Sad, tense. I once wrote this, I no longer believe it to be true;
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle ponders what makes for a “good” life. He considers a hierarchical view of what is good based on the ends of a particular action being used to affect more important actions with more important ends. For example, a blacksmith builds a sword for a soldier. Certainly, Aristotle would say, the sword itself is more important than the act of crafting it, for the process of crafting was taken for the sole purpose of creating the sword. Then, the soldier who uses the sword to achieve victory for the country in battle would fall under a similar discussion: the victory is more “good” than the battle.
But, the ends of these actions were only worth pursuing for the sake of something else. Is there any end worth pursuing for its own sake and never for the sake of something else? Aristotle proposes that happiness is the most “complete” end to all of our other pursuits.
He then argues that happiness comes from action in accordance with virtue, but this confounds his previous definition of happiness as an end in and of itself. Consider the example of a virtuous man who believes so strongly in his principles that he is willing to stand up against an unjust government and be killed for promoting his beliefs. Suppose he becomes a martyr, and his death is instrumental in turning the hearts and minds of citizens and overthrowing the unjust government. He may derive pleasure from acting virtuously, but he does not achieve happiness, because he his killed.
This contradicts Aristotle’s assertion that happiness itself is the most important end to any hierarchy of actions and outcomes. Rather, I claim that happiness is irrelevant to whether a life is good.
Consider, again, the same man as above. Suppose he is severely depressed and addicted to drugs and alcohol. Despite his vices he is a virtuous man of action, and as Aristotle notes, he derives pleasure from acting in accordance with his virtues. But any happiness that comes from this pleasure is overshadowed by depression, despair and anger. Could we say that he lived a good life?
I say yes. If the bad of the man’s vices is overshadowed by the greater good of his political activism, and if the disruption of trying to break his addiction and depression would prevent him from achieving his goals, then he could live a good life by acting virtuously, in spite of his flaws and never experiencing happiness. This man is a sad puppet of his own virtues with nothing else to live for, but his actions are good in the same way that the blacksmith’s process of crafting is good, or the soldier battling to protect the country is good.
Living a good life can involve sacrificing one’s self, and so happiness is irrelevant to living a good life. Rather, acting virtuously, according to a set of principles, and working to improve society as a whole, potentially in spite of one’s self-interests, are factors that comprise a good life. The good in improving the world outweighs the good an individual may experience personally in our judgment of his life. Otherwise we would have to say that it is good to act purely out of self-interest and in pursuit of the most basic of pleasures.