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Happiness as Duty


The fact that you have a right to happiness doesn’t mean you ought to seek it directly. It cannot be a duty as you seek it all the time. Like most people, you are likely to devote most of your attention to your own happiness (or lack of it), and my perfection (or lack of it).

If we have a duty is it not to do something else?

What if we switched?

Devote yourself to my happiness and your own perfection, and I’ll do the same in return. In a world where everyone did that, both happiness and virtue would double.

It’s a beautiful maxim, even if we don’t always remember to act on it. 


Happiness as a Right


With the notion of a right to happiness comes a set of claims on the present.

As soon as even part of the meaning of life is the happiness you may find within it, then creating the conditions for happiness seems necessary. It is no longer a mystery. No longer determined by providence or fate.

Once happiness becomes a right, human hands need to guard it. This leads to different ideas of how to run countries. In one model the state has an active obligation to promote its citizens happiness. Government should work to make everyone happy.

In the other, it’s merely obliged to ensure that nothing actively prevents your happiness. In arguments over the economy and trade the differences between these views are enormous.

One puts responsibility for happiness in your hands, the other that the community take a share of responsibility, too. But these views look far more similar to each other than the perspective that preceded them: where happiness wasn’t a right but a blessing, hence not a matter for human hands at all.


Being active


Once happiness was out of heaven, the ideas of what it came to where bound to change as well. Kant was explicit: While reason can tell you that you have a right to happiness, only experience can tell you what will actually make you happy. And that experience, as anyone will tell you, is varied. You can only make others happy according to their own conceptions of happiness.

Nor for Kant and his contemporaries was happiness an end-state bliss. Paradise is a bore if is means a place where all our wishes are satisfied. This is a message the Enlightenment sent out time and time again.

Not a rejection of heaven as a place where good people go when they die, but a rejection of the idea that heavenly bliss is a point where desire stops.

For the Enlightenment, human beings are essentially active. We are made to create ideals we cannot wholly fulfil, set out for horizons we know we will not reach. Happiness is active: it isn’t something that befalls you, it is something you do.




So while Enlightenment thinkers were happy to grant us each are own pleasures, there were some visions they ruled out. It is possible to imagine a world in which people let their talents rust and give themselves over to idleness and reproduction. Since our talents are given to us for all kinds of purposes, however, no reasonable being could will such a world,

The French philosopher Turgot went so far as to state humankind’s greatest defect as inertia, and the English philosopher Hume thought a slight decrease in laziness could avoid most evils.

The Enlightenment held movement, not rest, to be the key to human happiness. What bothered them most was idleness.

It’s your duty, not just your happiness, that should prevent you from giving over to a life of sloth.

Respecting humanity means respecting all the things humanity can do, and making it your business to do as many of them as you can.


A reason to try


Everything changed when the eighteenth century proposed part of the meaning of life is the happiness we have in this world. The concept of happiness transformed.

No longer the reward for trying, it became the reason to try itself.

Looking up all day at coconuts on a tropical island might be a source of some forms of happiness, but not the ones that make up meaning. When meaning was no longer found in other things, our idea of happiness itself changed.

It was a conception that led to one set of modern problems; a little less movement would do us all good. But it has the potential to solve another. What the Enlightenment rejected was laziness, what it perceived as stupor.

The docile submission to whatever bit of the given is coming your way. And what’s coming your way is unlikely to be a breeze or a cow or a coconut, but a new kind of screen you can zap or click to create the illusion that life isn’t passing you by.


This Essay draws on work by the philosopher Susan Neiman, particularly her book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. If you’re interested in learning more click here.

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