Is happiness ethical to pursue?

Many people don’t feel comfortable making happiness the main aim of their life. As a result, they do far less than they could to make themselves happy. This is a tremendous shame.

Why do people ask 'Is happiness ethical to pursue?' They ask this because they have either been told outright, or they have picked up from modern culture, that it is wrong to put yourself first. Other words or phrases used are that It is selfish, egoistic, ‘me’ focused, narrow, unenlightened, or crude. It is most often not what your friends, your religion, or your community ask of you. Those who view themselves as the masters of ethics these days believe that ‘otherness’ is superior to ‘selfishness’. People who are willing to sacrifice their money, time, effort, and lives for the sake of others are lauded. Examples include Jesus, Mother Teresa, or wealthy people who contribute large sums of money to charities. The person who works hard and creates his own wealth and happiness is viewed, at best, as tolerable. The person who sacrifices his own life in order to work for the poor or underprivileged is viewed as saintly and inspirational. The sacrificer provides an example of superior ethical behavior, many people believe.

This ‘otherness’ ethical perspective, which Ayn Rand called altruism, has a history. If you review ethical discussions in the writings of the ancient greeks (400-300 B.C.), you will find almost no altruistic ideas. Sure, the Gods had rules of conduct (such as treating strangers well when they visit your home) and there were calls to sacrifice for king or state, but on the whole there was a healthy dose of doing what is in your own best interests - both intellectually and materially. The ancient Greeks were interested in personal success and happiness - not sacrificing their lives for the sake of others.

Christianity and Altruism

So where did altruism come from? One huge historical source was Christianity - specifically the teachings of Jesus in The New Testament. For Christians, self-sacrifice is a way of life. The entire story of Jesus’ life is an example of sacrificing the best for the sake of the inferior. Due to the conception of original sin (which, according to Christianity, you are born with) all people are, to some degree, evil. While you cannot change this fundamental problem, you are asked by Christians to continually fight against the evil side of your nature. According to Christianity, Jesus was the only man, being also the son of God, who was perfect. He had no trace of evil - yet God allowed him to be killed (crucified by the Romans) in order to ‘pay for’ the sins of mankind! This is the ultimate in injustice. But, according to the Christian view, both God and Jesus went along with it, since it was the ultimate example of the new ethics: sacrificing for the sake of others.

While he was living on earth, Jesus also provided many demonstrations of the way in which the new ethics of altruism operates. The entire focus of Jesus (and Christianity) is not on this life, but on the afterlife. You are meant to do something today, for the long, long term benefit you will reap after your death. Live your life right, and you will be granted entrance to heaven. (Notice that ultimately Christianity does appeal to the desire for happiness in each person, but tells them to put off the reward until they can reach heaven!)

And what should you do with your life? “Good” works. Good being defined here as anything that helps someone else, and preferably things which are either a sacrifice of something you value, or at least which don’t benefit you directly. There is a de-emphasis on the values of this world (such as money and things which provide physical pleasure) and an emphasis on the purely spiritual world. While not all aspects of Christianity have taken hold in the Western world, the altruistic focus (the otherness focus of actions) is now the predominant ethics of our time.

Please note that there is a big difference between the nature and logic of Christianity and the vast majority of people who call themselves Christians. Many, many Christians are in fact good, smart, wonderful people that you would probably want to have in your life. Most religious people get by in life by not taking their religious beliefs too seriously. Many have ‘reinterpreted’ the ideas of Christianity to make them more reasonable and palatable. Still, these same people suffer from unnecessary guilt about how they are living their lives, and feel a sense of respect and deference to those who sacrifice their lives more completely. People who live under the influence of a ‘watered down’ Christianity are inhibited from living up to their full potential and cannot fully embrace happiness as a goal.

Modern Philosophy, Collectivism, and Altruism

Altruism also has another huge center of support, and that is from much of modern philosophy. The prohibition of acting for your own benefit - and the call to act only for the sake of others - is central to the ethics of philosopher Immanel Kant (1724-1804) and has been developed and promulgated by his intellectual followers. This ethic perspective has taken over modern philosophy! This same fundamental ethics also underlies all forms of collectivism, including socialism, communism, and fascism. The individual, and his/her personal happiness, is sacrificed for the benefit of the state.


As pointed out by Ayn Rand, one question demolishes these calls for sacrifice. It is: ‘why?’ Why must one person sacrifice his happiness for the benefit of another? If happiness and values are good - why are they good only if they are undeserved gifts from another person or entity, but not when earned by your own effort?

(If you are convinced of the existence of a Christian God, then that is your only answer. The Bible [the New Testament] tells you this is the ethical thing to do, and so you do it. You may wish to question this belief, though, and this obedience.)

Unless you believe in God and heaven, there really is no good answer to the ‘why’. Life offers you an opportunity to achieve and to be happy. Happiness is the ultimate reward for living your life well.

Indeed, when we ask ‘Is it ethical to pursue your own happiness?’ we are actually addressing the very heart of ethics. In reality life (and it's enjoyment) are the foundation of ethics. It is only life (and the possibilities of death or unhappiness) combined with free will (the ability to choose) that makes the entire field of ethics possible. If you could not make choices - there would be no need of ethics. Equally, if there were not meaningful differences in outcomes to an individual based on those choices (life/death, happiness/unhappiness) there would be no need to make these choices.

To summarize: there is no logical reason not to pursue your own happiness. There is one big reason (happiness itself) why you should!