-Happiness as Ethics

People’s deepest interest is not doing what is ethical and what is right; people’s deepest interest, characteristically, is doing what makes them happy .

Happiness as Ethics

Gregory Koukl

Greg explains the problem with making happiness the goal in life. divider

I’m trying to give tools to think about ethical things. I’m of the persuasion that ethics, morals, values are among the most important distinctions you can make in this world. They are among the most important kinds of things. There is no lack of ethical conversations, but there is a lack of clear moral thinking in this country. There is some going on but most of it is not. Part of my goal in teaching a class or doing a show like this is to give my listeners some categories that allow them to navigate in the field of ethical decision making. I am really convinced that once you learn some things about ethics, you’ll see that most people don’t deal with moral issues on a very high plane.


People’s deepest interest is not doing what is ethical and what is right; people’s deepest interest, characteristically, is doing what makes them happy .


I don’t suggest this to be an intellectual snob or look down my nose at other people who don’t think through issues quite as clearly. I say it for another reason entirely. Sometimes the issue of thinking clearly about issues is sport. It’s fun to banter and have repartee about opinions and things that people hold dear. But there are times when you’re dealing with particular issues that it goes beyond sport, you’re dealing with issues that are absolutely critical and valuable to life. In those circumstances, the banter may be sport but it goes much beyond that. That’s why when people don’t think clearly, and the issues are things that have no eternal significance or consequence, it doesn’t matter and we can abandon our conversation and talk about the Dodgers if we want because that just happens to be what we like. But there are other issues that are much, much more critical to our daily life and that influence us as moral human beings. And when we don’t think clearly about those issues, then we or others may be at peril as a result of that. It’s by way of stimulating your thinking so that you can be more sound in the way that you think about ethical things. My experience is that most people don’t think in a sound way when they come to ethics.When you talk with people about ethical issues, you’ll find that the starting point for most of them is the same: they start with themselves and with what they want from life. And there’s one thing more than anything else that people want, at least in our culture. There’s one significant goal for everybody in our culture. If you ask the man on the street what he wants from life, what he wants for his children, he’ll give you one answer. He wants to be happy. The goal of his life is to seek happiness. And of course, I am of the opinion that “happiness is a serious problem” especially when people begin their ethical decision making from what really makes them happy. And this is where their ethical discourse begins. This is why I suggest that people don’t think very clearly about ethical issues. People first ask the question, “What in life will make me happy?”

Now people don’t always do this consciously; they don’t start out by saying, “I’m going to be self-centered and egoistic in my ethics.” But a few moments reflection will reveal that this is true. They start out with what they want for themselves and then they attempt to reason towards some moral conclusions. I use the word “reason” very loosely and broadly, because most of what is going on is not rationality but rationalization. The thinking may be flawed, the rationale unsound, the applications ludicrous, yet people continue to cling tenaciously to their “ethics” and “morals”, which much of the time is nothing more than thinly veiled self-interest. People’s deepest interest is not doing what is ethical and what is right; people’s deepest interest, characteristically, is doing what makes them happy. They find what will make them happy and then seek to rationalize it with ethical language.

That is the starting point for ethical decision making. What makes me happy right now? They start from that point and then try to justify their conclusions with some kind of bizarre, convoluted moral argument. That kind of attitude never results in morally sound conclusions because it’s starting from the wrong place, the self. Morals don’t work that way, as much as a lot of people today would like to think that. Morals simply do not work that way.

The most glaring example of this unsound ethical thinking is the pervasive belief in moral relativism, the idea that each person ought to act in keeping with his own moral code, that what is right for one person isn’t necessarily right for another person, and that each person has a moral obligation to be tolerant and not pass judgment on alternative moral viewpoints. This is probably very familiar to you as I describe it because it is the most commonly expressed position in the market place today. The view is expressed in more popular terms as, “You have your moral truth; I have mine;” or “Don’t push your morality on me;” or the even more vacuous, “You can’t legislate morality.” The biblical description of this type of ethic is described in the book of Judges where “every man did what was right in his own eyes.” That’s the depth of most people’s ethical beliefs nowadays, at least that’s what they hold.

This, by the way, is why much of the discussion of ethical issues in the market place today centers on the concept of rights. Have you noticed that? When we talk about ethical issues in the news, the discussion is not about morality, it’s about rights. “I have a right to choose; I have a right to experience my sexuality in any way I desire; I have a right to amass as much wealth as I can; I have a right to get a divorce if I choose.”

Choose is little bit of a confusing statement, if I can give you an aside here. Choose is a relational term, it needs something else to relate to it. There is no such thing, technically, as a right to choose. It’s like saying something is to the left of. Well something can only be to the left of something that you identify. Being to the left of doesn’t just hang out in space there by itself. In the same way, choice doesn’t just hang out there in space by itself. We don’t have right to choose…anything. We only have a right to choose particular things. So the discussion about choice has always got to be about that thing that choice is in relationship to. Do I have a right to blow up a building if I don’t like their prices. Of course not. Do I have a right to choose a pen rather than a pencil? Yes I do. So the right to choose is not autonomous, it’s not an absolute right. It always depends on the object that’s in question.


Why has our discussion been about what is legal instead about what is moral? I suggest it’s for one reason: self-interest . We can always adjust what is legal to fit what we want .


Much consideration is given to the idea of what are my rights, but little consideration is given to the idea of what is right. Most of the attention focuses on what kind of people we are allowed to be; little attention is given to the question of what kind of people should we be. Is it possible for someone to have a right to do something, even though what they do may not be right? Or to put it another way, is it possible that something may not be right even though we have a right to do it? Why has our discussion been about what is legal instead about what is moral? I suggest it’s for one reason: self-interest. Morality plays against self-interest. We can always adjust what is legal to fit what we want. So we argue frequently as long as it’s legal, it is right and proper. We reduce ethical decision making to the issue of rights instead of the issue of the kinds of people we ought to be. What kind of humanity should we be developing?Now, to be sure, there are issues that individuals must decide for themselves based purely on individual conscience. Some issues by their very nature demand this kind of treatment. But as an over-arching ethical system, relativism is morally bankrupt.

I simply want to make the observation that most of what people are doing is not ethical thinking. It is rationalization. They seek to rationalize their own self-interest, their own desire, what would be satisfying to them. That’s why when people argue about abortion, it’s never about what is really most critical, which has to do with the civil rights of the unborn child. Does the unborn child have civil rights? Is it a person? Is it a human being that should be protected under the law? No, the discussions revolve around the difficulties people have if they raise the children, about whether they have enough money, whether they can handle it with their careers right now, basically things that relate to a person’s self-interest. So they argue what should be moral, what a person has the liberty to do, based on what is most comfortable, and very little discussion is given to should we view decisions in this way? Should we view unborn children as something that is just a throw away item? Or should we be a different kind of person? Should we be encouraging people to be compassionate and kind to children who are born with a defect, instead of just throwing these children away because they’re awkward and difficult and justifying it because we have a right to do so.

Let me read a short piece by Faye Wattleton entitled “Self-definition–Morality”. Now, this is a very well-written, persuasive piece. I sounds so…well, tolerant, so pleasant and so fair. But there is a fundamental flaw of thinking that underlies the entire piece. The flaw is in the belief that there is such a thing as morally neutral ground, in other words, a place where one can stand that makes no moral or ethical statement at all, a place of moral neutrality. That is what is suggested here. Faye Wattleton suggests,

“We are on morally neutral ground. You can decide what you want to do. I can decide what I want to do. Each person gets to decide their own morality. That’s the essence of morality.”

Or, as Faye Wattleton puts it, “… morality of the highest order.”

But for her to fight “for the right of all individuals to make their own moral decisions about childbearing” is to make a moral statement in itself, a moral attitude, I might add, she is seeking to impose on others. She states that all people should be allowed to make their own moral statements, and that any individual should not interfere.

Let me give you a real illustration about my brother. Some teachers in Hawaii were doing a values clarification exercise. The exercise had to do with placing the children in a role playing situation where they were all out at sea in a life raft. They only had so much food for the limited number of people in the boat; somebody was going to have to die.


There is no morally neutral ground.


The teacher said he was not imposing any values or morality on the students at all. “It’s up to you to decide how to work it out.” My brother was very offended by the approach in this exercise and he talked to the teacher about it. The teacher said, “You don’t understand. We’re not imposing any values on anyone. This is a value free situation. We’re letting the kids decide for themselves.”Dave asked, “What are you telling them to do? How do they carry out this exercise?” He answered, “We’re telling them they must work out what they feel is right or wrong for themselves.” At this Dave responded, “Don’t you understand that what you’re communicating to them is an ethical viewpoint in itself? You are telling them that there is no standard for them to follow in this circumstance; you’re saying that the decision is up to them . That is an ethical viewpoint.” Dave’s point was that the teacher thought he was on morally neutral ground when in fact he was teaching the ethical viewpoint of relativism.

Let me give you a more up to date example. Suppose I went into a high school and said, “I understand there is a drug problem. People are getting sick from drug needles. Some are catching AIDS or hepatitis, others are getting infections. Still others get impure drugs from the street, laced with cyanide and rat poison and children are dying. We’re deeply concerned about this.

“We’re personally against drugs, but we know some of you are going to use them anyway and we want to approach this in a value-free manner, so we’ve adopted the following policy. We’re going to put out pure drugs, not laced with anything that could hurt you, and we’re giving you clean needles. We will also have a class to instruct you in the proper way to use hypodermic needles. The drugs and needles will be available in the nurse’s office. We’re not going to tell you what’s right or wrong. We’re not going to impose our views on you. We’re just making it available for you and you can make up your own mind. We also will protect your privacy by not telling anyone, including your parents, and by not chastising you or making you feel uncomfortable about using these things.”

On the surface, at least in the words, it sounds like it’s value free. But I don’t think there’s a person listening today who would miss the implications of such a policy. At bare minimum the school would be saying there is no right or wrong about drugs, and it’s entirely an individual choice as to whether children use them or not. At worst the policy would be taken as implicit approval, especially in the minds of young people, when adults make these things available to them.

Some of you who are more alert will, no doubt, make the connection between this illustration and its real life analog: giving condoms to children to keep sex safe at the same time disavowing that you’re making any moral judgment at all. Whether you agree with the merits of condoms in schools or not, the point I’m making is that this is not a morally neutral act. There is no morally neutral ground.


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