Rich or Poor: Does it make a Difference? (Blair Ruffing Period 6)

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Happiness is defined in the dictionary as “a state of well-being and contentment.”[1] Happiness is defined by Aristotle as “living life in accordance with reason and a habit of choosing to act virtuously.”[2] I define happiness as the absence of want. History, culture, and beliefs shape a society, and whether or not that society is successful in helping their inhabitants achieve the good is important. The good is happiness and the happiness is good, but what assets are needed in order to achieve either? The way that a government and society functions is a vital tool that will not only help in the understanding of the overall happiness of a country but also in achieving the final good for an individual. Social norms, human rights, and basic wealth are also factors that play into the happiness of a community. A society that enables people to freely choose between right and wrong can better fulfill its function because it allows for its citizens to not only know themselves but also know the extent of their freedom. If a society is not ‘free’, virtuous thinking could be rare and the conflict that would eventually arise from this struggle of personal freedom could inhibit the people from using reason to seek the good. 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. On the other hand, nations that are not as fortunate often have to struggle in order to obtain the basic necessities of life. More often than not, however, the individuals in these societies are happier than those in wealthier nations because they know that one can be happy without material goods. The citizens of poorer nations are forced to rely on a community instead of a dollar bill in order to achieve their final end. When comparing a wealthy nation, Qatar, with a poor nation, Haiti, the quality of life and how that affects the quality of happiness is chiefly determined by wealth, basic human rights, and a society’s culture.

According to Aristotle, happiness is “living in accordance with reason.”[3] The ability to reason is a quality that is specific to the human race; it is something that we possess over other animals, and Aristotle understands that this is why humans have both a higher calling and a higher goal for their meaning of life. 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 like Aristotle recommends an individual must be able to differentiate between good and evil. They need virtues instilled in their being, either by his or her family or through their environment. Because happiness is not a destination but rather a way of life, Aristotle suggests that only ‘true riches’ are necessary.[4] True riches are things that help humans fulfill their function such as food, shelter, and clothing; excess riches such as a Bugatti or the latest iPhone are simply distractions from reaching true happiness. These distractions often modify one’s virtues and take them off the path of fulfilling his or her function in society. These certain virtues that Aristotle describes are not emotions or personal capability but rather a “habit or a trained faculty.”[5] Aristotle also believes that good things can be divided into three classes: external goods, goods of the soul, and goods of the body. He believes that the goods of the soul are goods in the fullest sense, “and more good than any other.”[6] The goods of the soul are what make up one’s character and what forms one’s virtues, so if one has only external goods and no goods of the soul, he or she is not fulfilling his or function. Wealthy nations often let external goods take over their minds, so they often forget that a harmony between true riches, goods of the soul, and goods of the body must exist. People in all walks of life often misinterpret happiness for pleasure; however, pleasure and pain, although having “an intimate connection with our nature,”[7] are neither accurate controls for our virtues nor our pursuit of happiness. It is a natural habit for people to find pleasure in good things and feel pain for things we hate, but this is no 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 in accordance with reason.

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It is necessary now to examine and compare countries from around the world and from different walks of life in order to uncover whether there societies are enabling or hindering its citizens from reaching their final end. If wealth is power, then the country of Qatar has some serious muscle to flex. The Persian Gulf emirate of 1.8 million people ranks as the world’s richest country per capita thanks to a rebound in oil prices and its massive reserve of natural gas. Adjusted for purchasing power, Qatar has an estimated gross domestic product per capita of more than $88,000; the United States of America only has a GDP per capita of a little over $51,000.[8] Qatar has the third largest reserves of natural gas in the world, and it has invested heavily in infrastructure in order to liquefy and export it, as well as to diversify its economy, without overreaching. Qatar is an absolute monarchy, meaning that the absolute monarch wields unrestricted political power over the sovereign state and its people. The country has been ruled by the Al Thani family since the mid-19th century. This article previously stated that the establishment of basic human rights is a necessary factor in determining whether or not a country is fulfilling its duty to letting its citizens achieve the final good. The state of human rights in Qatar remains a concern for several non-governmental organization, although there have been several noted improvements since Sheikh Hamad seized power in the mid-1990s. Under his leadership, the Emirate entered a period of rapid liberalization and modernization, while maintaining its Islamic identity. One of the first milestones that the country overcame during this period was being the first country among the Arab States of the Persian Gulf to allow women the right to vote.[9] Aristotle believes that political involvement is the most sovereign form of association because it incorporates all other forms of association and aims at the highest good. He states that “he who has the power to take part in the deliberative or judicial administration of any state is said by us to be a citizen of that state; and, a state is a body of citizens sufficing for the purposes of life.”[10] By giving women the right to take part in their government, Qatar is allowing for many of its citizens to achieve their final good through political association. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of mostly South Asian migrant workers in construction in Qatar are risking serious exploitation and abuse, sometimes amounting to forced labor. Like other Persian Gulf nations, Qatar has sponsorship laws, which have been widely criticized as modern-day slavery. Under the provisions of these laws, sponsors have the unilateral power to cancel workers’ residency permits, deny workers ability to change employers, report workers as “run-aways” to police authorities, and deny permission to leave the country. As a result of this, sponsors may restrict worker’s movements and workers may be afraid to report abuses or claim their rights, which contribute to their forced labor situation.[11] Aristotle states that it is the responsibility of the city, or polis, to provide the means and opportunity for its citizens to live a good life: a well-functioning city will require well-functioning households.[12] Although the country of Qatar is the richest country in the world, its government is preventing its citizens from attaining the means and opportunities to live a good life that is free of oppression and lack of free-will, so Qatarian society and government needs to reevaluate their human rights laws in order to help it fulfill not only its function but also the function and goal of its citizens.

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Occupying the western hemisphere and officially named the Republic of Haiti, this Caribbean country is a smaller portion of the island of Hispaniola in the Greater Antillean archipelago and it is considered one of the poorest and most corrupt countries on this Earth. Ayiti, or land of high mountains, is the indigenous name for the island of Haiti, and with 10.4 million citizens, this country is the most populous full member-state of the Caribbean Community. 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. The government of Haiti is a semi-presidential republic, a multiparty system wherein the President of Haiti is head of state elected directly by popular elections. The Prime Minister acts as head of government and is appointed by the President, chosen from the majority party in the National Assembly. Political corruption is a common problem in Haiti; the country has consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt nations according to the Corruption Perceptions Index.[13] Political instability, the lasting effects of the January 2010 earthquake, and the persistence of a deadly cholera epidemic continue to hinder the Haitian government’s efforts to meet the basic needs of its people and address long-standing human rights problems, such as violence against women and girls, inhumane prison conditions, and immunity for past abuses.[14] According to Aristotle, the good of human existence is living in accordance with reason, the activity of the rational soul in accordance with virtue. Women in Haiti especially suffer from lack of human rights and violence; they are incapable of living to their fullest potential strictly because of the failure of the government to enforce justice in a fair manner. Aristotle also believed that the existence of true riches in one’s life are necessary in order to achieve happiness so one is able to focus on a life centered around contemplation instead of a life centered around survival. True riches include food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities required to sustain a basic life. Unfortunately, the average annual income for a typical citizen of Haiti is equivalent to about $400, and in rural areas of Haiti, it is $100; this makes Haiti the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.[15] This is not enough money to support any person, thus inhibiting the people of Haiti from fulfilling their functions as happiness seeking creatures. These individuals, unlike in Qatar, are surrounded by disease and poverty and they cannot even earn enough to sustain a minimal lifestyle, making it difficult to focus on achieving the ultimate good.

If Aristotle was alive today to evaluate the happiness of Qatar and Haiti, he would most likely consider neither society successful in helping humans reach their final end. Qatar’s government has enslaved many of their lower class citizens in order to sustain their luxurious lifestyles; Haiti’s government has prevented its people from enjoying the basic liberties and human rights. 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.

 

[1] Merriam-Webster.com, s.v. “happiness,” accessed April 14, 2014

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics: Book I (350 B.C.E.), 7.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics: Book I (350 B.C.E.), 7.

[4] Aristotle, The Politics: Book 1 (350 B.C.E.), 1.

[5] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics: Book 2 (350 B.C.E.), 5

[6] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics: Book I (350 B.C.E), 8

[7] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics: Book X (350 B.C.E), 1

[8] “GDP per capita.” World Bank Group. Accessed April 14, 2014.

[9] Crystal, Jill, Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa. Freedom House, 14 October 2005

[10] Aristotle, The Politics: Book III (350 B.C.E), 1.

[11] Qatar. Human Rights Watch, 2013.

[12] Aristotle, The Politics: Book I (350 B.C.E.), 2

[13] Corruption Perceptions Index. Transparency International, 2013.

[14] Haiti. Human Rights Watch, 2013

[15] Haiti At A Glance. Haiti Health Ministries, 2012

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