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The idea of injustice, of bad things happening to good people, has ancient and universal resonance. But we’ve not always described it that way. Up until the Enlightenment it was believed that bad things happened to bad people.

You got what you deserved in the end. If you suffered you must have sinned, even if the appearance was that you had not.

The contemporary Western assumption that worldly happiness is the only point of living may need rethinking, but a few centuries ago it was not the point at all. Happiness wasn’t expected as part of the present until late into the eighteenth century.


Physical and Moral Evil

You may reject the silliness currently marketed by much of the West’s industry, and find the thought of Paris Hilton as a symbol of happiness one of the sadder thoughts around, but you owe the Enlightenment a debt unless you want to return to the idea of life as a trial, full of despair.

One important achievement of the Enlightenment was to separate physical and moral evil. Before the Enlightenment things like murder and crime were in God’s hands. If any of these befell you it was God’s punishment. The Enlightenment undermined these convictions.

Sometimes things – earthquakes, car accidents, cancer – do happen to people for no reason at all. Our belief today that every physical evil is not punishment for moral evil is a belief we owe to the eighteenth century.

Reasons rights

Separating the two was a way of unscrambling happiness from virtue. Until you separate them, the question of a right to happiness cannot arise. You get what you get, and whatever it is, you must somehow deserve it.

Acknowledging that physical and moral evils are separate, means acknowledging that people may get a fate they don’t deserve. And have a right to a fate they do deserve. There are fates and possibilities that ought to be changed.

A moral universe opens in which we have a right to happiness. As long as we don’t forfeit that right by doing something, like unprovoked murder, that puts us outside the world we want others to share with us. 

While there may be good reasons why governments should guarantee no more than our right to pursue happiness, we believe in our right to actually get it. And we consider lives lived without much of it to be tragic.

All this, historically speaking, is very recent.

Finding Purpose in Life

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Happiness isn’t the same as hedonism, putting pleasure above all else. Nor is it the same as quality of life, though we owe the Enlightenment a great deal for improving ours. Life was altered itself when parents started to think it normal that their children might reach the age of five without dying.

Anything you’ve come to expect as normal, however, no longer makes you happy.

The Enlightenment philosopher Rousseau was fond of reminding us this. 

His critique of false needs was breathtakingly modern. Long before assembly lines, Rousseau described how we are dazzled by new commodities that promise happiness, and deliver nothing but dull demand for more.

While attacking the ways in which we are fooled into losing our independence, time and money pursuing a phantom of happiness, Rousseau implores us to hold out for the real thing.


Immanuel Kant

Rousseau’s contemporary, Kant argued that happiness isn’t a matter of wishful thinking, but a matter of our right. A right we have as beings able to reason, or think.

While many of his peers held Christianity responsible for decreasing our expectations of happiness, Kant saw that the problem was older than Christian strictness; and had long historical roots. Socrates was almost as bad.

Because we long to believe that, appearances to the contrary, the world is the way that it should be, we use one or another trick to fool ourselves that it is. Many Greek and Roman philosophers thought that happiness and virtue were not just connected but the same things.

Epicureans thought happiness was virtue; being happy was the right thing to do. Stoics thought virtue was happiness; being good would make you happy. Kant thought both views were attempts to escape two realities: We are neither as good nor as happy as we ought to be.

To begin with, if you feel you are really satisfied, you had better be aware. Kant was brilliant in tracking human talents for self-deception.  We live in constant temptation: to ennoble our ordinary interests and conceal our base one, from ourselves as well as from anyone else.

Consequently we may – and we must – try to be decent, but we will never know if we succeed.


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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