Does wealth determine happiness within a society?

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Emma Brandeis-period 7. Actions, thoughts, and values shape a society, and whether or not that society is successful in helping humans achieve the good is important. What kind of society is most effective in helping people reach their end? That question remains to be answered for there are many factors that determine happiness. According to Aristotle, however, happiness is living in accordance with reason to fulfill one’s function. When comparing a wealthy nation, Great Britain, with a poor nation, Chad, the quality of happiness is chiefly determined by wealth and basic human rights.

According to Aristotle, happiness is living life in accordance with reason; a habit of choosing to act virtuously. The ability to reason is a quality that humans possess over other animals, and Aristotle understands that humans have a higher calling. This end, or good, that he calls every human to seek is “something final and self-sufficing.” In order to live in accordance with reason, a person must be able to differentiate between good and bad. They need virtues instilled in their being, either by his or her family or through society. Because happiness is not a destination but rather a way of life, Aristotle suggests that only ‘true riches’ are necessary. True riches are things that help humans fulfill their function; food, shelter, and clothing are all necessary to live in accordance with reason. Excess riches such as expensive cars or the latest electronics are simply distractions from reaching true happiness. These distractions often alter one’s virtues and take them off the path of fulfilling his or her function. These virtues that Aristotle describes are not emotions or ability but rather a “habit or a trained faculty.” Many people misinterpret happiness for pleasure; pleasure and pain, although having “intimate connection[s] with our nature,” are not accurate controls for our virtues. It is natural for people to delight in good things and feel pain for things we hate, but that is not the true way to find happiness. A nation or government should be able to teach and guide its people to live lives that are not simply pleasure seeking, but rather a life that is directed by virtues and reason.

The way that a government and society functions is vital in understanding the overall happiness of a country. Social norms, human rights, and basic wealth are all factors that play into the happiness of a community. A society that enables people to choose right over wrong freely can better fulfill its function. Governments can aid this quest for the good by protecting the rights of individuals through laws and constitutions. If a society is not ‘free’, virtuous thinking could be rare and conflict could inhibit the people from using reason to seek the good. It is the responsibility of the government to give the people ways to practice virtue or train them to live virtuously and rationally. The wealth of a society can also shape the way its people view happiness. Wealthier nations typically have more money to spend, or waste, on material goods that are not essential to fulfilling the human function. A society that values material pleasures over habits in virtue may not be choosing the correct path towards happiness. The way that society views all aspects of life can help its people reach the end.

It is important to determine now whether or not countries around the world are enabling its citizens to reach their end. Great Britain is one of the wealthiest countries in the world; does wealth equate to happiness? Great Britain uses a constitutional monarchy to rule, which entails a queen or king that acts as the head of state and Anglican Church and a prime minster that is the head of the government (“Parliament and Government”). The current prime minster is David Cameron and the queen is currently Queen Elizabeth II. Because Great Britain has a constitution, British citizens are granted basic rights such as freedom of speech, right of life, and rights to property. These basic liberties enable to people of Great Britain to make their own decisions without fear of retaliation from the government. The idea of human rights in England can be traced back to 1186 with the Assize of Clarendon, a series of ordinances by King Henry II. These ordinances worked to improve criminal law procedures (“Assize”). With these human rights laws in Great Britain, the government is adequately protecting its citizens from human rights violations. It is important that the governing structure in a country is taking responsibility for aiding their people in reaching their ends. With these basic liberties, it can be inferred that the majority of Great Britain has certain morals and virtues that are important to them; these virtues are important in helping people live in accordance to reason. Aristotle argues that happiness is not seeking pleasure because the “good cannot be pleasure, nor honor, nor virtue” (The Nicomachean Ethics). In Great Britain, wealth is valued because it allows people to purchase material items and focus on pleasurable activities. Aristotle would say that this not necessary in seeking the end good of life. He says that true riches are necessary in seeking happiness and external goods and riches are simply distractions from that happiness. More evidence that Great Britain is not completely happy as a whole is the fact that the number of people with depression has increased by half a million in just the last three years (“Depression”). About 6,000 people reportedly killed themselves in 2011 alone, the highest rate among men aged 30-44 (Coleman). If that many people are choosing to end their life, one must ask if that society is truly happy. It is fair to assume that those who have depression and ultimately commit suicide are not reaching his or her end. The British society should evaluate the economic pressures placed on Britons, particularly middle aged men, in order to help it fulfill its function.

Located in the middle of Africa, Chad is considered one of the poorest and most corrupt countries on this Earth. It is important to first understand the government structure of this country before determining if the government and society is in fact helping its citizens achieve the good. Chad has a government called a presidential republic; the president is both the head of the state and of the government. Executive power is given to the government, and legislative power is given to both the government and the parliament. The problem that arises with type of overlapping system is that the president has too much power, because unlike America’s system, the president of Chad can rule unchecked. On a scale from 1-7, 7 considered not free and 1 considered free, Chad received a 6 on both civil and political rights; because of this rank, Chad is considered “not free” (“Chad Rights”). The citizens of Chad do not enjoy freedom of speech rights, inhibiting them from fully exercising their reason in public. According to Aristotle, the good of human existence is living in accordance to reason, the activity of the rational soul in accordance with virtue. Women especially suffer from lack of human rights and violence. They are incapable of living to their full potential strictly because of the failure of the government to enforce justice in a fair manner (“Human Rights in Chad”). Aristotle also believed in the presence of true riches in one’s life in order to achieve happiness. True riches include food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities required to sustain a basic life. Unfortunately, the average income for a typical citizen of Chad is equivalent to about $220 per year (“Encyclopedia of the Nations”). That is not enough money to support any person, thus inhibiting people from fulfilling their functions as happiness seeking creatures. These people, unlike in Great Britain, cannot even earn enough to sustain a minimal lifestyle, making it difficult to focus on achieving happiness. Meanwhile, Great Britain has too much wealth, distracting the society from seeking the end as well.

If Aristotle was alive to evaluate the happiness of Great Britain and Chad, he would most likely consider neither society successful in helping humans reach happiness. Chad’s government has prevented its people to enjoy basic liberties and human rights; Great Britain’s society has driven an increasingly amount of people to commit suicide. No matter the financial circumstances, it seems that many societies worldwide struggle with aiding humans to reach the good. In order to reach one’s end, one must live in accordance to reason virtuously and freely. Without proper virtues instilled in a society, happiness will be difficult to obtain.

Works Cited

“Assize of Clarendon (English History).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 05 May 2013.

“Chad Rights and Liberties Report.” Chad. African Liberties, n.d. Web. 06 May 2013

Coleman, Clive. “UK Suicide Rate Rises ‘significantly’ in 2011.” BBC News. BBC, 22 Jan. 2013. Web. 08 May 2013.

“Depression up ‘by Half a Million'” BBC News. BBC, 17 Oct. 2012. Web. 08 May 2013

“Encyclopedia of the Nations.” Income- Chad. Encyclopedia of the Nations, 2013. Web. 06 May 2013.

“Human Rights in Chad.” Amnestyusa.org. Amnesty International, 2013. Web. 6 May 2013.

“Parliament and Government.” – UK Parliament. Parliament UK, n.d. Web. 05 May 2013.

photo: http://commerceandculture.org/commerce-culture/news/a-positive-image-of-africa.aspx

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One thought on “Does wealth determine happiness within a society?

  1. You make a lot of good points and do a good job connecting Aristotle’s views with modern situations. I agree that Aristotle would most likely think that Chad and Britain are not assisting citizens in reaching happiness.

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