University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Feeling Good vs. Doing Good

The meaning of happiness has changed over time

Unlike contemporary North Americans, the ancient Greeks believed happiness could be achieved only by being a good person; it had nothing to do with feeling good.

Aristotle offered the most complete articulation of the ancients’ views about well-being. He said happiness could be achieved only through virtuous conduct and rigorous thought. Professor Thomas Hurka, who takes a similar view, says the good life consists of things that are valuable and worth pursuing in themselves – self-understanding, achievement and moral virtue, among others – even if they don’t always make you feel happy in the sense of feeling pleasure. “Sometimes genuine self-understanding is painful,” says Hurka, the Henry N.R. Jackman Distinguished Professor in Philosophical Studies.

Early Christian scholars incorporated this notion of suffering for happiness into their doctrines. St. Augustine, a theologian who lived in the fourth century, argued that original sin precluded perfect happiness in this life, but the devout would get their due in the afterlife. Reformation theorists pondered whether earthly pleasures might even be a sign of God’s grace, a reward for good behaviour in advance of the real thing in heaven.

A radical break came in the 17th century when the English philosopher John Locke suggested that feeling good was intrinsically good because God wanted his creatures to be happy. The right action was therefore the one that resulted in the most pleasant feelings. Utilitarianism, a philosophy that flourished in the 18th century, extended this theory to public life. It asserted that government should judge its policies on which ones produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. The 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill offered a refined version of utilitarianism in which he distinguished between “higher” and “lower” pleasures. In his view, cerebral satisfaction should rank higher than purely physical delight, which any animal could experience.

The idea that happiness is about feeling good rather than “doing good” has modern defenders. Wayne Sumner, a U of T philosophy professor and proponent of utilitarianism, says happiness has both an immediate, emotional component (you feel fulfilled in your life) and a more long-term, cognitive component (you judge that your whole life is going well). For Sumner, this kind of happiness is the most important part of the good life.

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  1. One Response to “ Feeling Good vs. Doing Good ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Megan Easton states that Aristotle believed happiness "could be achieved only through virtuous conduct and rigorous thought." Ms Easton seems to have interpreted this to mean that Aristotle advocated "doing good" rather than "feeling good." This, however, does an injustice to one of the great ethical systems. Aristotle explicitly rejected the notion that one could be happy by being merely virtuous, citing the example of a person who is tortured for his whole life despite never having committed a crime. No one would reasonably call this person happy, despite his or her virtuousness. We do not have to wait until Locke to discover a commonsensical and philosophically defensible notion of the best life, one that actually includes some of life's pleasures.

    Gregory Scott
    PhD 1992
    New York