Like the green bay tree : the necessity of virtue for happiness.
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Wise, Jonathan D. Sands.
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It is a generally accepted truth that the wicked flourish, as the psalmist has it, "like the green bay tree": their evil ways, far from hurting them, actually contribute to their well-being and vicious contentedness. From Socrates till Kant, on the other hand, every major moral philosopher believed that a person had to be virtuous to be happy. I explore why Aristotle accepted this thesis and the role that it played in his account of the good life, then turn to our contemporary accounts of happiness to determine if our concept shares any similarities with that employed by Aristotle. Happiness, most contemporary accounts would have it, is nothing more than a psychological state; I argue that this is reductive and that we still share much of Aristotle’s perspective wherein happiness tracks objective features of our character and fit with our environment as well. Even if I am right about happiness, why should we accept that virtue is necessary for happiness? Joseph Butler, though often misunderstood, provides significant support for this thesis using specific theistic premises, which, unfortunately, are no longer available to us today. Bernard Williams and Alasdair MacIntyre, on the other hand, provide a complex account of ethics that allows us to respond to the serious challenges our central thesis still faces, most notably cultural relativism and the apparent counterexamples provided by the green bay trees that surround us all. I conclude that there is substantial support for the thesis that some list of virtues, explorable but not entirely known by us, is necessary for the sort of happiness that we are concerned to plan for and achieve in our ethical lives, and that virtue ethics should accept this thesis as it has several important roles to play, especially in education and reflective endorsement. Justice, as a personal virtue, proves an interesting test case as I explore whether it particularly is necessary for happiness.