Tag Archives: moral


Charlie Roden took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘happiness’ as a philosophical keyword, with the help of Charlie Brown.

Extract from the comic-strip ‘Peanuts’. Image from http://www.philipchircop.com/post/15448312238/incidentally-what-is-happiness-do-whatever

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘happiness’ is defined as ‘the state of being happy’, that is, ‘feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.’[1]  Happiness is a universal concept which, I believe, most people aspire to achieve. However, since happiness is so subjective, everyone interprets it in different ways.

Many people believe that they attain happiness when they eat their favourite food, buy new clothes or earn a lot of money. Although these are all experiences that can be enjoyed, they don’t actually cause happiness- they only bring us pleasure.  Of course, the official definition of ‘happiness’ does include pleasure, however I agree with Happiness International who suggest that pleasure is only short-lived and externally motivated. If happiness relied on pleasures such as the ones just mentioned, does this suggest that without a lot of money or materialistic items people are unhappy?

I don’t believe that anyone can truly define ‘happiness’, and by looking at the history of this word we can see how its cultural and philosophical meanings have changed over time, demonstrating that happiness cannot simply be understood as a single concept.

‘Happiness’ stems from the late fourteenth-century word ‘hap’ meaning ‘good luck’ or ‘chance’. [2] This suggests then that in the Middle Ages, a person was believed to be happy if they had good fortune.  Already, we can see how a modern perspective of ‘happiness’ is different to this idea, as although being lucky can promote happiness, we can often feel happy without being fortunate.

The sole predecessor to the idea of ‘happiness’ was proposed by Aristotle (384-322 BC). In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle emphasised that the ultimate aim in life is ‘Eudaimonia’, an Ancient Greek term usually translated as ‘happiness’ or ‘human growth.’ [3]

Unlike an emotional state, such as pleasure, Aristotle asserted that Eudaimonia is about reaching your full potential and flourishing as a person. In order to do this, you need to live a life that is wholesome and virtuous to attain the best version of yourself. [4] Virtue can be achieved through balance and moderation, as this way of life leads to ‘the greatest long-term value’ rather than just pleasure that is short-lived.  [5] In a modern-day perspective, this would be the difference between earning vast sums of money but spending it all at once, as opposed to spending money wisely, ensuring it will last and provide you with a good life. [6]

In the early modern era, the importance of happiness began to emerge in the political sphere. [7] In 1726, the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) wrote that

‘that Action is best, which procures the greatest Happiness for the greatest Numbers; and that, worst, which, in like manner, occasions misery.’ [8]

This utilitarian principle, which aims at the greatest happiness of the greatest number, essentially asserts than an action is right if it produces happiness and wrong if it produces the reverse of happiness. [9]

Jeremy Bentham 1748 – 1832

Jeremy Bentham, image from http://sueyounghistories.com/archives/2010/06/13/jeremy-bentham-1748-%E2%80%93-1832/

The most famous advocate of utilitarianism was English philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Bentham proposed many social and legal reforms, such as complete equality for both sexes, and put forward the idea that legislation should be based on morality. [10] Identifying the good with pleasure, in his 1781 book An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham wrote:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.’  [11]

By stating that happiness can be understood in terms of the balance of pleasure over pain, Bentham shares an ethical Hedonistic claim; the notion that only pleasure is valuable, and displeasure or pain is valueless. [12]

In 1861, English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) published one of his most famous essays, Utilitarianism, which was written to support the value of Bentham’s moral theories. The general argument of Mill’s work proposed that morality brings about the best state of a situation, and that the best state of affairs is the one with the largest amount of happiness for the majority of people. Mill also defined happiness as the supremacy of pleasure over pain; however, unlike Bentham, Mill recognised that pleasure can vary in quality. Whereas Bentham saw simple-minded and sensual pleasures, such as drinking alcohol or eating luxurious foods as just as good as complex and sophisticated pleasures, such as listening to classical music or reading a piece of literature,  [13] Mill argued that:

‘the pleasures that are rooted in one’s higher faculties should be weighted more heavily than baser pleasures.’

[14]  Mill’s version of pleasure also links back to the tradition  of Aristotle’s virtue ethics, as he stated that leading a virtuous life should be counted as part of a person’s happiness. [15]

Ultimately, ‘happiness’, at least from a political viewpoint, took its deepest roots in the New World. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) asserted that:

‘The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the first and only legitimate object of good government.’ [16] 

He believed that a good government was one that promoted its people’s happiness by securing their rights.

First Printed Version of the Declaration of Independence

First Printed Version of the Declaration of Independence, 1776, image from http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/creating-the-united-states/interactives/declaration-of-independence/pursuit/enlarge5.html

‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’, the three ‘unalienable rights’ is the phrase  most often quoted from  the 1776 American Declaration of Independence. Today, Americans translate ‘the pursuit of happiness’ as a right to follow ones dreams and chase after whatever makes you subjectively happy. [17]   However, Professor James R. Rogers from Texas A&M University argues that happiness in the public discourse of the late eighteenth-century did not simply refer to an emotional state. Instead, it meant a person’s wealth or well-being. [18] It included the right to meet ‘physical needs’, but it also encompassed an important religious and moral aspect. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 confirmed that:

‘the happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depended upon piety, religion and morality, and… these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality.’ [19]

Statements like these can be found in many documents of the time. Essentially, ‘happiness’ in the Declaration should be understood as a virtuous happiness, again similar to Aristotle’s ‘Eudaimonia’. Although the ‘pursuit of happiness’ includes a right to material things, it goes beyond that to include a person’s moral condition. [20]

After searching for the philosophy of happiness in twentieth-century Britain, I came across Bertrand Russell’s (1872-1970) The Conquest of Happiness, published in 1930. To my surprise, I found his beliefs on happiness rather modern, and similar to the sort of ideas about happiness you can read about in self-help books today. Nevertheless, I found his work inspiring. Russell wrote this book to ‘suggest a cure’ for the day-to-day unhappiness that most people suffer from in civilised countries.  [21]

The key concept of happiness that I took away from Russell’s book was to stop worrying:

‘When you have looked for some time steadily at the worst possibility and have said to yourself with real conviction, “Well, after all, that would not matter so very much,’ you will find that your worry diminishes to a quite extraordinary extent.’ [22]

This also means to stop worrying about what other people think of you, since most people will not think about you anywhere near as much as you think [23], essentially suggesting that people overestimate other negative people’s feelings about them.

With around two thousand self-help books being published every year, it can be argued that happiness is more central to modern-day society than any other time in history. [24]

However, as well as aiming to achieve happiness, there is now a huge emphasis on how to reduce symptoms which prevent happiness, such as anxiety and depression.  According to the Huffington Post, around 350,000,000 people around the world are affected by some form of depression. These extortionate statistics has led to the creation of organisations such as Action For Happiness, whose aim is to reduce misery in people’s lives, and encourage people to create more happiness and less unhappiness in the world.

Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1838-1910) once said:

“If you want to be happy, be.” [25]

The idea that we can simply choose to be happy, regardless of certain aspects of our life that we want to change, is also a prevalent idea today. The best-selling song of 2014, Pharrell Williams’ Happy promotes this idea:

‘Because I’m happy, clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.’ [26]

When asked what these lyrics meant, Williams stated that happiness has no limits and can be achieved by everyone.


Pharrell Williams’ reply. Image from https://twitter.com/Pharrell/status/431011318737698816?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

Finally, the idea that everyone can achieve happiness has been a topic talked about by Sam Berns. Berns suffered from Progeria and helped raise awareness of this disease. He died one year after appearing in a TEDx Talks video called ‘My philosophy for a happy life’ at the age of seventeen in 2014. In this inspiring video, Berns shares his four key concepts that help him lead a happy life.

1) Overcome obstacles that prevent happiness.

2) Instead of focussing on what you can’t do, focus on what you can do.

3) Surround yourself with people who bring positive energy into your life.

4) Don’t waste energy on feeling bad for yourself.

Overall, it appear that there is no such thing as one concept of ‘happiness.’ From classical antiquity all the way through to present day, the idea of what happiness means culturally and philosophically has developed, and will most likely continue to change in the future.

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Emmeline Wilcox took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘moral’ as a philosophical keyword.

Growing up as a Harry Potter fanatic, I lapped up all the moral messages that littered the books. The importance of empathy, friendship, loyalty, love, and acceptance were set out as qualities that should be fostered. Finding moral lessons in stories is not unfamiliar ground when you’re a child. In fact, as children we are bombarded with moral messages. A children’s TV show, for example, will most likely take you on a journey of moral discovery. Characters make mistakes, and lessons are learned. In this way, the child can reap the moral benefits without the anguish of making mistakes. Teaching moral behaviour in children is essentially teaching a child how to live in our society, and what is expected of them. To my delight, a whole book has been dedicated to child moral development using Harry Potter as a basis. However, this use of the word ‘moral’ in terms of a lesson is just one of the ways we use the word. Exploring other definitions and usages of the word takes us deep into our history.

‘The Potter books in general are a prolonged argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry. And I think it’s one of the reasons that some people don’t like the books, but I think that’s it’s a very healthy message to pass on to younger people that you should question authority and you should not assume that the establishment or the press tells you all of the truth.’ – J.K. Rowling.

The word ‘moral’ first appeared in the English language around the mid to late 14th century. It is thought that the word was first used by John Gower to translate the Latin title of St. Gregory the Great’s moral exposition on the Book of Job (Moralia, sive Expositio in Job) for use in his poem, The Lovers’ Confession (circa. 1393). The Latin word moralis (the singular of moralia) literally translated from Latin to ‘pertaining to manners’ – with mos meaning manner, custom, or law. The word ‘moral’ was subsequently used in translating many other classical works. The use of moral as an adjective can similarly be traced back to the late 14th century – first appearing in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales with the term ‘moral virtue’ (circa. 1387-95). Crucially, the use of the word as both an adjective and a noun emerged around the same time: Gower used the word as a noun, and Chaucer used the word as an adjective.

St. Gregory the Great

“Forthi Gregoire in his Moral / Seith that a man in special” – Gower.


Moral: Human Behaviour

The earliest use of the word as an adjective, merely indicated human behaviour and was unchanged from its Latin meaning. It is this definition that the term ‘moral philosophy’ has sprung from. Moral philosophy and ‘ethics’ are often seen as one in the same and are frequently used interchangeably. Surprisingly, the two words actually share a common evolutionary ancestor: the Latin word moralis was coined by Cicero when translating the ancient Greek word ethikos. Moral philosophy, being concerned with the big question of how we should live our lives, is a topic that has been taken up by many philosophers over the course of history. From Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; Immanuel Kant’s The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals; and G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica are just a few examples of philosophers who have explored moral philosophy and ethics. Moral philosophers have traditionally been divided into two categories: moral universalists, and moral relativists. Moral universalists believe that there is a moral code which all humans share, and it can be arrived at through rational thought. Moral relativists (and later moral sceptics) denied that these universal moral laws exist, citing that many different cultures had very different moral codes.

In the mid 20th century, the meaning of ‘moral’ which referred to behaviour, was taken up by scientists and transformed into something that could now be tested and measured. With the advent of behavioural psychology in the 1920s, psychologists began to test morals and explore moral development. Psychologists such as Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg came up with theories of moral development in children. In adults, the famous 1963 Milgram experiment tested the strength of someone’s ‘moral imperative against hurting others’. Milgram’s experiment is certainly a mirror of the time – the study was set up as an attempt to explain how the holocaust could ever have occurred.

“Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.”

“Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.”

Moral: good behaviour or having good principles 

In the mid 15th century, the word took on a positive definition – meaning virtuous, or good behaviour and beliefs. We can infer a great deal about a society or person when the term moral is used as a justification for views or behaviour. Most starkly, we can begin to deduce someone’s general political views when he or she states that something is ‘moral’. For example, in 2004(?), Tony Benn stated that ‘there is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons.’ Conversely, and more recently, the exact word, was used by David Cameron to justify an opposing stance. When attempting to justify his position on airstrikes in Syria, Cameron claimed that there was a ‘moral case. Even Katie Hopkins, famed for causing outrage by expressing views which oppose generally accepted morals, still likes to think she has a ‘moral compass’. Hopkins claims that her moral compass is only different as it is ‘not to do with religion […], it’s something to do with Britishness.‘.  When people talk about what they believe is moral, we can begin to make a good stab at where they are on the political spectrum. When Katie Hopkins associates her morals with nationalism, we can infer that she is a nationalist and is therefore right wing. When Tony Benn associates morality with an anti-war agenda, we can reasonably guess that he is sympathetic to the left. George Lakoff wrote the book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think – ultimately illustrating how the difference in morals is the fundamental factor when it comes to differing political views.

What is perhaps most illuminating, is that no one wants to come across as someone who is not in possession of morals. If you say ‘you have no morals’ it is an insult – an insult which is often aimed at the youth – apparently all those moral lessons in Harry Potter wear of off by adolescence. A world full of these immoral youths is a very frightening place – so much so, that this fear of immorality has been given its own term: moral panic. This term first appeared in Galaxy Magazine in 1877, when it was stated that the financial crisis of 1873 ‘has been followed by a moral panic.’ However, it wasn’t until the mid 1970s onwards that, in the western world, we really have been in a moral panic with the term dramatically increasing during this time. The increase could possibly be attributed to growing crime rates and illegal drug use – with drug use reaching its peak in 1995 when it is was reported that almost half of young people in Britain had tried an illegal drug. This is compared to 1950 when only 5% of young people were reported to have tried illegal drugs. Of course the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, nicknamed the ‘gay plague’ created an enormous amount of moral panic around sexuality and promiscuity.

Moral Panic

The moral panic of the HIV/AIDS epidemic feeds into the definition that surprised me the most during my research on the word ‘moral’. One of the definitions given to me by dictionary.com, was that ‘moral’ meant ‘Virtuous in sexual matters; chaste’. Out of the many definitions, this was the only time that a dictionary had given me a precise example of moral behaviour as its definition. What seems very illuminating was how it was in sexual matters that the dictionary was telling us how to behave. Why is being chaste seen as the pinnacle of being moral? Why had none of the behaviours that J.K. Rowling had taught me not made it to the definition? Is this definition just a hangover from a pre-1960s age? Luckily a quick search for chaste in the Oxford English Dictionary confirmed for me that a definition for chaste was ‘Morally pure, free from guilt, innocent. Obs.’ – with ‘obs.’ actually meaning obsolete (and not ‘obviously’ as I began to believe, thinking that the OED was giving me attitude through text language). The strong association of morality and sex in western culture can be traced back to the beginnings of Christianity. Even before this, chastity was encouraged as a way of increasing paternal certainty and encourage ‘male paternal investment’. Thus, we can infer that the use of the word ‘moral’ to mean ‘chastity’ was almost inevitably going to happen – dating back thousands of years.

“In Western culture, at least since its Christian formation, there has been a perduring tendency to give too much importance to the morality of sex… ‘morality’ is almost reduced to ‘sexual morality’” – Margaret Farley

‘The Moral of the Story…’

The word moral is delightfully versatile. It is used to justify, to insult, and to scaremonger. The way people use the word can reveal a person’s views about politics, or even their views about sex. It is used in Parliament, in scientific reports, and in philosophical treaties. Yet it is simultaneously used in tabloids – with even the likes of Katie Hopkins appearing to give some thought to its meaning.


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, (London: Penguin Classics, 350 BC/2004)

Benedict, Leo, ‘How the British Fell Out of Love With Drugs’, The Guardian, 24/02/2011, <http://www.theguardian.com/society/2011/feb/24/british-drug-use-falling> [Accessed: 26/02/2016]

Burkart, Gina, A Parents Guide to Harry Potter, (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009)

Cameron, David, quoted in, Andrew Sparrow, ‘Cameron sets out ‘moral case’ for airstrikes against Isis in Syria – Politics live’, The Guardian, 26/11/2015, <http://www.theguardian.com/politics/blog/live/2015/nov/26/cameron-statement-syria-isis-air-strikes-not-a-sign-of-weakness-politics-live> [Accessed: 26/02/2016]

Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Canterbury Tales, (London: Penguin Classics, 1475/2003)

Gower, John, Confessio Amantis, (Charlston: Nabu Press, c. 1399/2012) 

Hopkins, Katie, quoted in, Hesham Mashhours, ‘‘Do You Have a Moral Compass?’ – BlewsWire Interviews Katie Hopkins’, BlewsWire,  <http://blewswire.com/do-you-have-a-moral-compass-blewswire-interviews-katie-hopkins/> [Accessed: 26/02/2016]

Kant, Immanuel, The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 2nd edn, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1785/2012)

Lakoff, George, Moral Politics: How Liberal and Conservatives Think, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)

Moore, G.E., Principia Ethica, (Kent: Dover Publications, 1903/2004)

Price, Michael E., ‘FromDarwin to Eternity: Why Does Morality Focus So Much On Sex?’, Psychology Today, (2013), <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/darwin-eternity/201307/why-does-morality-focus-so-much-sex> [Accessed: 26/02/2016]

Thatcher, Margaret, ‘The Moral Foundations of Society’, Speech delivered at Hillsdale College, 11/1994.

Thompson, Gavin, Hawkins, Oliver, Dar, Aliyah, Taylor, Mark, Olympic Britain: Social and Economic Change Since the 1908 and 1948 London Games, (London: House of Commons Publications, 2012)

Westacott, Emrys, ‘Moral Relativism’, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, <http://www.iep.utm.edu/moral-re/> [Accessed: 27/02/2016]