The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland


Human Happiness

WE have already, on several occasions, alluded to the fact, that God has created every thing double; a world without us, and a correspondent world within us. He has made light without, and the eye within; beauty without, and taste within; moral qualities in actions, and conscience to judge of them; and so of every other case. By means of this correspondence, our communication with the external world exists.

These internal powers are called into exercise by the presence of their correspondent external objects. Thus, the organ of vision is excited by the presence of light, the sense of smell by odors, the faculty of taste by beauty or by deformity, and so of the rest.

The first effect of this exercise of these. faculties is, that we are conscious of the existence and qualities of surrounding objects. Thus, by sight, we become conscious of the existence and colors of visible objects; by hearing, of the existence and sound of audible objects, etc.

But, it is manifest, that this knowledge of the existence and qualities of external objects is far from being all the intercourse which we are capable of holding with them. This knowledge of their existence and qualities is, most frequently, attended with pleasure or pain, desire or aversion. Sometimes the mere perception itself is immediately pleasing; in other cases, it is merely the sign of some other quality which has the power of pleasing us. In the first case, the perception produces gratification; in the other, it awakens desire.

That is, we stand in such relations to the external world, that certain objects, besides being capable of being perceived, are also capable of giving us pleasure; and certain other objects, besides being perceived, are capable of giving us pain. Or, to state the same truth in the other form, we are so made as to be capable, not only of perceiving, but also of being pleased with, or pained by, the various objects by which we are surrounded.

This general power of being pleased or pained, may be, and I think frequently is, termed sensitiveness.

This sensitiveness, or the power of being made happy by surrounding objects, is intimately connected with the exercise of our various faculties. Thus, the pleasure of vision cannot be enjoyed in any other manner, than by the exercise of the faculty of sight. The pleasure of knowledge can be enjoyed in no other way, than by the exercise of the intellectual powers. The pleasure of beauty can be enjoyed in no other manner, than by the exercise of the faculty of taste, and of the other subordinate faculties on which this faculty depends. And thus, in general, our sensitiveness derives pleasure from the exercise of those powers which are made necessary for our existence and well-being in our present state.

Now, I think that we can have no other idea of happiness than the exercise of this sensitiveness upon its corresponding objects and qualities. It is the gratification of desire, the enjoyment of what we love; or, as Dr. Johnson remarks, “Happiness consists in the multiplication of agreeable consciousness.”

It seems, moreover, evident, that this very constitution is to us an indication of the will of our Creator; that is, inasmuch as he has created us with these capacities for happiness, and has also created objects around us precisely adapted to these capacities, he meant that the one should De exercised upon the other; that is, that we should be made happy in this manner.

And this is more evident, from considering that this happiness is intimately connected with the exercise of those faculties, the employment of which is necessary to our existence and our well-being. It thus becomes the incitement to or the reward of certain courses of conduct, which it is necessary, to our own welfare, or to that of society that we should pursue.

And thus we arrive at the general principle, that our desire for a particular object, and the existence of the object adapted to this desire, is, in itself, a reason why we should enjoy that object, in the same manner as our aversion to another object, is a reason why we should avoid it. There may sometimes be, it is true, other reasons to the contrary, more authoritative than that emanating from this desire or aversion, and these may and ought to control it; but this does not show that this desire is not a reason, and a sufficient one, if no better reason can be shown to the contrary.

But, if we consider the subject a little more minutely, we shall find that the simple gratification of desire, in the manner above stated, is not the only condition on which our happiness depends.

We find, by experience, that a desire or appetite may be so gratified as for ever afterwards to destroy its power of producing happiness. Thus, a certain kind of food is pleasant to me; this is a reason why I should partake of it. But I may eat of it to excess, so as to loathe it for ever afterwards, and thus annihilate, in my constitution, this mode of gratification. Now, the same reasoning which proves that God intended me to partake of this food, namely, because it will promote my happiness, also proves that he did not intend me to partake of it after this manner; for, by so doing, I have diminished, by this whole amount, my capacity for happiness, and thus defeated, in so far, the very end of my constitution. Or, again, though I may not destroy my desire for a particular kind of food, by a particular manner of gratification, yet I may so derange my system, that the eating of it shall produce pain and distress, so that it ceases to be to me a source of happiness, upon the whole. In this case, I equally defeat the design of my constitution The result equally shows that, although the Creator means that I should eat it, he does not mean that I should eat it in this manner.

Again, every man is created with various and dissimilar forms of desire, correspondent to the different external objects designed to promote his happiness. Now, it is found that one form of desire may be gratified in such a manner, as to destroy the power of receiving happiness from another; or, on the contrary, the first may t e so gratified as to leave the other powers of receiving happiness unimpaired. Since, then, it is granted that these were all given us for the same end, namely, to promote our happiness, if by the first manner of gratification, we destroy another power of gratification, while, by the second manner of gratification, we leave the other power of gratification uninjured, it is evidently the design of our Creator that we should limit ourselves to this second mode of gratification.

Thus, I am so formed that food is pleasant to me. This, even if there were no necessity for eating, is a reason why I should eat it. But I am also formed with a desire for knowledge. This is a reason why I should study in order to obtain it. That is, God intended me to derive happiness from both of these sources of gratification. If, then, I eat in such a manner that I cannot study, or study in such a manner that I cannot eat, in either case, I defeat his design concerning me, by destroying those sources of happiness with which he has created me. The same principle might be illustrated in various other instances.

Again, we find that the indulgence of any one form of gratification, in such manner as to destroy the power of another form of gratification, also in the end diminishes, and frequently destroys, the power of deriving happiness, even from that which is indulged. Thus; he who eats so as to injure his power of intellectual gratification, injures also his digestive organs, and produces disease, so that his pleasure from eating is diminished. Or, he who studies so as to destroy his appetite, in the end destroys also his power of study. This is another and distinct reason, to show, that, while I am designed to be happy by the gratification of my desires, I am also designed to be happy by gratifying them within a limit. The limit to gratification enters into my constitution, as a being designed for happiness, just as much as the power of gratification itself.

And again, our Creator has endowed us with an additional and superior power, by which we can contemplate these two courses of conduct; by which we can approve of the one, and disapprove of the other; and by which the one becomes a source of pleasure and the other a source of pain; both being separate and distinct from the sources of pain and pleasure mentioned above. And, moreover, he has so constituted us, that this very habit of regulating anti limiting our desires, is absolutely essential to our success in every undertaking. Both of these are, therefore, additional and distinct reasons for believing, that the restriction of our desires within certain limits, is made, by our Creator, as clearly necessary to our happiness, as the indulgence of them.

All this is true, if we consider the happiness of man merely as an individual. But the case is rendered still stronger, if we look upon man as a society. It is manifest that the universal gratification of any single appetite or passion, without limit, not to say the gratification of all, would, in a very few years, not only destroy society, but absolutely put an end to the whole human race. And, hence, we see that the limitation of our desires is not only necessary to our happiness, but also to our existence.

Hence, while it is the truth, that human happiness consists in the gratification of our desires, it is not the whole truth. It consists in the gratification of our desires within the limits assigned to them by our Creator. And, the happiness of that man will be the most perfect, who regulates his desires most perfectly in accordance with the laws under which he has been created. And, hence, the greatest happiness of which man is, in his present state, capable, is to be attained by conforming his whole conduct to the laws of virtue, that is, to the will of God.