A Framework for Secular Happiness

(L to R) Candace Vogler, Fr. Thomas Joseph White, Jennifer A. Frey; debating the topic “Happiness without Religion?” at the Catholic Center of NYU in September 2016.

This week we post the three arguments presented at the debate “Happiness Without Religion”, hosted by First Things and the Thomistic Institute at the Catholic Center of NYU. Today is part 1 of 3 and features Jennifer A. Frey. The accompanying audio of the debate (below) was recorded by the Thomistic Institute.

Our question is, “Can we have happiness without religion?” It’s not a perennial question, as secularism is a relatively new-fangled way of thinking and living for human beings. But it is a question for us—especially those of us living in North America and Europe, where “none” is the second largest religious affiliation, an affiliation whose numbers continue to grow as more traditional ones decline. It’s also a deeply practical and existential question that affects how we organize our lives and understand ourselves. Obviously I am not going to give a definitive answer this afternoon, but I would like to provide something like a framework for addressing the question, and I’ll tentatively put forward the claim that there is such a thing as non-trivial, relatively stable happiness for secular people of goodwill, and that this sort of happiness will seem to these people to suffice given their other beliefs and commitments about humans and their place in the natural world.


Furthermore, I think it’s relatively easy to see that this secular happiness is genuinely worth pursuing, and we can say of the persons who manage to attain such happiness that they are good and decent people who are living well on the whole. Whether such persons are living the best sort of human life possible is not a question I will attempt to answer, since any true answer will depend on whether God really does exist (not my topic, thankfully). My claim is more limited, but still worth insisting upon: We can say that secular people might be robustly happy without having to say that they are the happier than religious people, or that theirs is the happiest sort of life imaginable.

In order to argue for this position, I first need to get clear about our basic terms. Let’s start with religion, and I what I don’t mean by it.


First, I don’t mean organized religion in the sense that picks out a body of doctrine and practice that is established and enforced by some hierarchical or bureaucratic form of institutional management or control.  Second, I don’t mean religion in the sense that picks out some comprehensive philosophical or theological doctrine that attempts to answer questions lie, “How ought I to live?” or “What should I believe?” or “What is the meaning of life?”   Third, I don’t mean religion as an object of speculative inquiry, as we encounter it in the secular university, especially in departments of religious studies, psychology, or anthropology. And finally, I don’t mean religion to refer to quasi-mystical experiences of the ineffable or the transcendent—the stuff of backpacking trips in the mountains where one feels at peace with the universe or connected to all things.


I have no quarrel with these uses of the term ‘religion’—they are perfectly legitimate and familiar. I just happen to find them useless for addressing our question so I want to set them aside.


Instead, I want to focus on religion in a less familiar but I think ultimately important sense: as a virtue that is defined by certain acts that render what is due to the source of all being—i.e., God—grasped under the description, the “first principle of creation.” (ST II-II 81.a3) Religion in this sense is sometimes called “true religion,” and was classically understood as a moral virtue whose intelligibility came from shared practices of worship and devotion.


Talking about religion as a virtue is important to our question, since I take it that the virtues are necessary for any genuine, relatively stable, non-trivial sense of human happiness. The philosophical tradition that I spend my time defending (the broadly Aristotelian tradition) treats virtue as a stable disposition to act in certain ways that make its possessor good by making his actions good. The virtues perfect a man’s natural human powers, thereby allowing him to attain genuine human goods in common with others—goods such as family, friendships, and knowledge—and in attaining these goods to live well and experience happiness.

  Listen to a recording of this event’s arguments and critiques on the Thomistic Institute’s SoundCloud.


Aristotle distinguishes between intellectual and moral virtues—the former he takes to perfect our capacity for knowledge and the latter to perfect our desires and emotions. Aquinas adds to this framework a distinction between acquired and infused virtues. Acquired virtues are what we can attain through our own natural abilities working cooperatively with others and participating in shared practices, whereas infused virtues depend upon God’s grace and our cooperation with it.


It is interesting to note that Aquinas takes religion to be an acquired rather than an infused virtue, and a moral rather than an intellectual virtue. In fact, Aquinas relates religion to justice, since it concerns what is owed to a superior who is worthy of being honored. The virtue of religion consists of interior acts of devotion and prayer and exterior acts of adoration, sacrifice, oblation, tithes, and vows. Aquinas takes this view of religion from the pagans; in fact, his definition of religion is straight from Cicero. Religion’s status as a virtue does not depend on Christian revelation; like all acquired virtues, it concerns a sphere of human goodness that can be grasped through the use of natural reason and practiced competently through merely human efforts.


Not surprisingly, Aquinas thinks that religion is essential to happiness. In fact he says that religion is “chief of all the moral virtues,” because it directs all other acts of virtue to God as an end, as worthy of being so honored through such excellent acts. Given that Aquinas believes in God, and believes that we can know that God exists through the use of our natural reason alone (i.e., without the aid of divine revelation), it makes sense that he thinks all virtue—of good human actions and character—ought to be so directed.


But what of those who do not believe in God on the sort of rational grounds Aquinas accepted? Aquinas would have been shocked by the rise of atheism and secularism among the most educated and cultured members of western society. But given that so many seemingly reasonable and decent people do not believe in God or practice religion, can we really continue to think, with Aquinas, they are cut off from happiness and virtue altogether?


There is no way to answer this question without saying something about what happiness is, so let us turn to that now. In common English usage, happiness is a light word of little substance, but since it is a word we are stuck with I’ll go ahead and keep using it, while being careful to say what precisely I mean by it and why.


People often think of happiness subjectively as some kind of lasting state of an individual’s psychology—of feeling happy from a first person perspective. Hedonistic accounts understand happiness in terms of an individual’s pleasures, whereas life satisfaction views equate happiness with a general attitude of being satisfied with how things are going on the whole. Other views focus on a person’s overall emotional condition or well-being.


Some philosophers, psychologists, and economists want to contrast happiness understood subjectively with an objective account of well-being, where the latter marks off what makes for a happy or good life rather than a positive subjective experience. The contrast is marked because it seems true that one might objectively be living well without feeling happy or positively about how things are going, perhaps because of bad luck or perhaps because living well in a robustly moralized sense can be pretty demanding and not always especially enjoyable.


I find the purely subjective, psychological concept of happiness too shallow; it leaves us unable to say why the pursuit of happiness is an excellent one, since a wicked or trivial person might experience a great deal of questionable pleasures and fail to experience deeper ones, and we can easily imagine that such people might feel pretty satisfied with their lives on the whole. We can call such people happy, but we’d certainly feel the urge to qualify what is meant that registers our disapproval of their choices.


A purely objective account of happiness is also problematic. While it is true that sometimes life can be cruel and harsh to the virtuous person, we should still hold out hope that in a general way living an objectively good human life will bring some kind of subjectively positive benefits—even when the going gets tough one should at least feel good that one’s character remains uncorrupted. And it would be strange if the happy life turned out to be some kind of subjective torture; moreover, this would make it an open question whether happiness was really worth pursuing. At any rate, Aquinas and Aristotle were both clear that pleasure is essential to happiness.


Some further distinctions will help us bring the subjective and objective elements of happiness together into a single account. Following Aquinas, we ought to separate a material and a formal conception of happiness. Formally, Aquinas thinks of happiness in terms of what can completely satisfy our capacity for rational desires—our human capacity to will. Happiness in this sense is being fully sated, which comes by way of possessing the universal good, which is the formal object of the will. Being sated has a clear subjective component and is psychologically real, but this satisfaction only comes by way of possessing what is truly or objectively good and perfective of human beings.


This formal conception of happiness is deployed in Aquinas’s account of human action and free choice. In short, Aquinas argues that wanting things rationally—in accordance with one’s judgments about what one ought to want—depends upon our ability to judge what to do, here and now, against some general vision of how to live well or be happy. This substantive vision is what Aquinas calls a material conception of happiness—the goods that one thinks will satisfy, subjectively speaking. One’s material conception of happiness, as some specific vision of the good life, will appear to the person who holds it as true, and part of that truth is that such a vision is believed to be worth realizing, that such a life will in fact be a satisfactory one. Of course, appearances can be deceiving, and one might hold a false vision. But one has to have some such vision to make decisions and act at all.


Aquinas further distinguishes between perfect and imperfect happiness. Imperfect happiness corresponds to those regions of human goodness that we can attain for ourselves through our own natural capacities. This is the stuff of the acquired virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. It is the happiness we can have in this life, the happiness we can share with others so long as reasonably sound modes of social interaction maintain themselves. Now Aquinas thinks that we can have more than this—that we can also participate in God’s eternal life by attaining the beatific vision. Only this, Aquinas thinks, can fully sate creatures with intellect and will. But to be able to attain that we need to develop the infused virtues, and these depend on God’s grace. We cannot attain this perfect happiness on our own, and we cannot have this perfect happiness in this life.


Now, the second kind of happiness—perfect happiness—is supposed to surpass nature. It is also supposed to be something that, once possessed, cannot be lost. This will already rub many people of goodwill the wrong way, as they will suspect that it is a mere fantasy to think of anything beyond nature, let alone perfect happiness beyond nature. Such persons will accept our finitude and the contingency and instability that comes with it, and will take it to be a sign of immaturity to continue to want something more. In short, for secular person, imperfect happiness not only suffices, it is all that it is reasonable to hope for, because it is all there is.


Such people interest me a great deal—in fact I was raised to be among them, and as an academic trained and working in a secular system, most of the people I call colleagues and friends operate under a militantly secular material conception of happiness and do not possess or desire the virtue of religion. And while some of these folks are miserable, many of them are doing just fine, and some of them really are decent people who are non-trivially happy but imperfectly happy. Moreover, plenty of people who participate in religious practices are miserable, bad people. What are we to make of these facts?


I think probably the best we can do is change the question we are asking. If the question is, “Can there be happiness without religion?” the answer I think is plainly, yes! If the question is, can there be perfect happiness without religion, I think we must first settle the question of whether God exists. Of course, Aquinas had already settled this question prior to composing the Treatise on Happiness in his Summa Theologiae. The Summa begins with the famous proofs for the existence of God for good reason: everything that follows will hang on whether we accept them.


Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.