The “good life.” It’s something that we all strive for. The quest for happiness is innately human. For advice on how to achieve this happiness, it is common to turn to great philosophers, the men who dedicate their lives to figuring out life and how one should live it. Happiness, according to Aristotle, is good fortune and excellence and virtue. For a man to be happy, he must have “prefect excellence or virtue… [and] a full term of years for its exercise” (Nicomachean Ethics).
Now that we have agreed upon a definition for happiness, we begin our journey of discovering how we can achieve this. According to Aristotle, this path to happiness does not have to be taken entirely into our own hands; a government should help its citizens achieve happiness. Aristotle writes of how the government should exist for “the sake of good life, not for the sake of life only,” which sounds like a good plan. But if Aristotle says that happiness is based upon “activit[ies] of the rational soul in accordance with virtue,” then should the government force its people to be virtuous? Even if it wanted to, could it?
The answer to both? It cannot.
While the government can outlaw dishonorable actions, the products of a lack of virtue, it cannot outlaw a lack of virtue in and of itself as virtue is an internal concept. Only the products of virtue can be seen and judged. Because of this, Aristotle’s ideal system of government, while it does sound ideal and beautiful in theory, is impossible.
Look to history and we can see that this has been attempted but was continuously found to be unsuccessful.
In the year 1964, long after African-Americans had been freed from slavery, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, outlawing segregation and discrimination against African Americans. This act outlawed the Jim Crow laws, a collection of laws created to discriminate against and segregate African-Americans that were the products of the vices of prejudice, injustice, and racism. These laws succeeded in outlawing many products of those vices by forcing white citizens of the nation to not treat African-American citizens as inferior. But did it make the prejudiced people more virtuous? Did it make the white men less racist and more accepting.
We know from history (and even looking to modern day) that this attempt to outlaw racism, an internal vice, failed overall. Racism continued throughout history remains present in the undertones of society.
Today, many Americans still hold prejudices against African-Americans along with people of other races, including most often associated, Latinos. These prejudices against African-Americans and Latinos are most prevalent in the legal system and among police. The legal system and the many people that make it up are still hold these prejudices, and have more suspicion of racially diverse citizens than white citizens when it comes to committing crimes. Statistics have shown that “police are more likely to pull over and frisk blacks or Latinos than whites. In New York City, 80% of the stops made were blacks and Latinos, and 85% of those people were frisked, compared to a mere 8% of the white people stopped” (dosomething.org). It is because of the internal prejudices that lie within our society and are so deeply engrained in the backs of our minds that these statistics are true today, 50 years after these prejudices were supposedly outlawed! 50 years after we as a civilization were told that we are all equal and that “All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, and privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin” (National Archives). The government told us that we were all equal and that we should be treated as such. But these prejudices ran much deeper than the outside actions that come out of prejudice (the discrimination, the segregation, the violent acts of hatred). These prejudices were internally engrained in the hearts and minds of so many Americans that it would take generations to fade away, and it still would not fade away completely.
While the laws succeeded in desegregating public places along with other products of racism, of prejudice, it understandably failed in changing the hearts, minds, and experiences of the Americans who held these prejudices.
It is quite obvious that outlawing prejudice was unsuccessful as it remains such a large problem today as only the products of prejudice could be outlawed, not the prejudices themselves. The government succeeded in outlawing the effects of prejudice, the effects of hatred, the effects of these vices, but found it impossible to legislate the prejudice, the hatred, the vices themselves.
We now see the futile attempts of a government to force its citizens to be moral people and how and why they did not work. Change cannot be made so quickly, the minds and hearts of citizens cannot be fixed with the snap of the fingers or a signature at the bottom of a bill. Not Aristotle nor any government of any kind can force its citizens to be morally virtuous. But can a government encourage this? Yes, it can. A government can punish people for the products of our vices, but it cannot force its citizens to have virtue. Can a government enforce this? No, it cannot.
These prejudices are internal beliefs that take time to fade away. They cannot be eliminated with the passing of a law; that type of monumental change takes generations to take effect. The government cannot create any law that would make its citizens moral, virtuous people.
No government can force people to think in a certain way. It can, however, hold great influence over its people. One path to this influence is by limiting the information known to the citizens of the nation. The government forces its people to only know virtue, not know prejudice, etc. But this is not true happiness. Ignorance is not bliss, and one cannot be truly happy without the knowledge of what happiness is. As Aristotle says, “happiness requires not only perfect excellence or virtue, but also a full term of years for its exercise.” A person must know, understand, then perfect his or her virtue before he or she can be happy and live a good, happy life.
No one can force a group of people to think in a certain way. Sure, people can be influenced to think in a desired way, but never forced. Governments are good at influencing their people, and that is their true job. The true duty of a government is to provide a guideline for moral behavior, to give its citizens a path toward happiness, toward virtue, toward the good life. Can it force its citizens to walk down that path? Absolutely not. But it can (and does) present that path to its people for them to follow.
The goal of the American government exists to give its citizens the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” words that, by this point in our lives as Americans, we all know very well. The American government gives people the right to and provides them with the pursuit of happiness, not happiness in and of itself. The American government grants its people with the pursuit, with the path to happiness and its entire system of government is based upon that founding idea.
The American government encourages its people to be virtuous and it provides them with steps to do so, steps that will make them happy by Aristotle’s definition of happiness.
While a government cannot nor will it ever guarantee its people a happy life, governments themselves seek to provide its people with the opportunity, with the path, with the chance to achieve Aristotle’s happiness through virtue.
A government cannot guarantee a “good life”; it can only encourage and lead its citizens to this.
DoSomething.org. “11 Facts About Racial Discrimination.” DoSomething.org. https://www.dosomething.org/facts/11-facts-about-racial-discrimination (accessed June 25, 2014).
Iannarino, Anthony. The Path. 2009. n/a, n/a. The Sales Blog. Web. http://thesalesblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/shutterstock_75839950.jpg.
National Archives and Records Administration. “Congress and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” National Archives and Records Administration. http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/ treasures_of_congress/text/page24_text.html (accessed June 25, 2014).