Liberty and Happiness

A strong belief in free will is an essential component of happiness. We are free to choose good or evil; true happiness consists in choosing what is good. It follows that belief in determinism cannot produce true happiness. It is important that we work, as Catholics and other people of good will, to remind people of the true way to happiness, and to steer people away from thinking that they are helpless with respect to their state of soul.

Modern society and culture does its best to convince us we are nothing but automatons whose actions and condition in life are more or less nothing but the sum of the forces of nature and circumstance. This is a demoralizing, degrading, and depressing force that is mass produced by our society that is without (eschatological) hope.

To counter this culture of demoralization, we must cultivate an ethic of liberty, rightly understood. Liberty is a free gift given to all human persons that enables us to choose happiness despite the circumstances we find ourselves in. This capacity is something real, something concrete we find in our nature. I think our culture, by and large, has lost knowledge of this capacity for greatness – or perhaps we have given it up intentionally, having found its practical difficulties too much to bear. But our willful ignorance does not change the truth. We will only be happy when we choose the good, and this is only possible when we believe such a choice is possible in the first place.

6 Responses to Liberty and Happiness

  • Thanks for this reminder Zach. I think it would be such a great thing if Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics were required in every high school across the nation. Though, it would not solve all our problems — sophistication does not make one more moral. Just (hopefully) more thoughtful.

  • I do think there was some truth to Socrates’ idea that education can help you to be moral. (Although I’ve already modified his idea – he thought that if you simply knew (really knew) what was right you would never choose what was wrong. )

    Education means “to lead out of”, no?

  • Nice post, Zach… your last ‘graph hits on a crucial point: freedom & liberty always remain — and therefore our fulfillment and happiness is always possible — whatever the external circumstances we face. Our culture has a reduced notion of liberty which focuses on “freedom from” external coercion, neglecting the more important “freedom for” excellence and virtue.

  • Thanks!

    I know a few people who are very depressed because they think their happiness is totally outside of their control (actually this might be the definition of depression).

    I think this impoverished notion of liberty and the influence of philosophical determinism is partially to blame for their state of mind. Some ideas are really unhealthy.

  • “We will only be happy when we choose the good, and this is only possible when we believe such a choice is possible in the first place.”

    What is the work done by the concept “choosing” here? Aren’t “doing” or “being” good the primary actions of the happy life?

    An emphasis on choice can disconnect man from God. God’s goodness and happiness consist primarily in His being, and perhaps only secondarily in his choosing.

    Strange to say, I worry you’re giving automatons a bad name. The habitually good person will do good automatically and there will be little deliberative choice involved.

    Who is freer on the ski slopes: a beginner who has chosen to take up skiing, or the skier whose expertise is second nature, having made the choice to become expert long ago?

  • Hi Kevin,

    I intended the word “choosing” to emphasize the reality of the basic operation of the free will. I think it is correct to say that “doing good” entails choosing to do what is good.

    I agree that the wrong emphasis on choice can disconnect man from God. Perhaps I ought to have specifically distinguished liberty from license – I thought what I had was sufficient but then again I was the only one who read it.

    My intention was to argue against philosophical determinism, which I think is preached from various secular or non-Catholic sources. Granted I am not making a strict philosophical argument but rather one concerned with the psychology of someone who believes they are helpless to change their life for the better.

    And I certainly agree with you about the superiority of habituated virtue. My remarks here assumed that there are people who do not believe in free will, never mind such a thing as virtue. I did not mean by automaton a saintly person who has the habit of being good; rather, I meant someone who believes they are something like a machine with feelings.

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