Objectivism and Thomas Jefferson
Seven Essays on the Philosophy of Ayn Rand


3. Happiness as Moral Purpose

Having a moral purpose implies that one's purpose in life is within the context of a moral sense, for how can a person conceive of a moral purpose for himself unless he has some concept of what actions, what goals, what intentions, that he may choose lie within the compass of morality? A moral sense is therefore implied when Rand defines man's moral purpose in her famous synopsis:

Right off, we are aware that this is an inadequate definition of moral purpose. Happiness is a universally desired state; no normal human being wants to be unhappy. To say that it is a person's moral purpose says little unless we consider what is his source of happiness. From a philosophical point of view, it is not merely happiness, but the means by which a person achieves happiness that has moral significance. The question really is, Is happiness man's only purpose? Is anything that produces happiness therefore good and desirable? Does happiness take precedence over all other considerations? For example, if knowing the truth makes you unhappy, would your moral purpose be served with a lie?

When we realize that happiness is a nonspecific standard, that what makes one person happy might make another miserable, that what might make a happy Hitler dance a jig can be the most evil, immoral act the world has seen, we then realize that happiness as a moral purpose is essentially meaningless. As a friend pointed out, all of Rand's characters in her novels are happy, regardless of their abominable characters; which all too well illustrates that "happiness" as a moral purpose says virtually nothing. To say that Hitler shouldn't have been happy doing evil only illustrates that this standard--happiness --is abstract and indefinite, and is not an objective standard at all. Happiness, in other words, may mean something different for each and every person. In fact, in a free society, it probably should. But to define moral purpose in terms of happiness says nothing unless we also define by what means the happiness was obtained.

When we consider the moral purpose of an individual, we are considering his existence in its broadest sense. We are asking, What is the purpose of his life? What are the dynamics of his existence? What is it that makes life meaningful? What, indeed, is the point of it all?

To say that it is merely happiness leaves unanswered anything that relates to man's existence in that broader sense. We would hope that human life, lived to its fullest, produces happiness. If it doesn't, then all our efforts are farcical. Yet we are unable to define precisely what, for each individual, will produce that happiness, nor should we. If a man is free, he should be able to pursue his happiness within certain moral restraints, and the basis of those restraints forms the true definition of moral purpose. If we define moral purpose as happiness, what we are left with is just another floating abstraction that has no practicable application and little meaning. At most, therefore, we as a society cannot be specific about happiness, but can only grant to every person the RIGHT TO PURSUE HAPPINESS, to determine what, for himself, that shall be, and to grant the right for him to find out for himself what that shall be within the limits of a society of persons all engaged in the same pursuit. An indispensable part of the moral purpose of an individual, then, is his relationship to others in the society in which he lives. And an understanding of that is important in the study of government, for as Jefferson wrote:

Happiness can never be merely an individual consideration, because individual happiness must be compatible with the happiness of others in a just society. This social relationship is not accidental or incidental; it is an intrinsic part of existence and of the consideration of moral purpose. To pursue happiness while ignoring the social relationship, with its duties and responsibilities, is to seal oneself off from the deeper meaning, as well as the deeper necessity, of what it means to be alive.

Happiness as a moral purpose, therefore, implies a social right to pursue happiness, and considers our relationship to others in society, which involves morality itself. We do not pursue happiness in isolation, but in and through our interactions with others. Thus, moral purpose is not a matter only of that which brings us our own happiness. It is a matter of our moral relationship to others as well. As members of a social group, all of whom are seeking happiness, our happiness necessarily has a link to, a common concern with, the happiness of others in the group.

Man is, above all, a social animal. His happiness is not to be found in isolation from other humans. Without the presence and nurture of others, he would be without language, without the broad based understanding necessary for his fullest development, and without everything that makes him a civilized human being. To ignore this interrelationship is to ignore the most obvious aspect of man's life. It is not possible to formulate a moral purpose for man apart from this fundamental relationship. And thus it is that morality itself--his principles of conduct--relates to his acts towards others.

The whole purpose of morality is to enable us to live in a society of other humans, not merely to seek our own ends. When Rand says that "his own happiness" is the moral purpose of man's life, she thus builds a wall of separation between the individual and society, and narrows her philosophy to one of selfishness and alienation--which, in fact, is borne out by other aspects thereof. But our moral purpose necessarily involves our relationship to others, and our moral sense is, to a great degree, an instinctual part of our being.

Rand, however, takes a different course and discounts any innate moral sense.



Eyler Coates
Eyler Coates
Eyler Coates

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Go to the Essays

Front Page | 1. Reason as Absolute
2. Safety in Error | 3. Happiness as Moral Purpose
4. Selfishness as Virtue | 5. Capitalism Over Self-Government
6. Non-Initiation of Force | 7. Adversaries of Democracy

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