and obligation might be the means to a desired end or the end itself.

Logically, the basic element in any pursuit is the end itself; consequently, the task here is to determine the element that stands out as the end as opposed to means to something else. The means to an end is necessary for the end is unrealizable in absence of the means. The debate on the basic elements in ethics still rages. Proponents and critics alike have their side of story, with critics claiming that obligation is the basic element in ethics while proponents hold that obligations are a means to an end and not the end itself.

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The superiority of one element over the other determines its viability as the basic element in ethics; consequently, the element that surpasses the other becomes the basic element. At this point, one might confuse the means for the end and vice versa; however, as aforementioned, there can only be one end. Happiness is the basic element in ethics; not honor.

As aforementioned, the end is superior to the means to the end; consequently, happiness is superior to honor. One would wonder why he/she would seek happiness and not honor. Well, happiness is the end because “…we always desire happiness for its own sake and never as a means to something else…” (Mulvaney, 2008, p. 128). Therefore, if people desire and pursue happiness as the end, then happiness surpasses honor.

However, happiness is not autonomous; consequently, there has to be other elements that work in concert towards the realization of the same. Honor lie in the category of the ‘other elements’ because people do not pursue honor basically for what would come out of it but “…as being means to happiness, because…they will prove the instruments of happiness” (Mulvaney, 2008, p. 128). In the light of these observations, happiness outscores honor validating the reason why people should pursue happiness and not honor.

In its entirety, happiness does not seek to accomplish honor because in happiness, honor exists. However, this argument is relative depending on what is important to humans. There cannot be a one-fit-all answer to this question; however, the initial argument that people pursue the end and not the means answers this question. Happiness being the end stands out as the most important element amongst humans.

If honor were the most important element, then it would surpass happiness and having achieved honor, people would not pursue anything else. Unfortunately, this is not the case as even those in honorable positions seek happiness. Aristotle argues that, goodness of a man comes from executing good deeds carried out in proper excellence. For excellence to exist, virtue must be present, and in the presence of the two, one’s goodness becomes an activity of the soul as Aristotle insinuates.

To understand the superiority of happiness to honor, it is worth considering Aristotle’s argument that, the “good of a man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue” (Mulvaney, 2008, p. 128). In other words, the motive behind any one’s activity determines the good of that person.

Virtue in this context surfaces with practice and knowledge; that is, one has to practice virtuous deeds and be aware of their implications. If one executes a virtue without knowing it is a virtue, then the activity is not good anymore and one’s goodness becomes obsolete. Virtue minus knowledge turns out to be mere duty and duty cannot define one’s goodness.

Moreover, for virtues to function optimally, they should relate to some morals and this leads to moral virtues. According to Aristotle, moral virtue is the consequence of a habit. Habit sprouts from actions that one continually do. The role of habit in achievement of moral habit is paramount here.

Just the same, way artists have to practice art after learning it; people have to practice virtues to qualify as having characteristics that associate with the virtue. For instance, by practicing kindness towards others one can be termed as kind. Likewise, by showing love to others one passes for a loving person. Without action that leads to habit, then a virtue does not qualify as a virtue. Aristotle likens habit of exercising virtues to that of exercising any other learned aspect of life.

For instance, he observes that not until someone plays a harpist, he/she does not qualify as a harpist. Similarly, virtue that is not exercised is no virtue. However, as aforementioned, Aristotle cautions against use of virtues void of knowledge, and he puts across some conditions that a virtue has to undergo to qualify its excellence.

One should “…know what he is doing…deliberately choose to do it and to do it for its own sake… do it as an instance of a settled and immutable moral state” (Mulvaney, 2008, p. 129). If these conditions are unmet, then the virtue holds no moral support thus negating its worth.

Critics would fault this argument and question the modality of distinguishing what is moral from what is not. At this point, Aristotle introduces the ‘mean’ as a way of balancing the extremes of any moral issue.

Aristotle seeks to explore mean value not from mathematical perspective where one obtains absolute mean, but from a philosophical point of view where mean is relative depending on an individual. Taken in this context therefore, ‘mean’ means that which is not excess and not deficient, depending on an individual. Critics would again raise the question of how to balance the relativity of this mean given the fact that no one is a replica of the other.

As aforementioned, virtue void of knowledge is no virtue and knowledge comes with emotions. Emotions coupled with actions executed at the right time underscores the mean state of any virtue. “To experience these emotions at the right times and on the right occasions and towards the right persons and for the right causes and in the right manner is the mean or the supreme good, which is characteristic of virtue” (Mulvaney, 2008, p. 130-31).

Therefore, time, occasion, subject, cause and manner are functions of ‘mean’ state in any virtue. Given the relativity of determining ‘mean’ state of a virtue, prudence and reason are the key factors that weigh one’s mean state.

There are different forms of mean states as even in some cases; mean is either an extreme or a deficiency. Nevertheless, these inherent differences do not nullify the superiority of happiness to honor or obligations. As previously mentioned, some mean states represent extremes where there are no excesses or deficiencies. For instance, there is no excess or deficiency of wickedness; therefore, the mean state here is an extreme; wickedness.

Murder, rape, adultery and theft among others are inherently wicked states. There cannot be a good or bad murderer. Nevertheless, some cases have clear-cut extremes and deficiencies thus mean stands out conspicuously. For instance, in giving and receiving of material things, the extreme is profligacy while the deficiency is illiberality; liberality is the mean. Whichever, way one perceives and determines his/her mean, the best way to hit the mean is by pushing one’s position towards the mean.

That is, to “choose the lesser of two evils…by steering clear of the evil which is further from the mean…drag ourselves in the direction opposite to them; for it is by removing ourselves as far as possible from what is wrong that we shall arrive at the mean…(Mulvaney, 2008, p. 134). In other words, doing things for the common good of all people underlines the principle behind the best way of hitting the mean.

In conclusion, people do things for different reasons; some do what they do for fame, honor, money, or leisure among other things while others do what they do to get happiness. To determine the basic principle in ethics calls for extensive exploration to distinguish the end and the means to the end. The end is superior to the means to the end and as analyzed above, happiness is the end while honor is means to the end. Therefore, happiness is the basic principle in ethics.

That which brings happiness to all people underscores what is ‘good’ for humans. The goodness of a person lies in the virtue surrounding any action performed. Virtues become virtues only when a person exercises them with full knowledge of their implication and chooses to exercise them deliberately. However, virtue has to be practiced continually giving birth to habit, which works towards realization of moral habits.

Regrettably, virtues exist in extremes and if not balanced in a state of mean, they become vices. Mean is that state in which there are no excesses or deficiencies, a state of balance. There exist different types of mean given the diversity of those who practice is it. Overall, the best way of hitting the mean is to choose not the excess or the deficiency of a virtue. By doing so, everyone will achieve happiness with honor being one of the means to this felicity.


Mulvaney, R. (2008). Classical Philosophical Questions (13th Ed.). New York: Prentice Hall


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