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Happiness, Virtue, and the Bastard Science

January 29th, 2020 | 14 min read

By Kyle Williams

Happiness is a personal problem. Or so it may seem. Consider the self-help section. A library of recent books offers just the right mindset, self-care regimen, or practical hack for troubled souls who, presumably, hope that one more piece of advice might be just what they need. Self-declared experts come at the subject of happiness from any number of angles, producing volumes of bland prose and vacuous counsel. The trick is not to give too much attention to negative thoughts or trivial obligations. Seek out new experiences. Speak and think positive thoughts into the world. Or, as one recent piece of evangelical schlock advises, wash your face. Professional advice-givers have extracted from stoicism, neuroscience, mind-cure spirituality, and the scriptures for different concoctions of therapeutic techniques.

It is the habit of self-help literature to test the limits of the superficial, but the problem of happiness poses profound questions. We aren’t the first to recognize this. “We seek happiness, and find only misery and death,” wrote Blaise Pascal, “We cannot but desire truth and happiness, and are incapable of certainty or happiness.”

The rise of the bourgeois individual, already well underway when Pascal wrote his Pensées, helped to produce a vast interior emotional and intellectual world in which happiness was considered a condition of subjective experience—as a state of mind. Happiness was something to be sought; something that could be achieved with the right combination of luck and self-improvement. So Michel de Montaigne would write a few decades earlier: “For each man good or ill is as he finds. The man who is happy is not he who is believed to be so but he who believes he is so: in that way alone does belief endow itself with true reality.” The advent of Norman Vincent Peale could be seen from the horizon of the sixteenth century.

It is our commonsense that happiness is a subjective experience known only through self-report, even if there are a number of problems with this idea. Upon further reflection, one could imagine a situation, for instance, where someone had experienced suffering or was in emotional distress but still reported that she was happy. Instead of taking her word for it, we would assume that some kind of deception was at work; she might be lying or self-deceived. “Happiness, in short, is not an item in the mind’s inner theatre, visible only to its owner,” one recent book asserts, “it is essentially manifest in acts and happenings. If it were not, it would be mysterious how we could talk about it at all.”[1] This view of things comports more closely to what Aristotle outlined. Eudaimonia, he wrote in the Nichomachean Ethics, can only be achieved when a person acts virtuously or excellently. Eudaimonia has been translated variously as “happiness” or “human flourishing,” which gets to the heart of the older view of happiness. It is not about the manipulation of pleasurable experiences but about acting in accordance with the good life. And the good life is not a private thing; at least not entirely.

The distinction between contemporary and traditional conceptions of happiness can be intuited, I think, with reference to biblical translation. Consider the King James Version’s rendering of one of the psalms: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” In the linguistic folly that is The Message, the verse takes on a new meaning. “Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be—you get a fresh start.” Although a noble project from an admirable pastor-scholar, this attempt to bring ancient Hebrew into the contemporary idiom is jarring. Something significant is lost. As any reader of the scriptures knows, the condition of being blessed and the experience of feeling happy (not to mention lucky) often diverge in the life of faith. “Blessed are they that mourn,” Jesus says.

The fact that our subjective experience can and often does lead us astray seems to me to be a foundational assumption of the spiritual life. It is, at the very least, an insight that can be gleaned from the observation of human behavior, the most salient and mundane of which is the experience of addiction. To have the ability and resources to purchase what you most acutely desire, whether it be a substance or an experience, is an efficient cause of neither happiness nor freedom. Indeed, the testimony of so many people in recovery is that sometimes to get what you most earnestly want is nothing less than a curse.

The idea that happiness is a reflection of good health is not alien to our culture. We are, after all, obsessed with health. Dieting, exercise, nutrition, and—the latest grist for grifts and apps—self-care are ubiquitous. One trick of lifestyle branding, to take just one example, is to present new products as alternatives to the excess and crassness of consumerism. Consumer capitalism is never so adaptable as it is when it incorporates critiques and countercultures. So even in the realm of health, it is easy to observe a frenetic scene of new methods and fads that resemble restlessness rather than wholeness. Even when we recognize that the consumption of things and experiences is an unstable foundation for the good life, marketers transform something as basic as health into a consumer experience. The next Goop is always one venture capital investment away.

The intersection between happiness and markets is an obvious one, not least because psychologists and sociologists have long recognized that the realization of basic needs lies at the heart of human flourishing. The optimal annual income is $75,000, we are told, presumably because it is associated with the ability to get the basic things that you need like healthcare, suitable housing, and education.[2] But the other side of the story is that consumer capitalism, like capitalism generally speaking, promises more than it can deliver. In this case, advertising has from the beginning dangled before consumers a secularized promise of being born again—what one historian has called a “quest for self-realization through consumption.”[3]


That our understanding of happiness might deeply affect how we come to terms with the role of markets is a foundational argument of Aquinas and the Market. An economist and theologian, Mary L. Hirschfeld has written a book that explores the Christian metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas, a subject that would appear at first to possess little relevance to our global economic system. But it is precisely in bringing to our attention Thomas’s conceptions of happiness and the good life that Hirschfeld, whose tone is unassuming and writing is measured, reveals the dramatic poverty of our contemporary economic thinking.

Central to this Thomistic account of economics is a reconsideration of the pursuit of happiness. And it is here that Hirschfeld is most critical of the project of mainstream economics. There is a distinction to be made, she argues, between accumulating things and experiences world without end and the gradual achievement of a particular vision of the good life. “Aquinas’s conception of happiness involves coming to a rest in our ultimate good,” which is God or the beatific vision. “Economists model happiness as an unbounded quest for more.”

The rational choice model gets a well-deserved rake over the coals for its one-dimensionality. The basic idea of the theory, even with modifications from behavioral economics, is that individuals—so-called “rational agents”—make choices according to fairly narrow conceptions of self-interest or cost-benefit analysis. There is baked into this methodology an underlying anthropology that is hostile to both the depth, variety, and mysteriousness of human action. It regards animal instincts of supply and demand and self-interest to be the natural constants of human behavior rather than, say, faith, hope, and love. As Hirschfeld points out, conventional notions of utility maximization appear less useful if people act as if they live in a metaphysical world as characterized by Thomas Aquinas.

For one thing, it is not necessarily or even historically the case that people will always desire and pursue higher incomes, the accumulation of greater wealth, or the consumption of more goods and experiences. Historians like E.P. Thompson have argued that one key part of labor discipline in the industrial revolution was to keep workers from leaving work once they had met a basic income requirement. Others have shown how advertisers helped to usher in corporate capitalism at the turn of the twentieth century by creating and promoting new products and experiences—new consumer desires that would act as the engine of work and consumerism.

The rational choice model, like many of the ideas created by modern economists, has a veneer of value-free objectivity, but it smuggles in its own normative baggage. One of these has to do with how human beings reason. Hirschfeld suggests that there is a two-tiered structure to decision-making according to which humans are guided by lower-level impulses and motives while they are also able to make use of a higher-level reasoning or purposiveness. The lower impulses that “guide other animals” correspond most closely to the conventional rational choice model, which tends to hold that more is better. “Aquinas specifically rejects any account of the fully human pursuit of happiness as the pursuit of an indefinite series of ends in which more is better,” she writes. Any economic ideas or practices, such as pursuing the maximization of profits, that encourage us to make lower goods the final goal rather than instruments in service of the good life “move us away from the happiness that is possible in this life.”

Although there is an Aristotelian-Thomistic insight at the center of this book, there is also more broadly a general commitment to humanism that one finds in many critics of conventional economics. It was the nineteenth-century romantic art critic John Ruskin, to take one example, who called the economics of his day the “bastard science” precisely because it prized an economy of self-interest that dehumanized life by undermining what he called “social affections.” It is the “privilege of the fishes, as it is of rats and wolves, to live by the laws of demand and supply,” Ruskin wrote, “but the distinction of humanity, to live by those of right.”

To live by right poses certain challenges, one being that we might not desire to act with the good in mind. We might develop over time good habits—virtues—that enable us to make good choices according to the principle that all created things are, at best, reflections of the ultimate good. To be virtuous is to act in a manner that is consistent with our created purpose. The problem is that we may turn that sacramental picture on its head and desire things or experiences for their own sake. As Hirschfeld puts it, “the whole project of developing virtue is learning what one should desire,” which is an insight into the human experience that conventional economics has no capacity to incorporate. It “encourages us to see our untutored desires as our ultimate desires.”


Even as Aquinas and the Market widens the metaphysical aperture of human action and invites us to think more capaciously about economic behavior, the book is surprisingly closed off to the social and political world of markets. I say this is surprising because the framing of the book would suggest an engagement with conversations about secularization, the construction of market spaces and business institutions, or even the imagined social experience of whatever a “humane economy” might look like.

Hirschfeld aims to wield what she calls a “theological economics” as an independent lens for the evaluation of economic discourse, but her criticism is restrained. She warns against a critical disposition as exemplified by Alasdair MacIntyre or John Milbank that would oppose capitalism tout court or fail to incorporate the theories of professional economists about the economy and the workings of markets.[4] It is telling that there is a deep pessimism in the book about the role that social institutions and public policy can play in the development of a more socially beneficial economy. Markets, in fact, seem to exist apart from the structures of politics or processes of policy in this book. Virtue, culture, or “spirits,” instead, are called upon to do the work of creating a humane economy. “It would seem,” she writes, “that markets can only deliver their good results to the extent that they can draw on a reservoir of moral sensibilities in the culture.”

The result is an unfortunate recapitulation of the mainstream theory that is the object of criticism. There remains an assumption that economic theory as it stands is basically sound. It just needs the addition of a metaphysical system that would reorient or tweak the methods of economics. In this case, Hirschfeld could be seen as a theological counterpart to scholars of behavioral economics who still use the foundational assumption of homo economicus even as they overlay sophisticated predictive models that account for bias, overconfidence, or other factors of non-rational decision-making.

But a deeper conceptual fault line weakens the book. Even as she helpfully reconsiders how economic decision-making, the cultivation of virtue, and the pursuit of happiness are embedded within a larger conception of a metaphysical order, Hirschfeld appears to accept the methodological individualism of mainstream economics. There is a failure not only to reckon with but even to gesture toward the many ways that our experience of the economy and our economic institutions, including corporations and markets, are embedded in politics, narratives, and webs of symbolic meaning.

Even if Aquinas and the Market entertains important problems that run to the heart of how we think about our economic lives, the book is strangely closed off to the larger implications of its central claims. That metaphysics—or, at the very least, whatever we think makes up the good life—underwrites our understanding of human happiness is good as far as it goes. That the theories of professional economists, even with the admixture of behavioral economics in recent decades, typically neglects the difficult but necessary task of grappling with normative accounts of the good—this is a devastating if somewhat obvious critique of the mainstream profession as it stands today. But what, then, should be done to set right our economic thinking?

It is, Hirschfeld rightly points out, a “cultural mistake” to treat the abstractions of numerical growth rates as ultimate goods. And this, again, is good as far as it goes. But surely the prominence of reductionist accounts of economic well-being such as gross domestic product, return on investment, or quarterly profits represent more than a cultural mistake. These are not just intellectual abstractions; they are rules of governance that have become entrenched in our political economy as a result of struggles over the structures of capitalism and who gets to benefit from them.

And so there is a lopsidedness here. On the one hand, Hirschfeld engages with the mainstream profession in perceptive and generous ways while offering critiques that run to the very foundations of the rational choice model and neoclassical economics. The author’s academic training in theology and economics provides her with a unique position to write with nuance and depth about the intersection of both fields. But, on the other, there is little space given to the economy as it stands in our contemporary world. This book is not really about “the market” or about the road toward a “humane economy.” That would require at least minimal attention to the legal, political, and institutional construction of what used to be called political economy. It would require, furthermore, a more critical disposition to the work that professional economists do in the world as it stands. The book, rather, is about the theories of professional economists and how an Aristotelian-Thomistic account of human life can offer critiques and corrections.

But the borders of the professional field of economics are porous. Even as economics spills into ethics, philosophy, and theology, as Aquinas and the Market so ably shows, the structures of political economy, the professions, education, and other social factors also form and shape the development of economics. The formation of models and theories do not occur in isolation. The failure to capture that complexity leaves the unfortunate impression that the ethical and moral failure of our hegemonic economic thinking can be corrected with new models.

For those interested in the classic tradition of Christian ethics and how it might be reconciled with the mainstream economics, there are few better places to start than Aquinas and the Market. But the book provokes questions that extend beyond the limits of its thought experiment about the role that economists and their ideas play in the development of modern capitalism. For the consideration of those questions the interested reader will need to look elsewhere.

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  1. This thought experiment and quote are taken from Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life (New York, NY: Other Press, 2012).
  3. T.J. Jackson Lears, “From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of the Consumer Culture, 1880-1930,” in The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1930, ed. Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1983), 29.
  4. One might also add Graham Ward, John Hughes, Eugene McCarraher, Adrian Pabst, Kathryn Tanner, et al.