Must we always choose between Happiness and Duty?

Are the motivations of Happiness and Duty opposed to one another?

In Mortimer J. Adler‘s Syntopicon (Britannica), the passage quoted below discusses the means and ends of moral education. (Earlier in Chapter 20: Education, the distinction is made between liberal education and moral education, the latter “which concerns excellence in action rather than in thought.”

The conception of the means and ends of moral education will differ with different ethical theories of the good man and the food life, and according to differing enumerations and definitions of the virtues.

It will differ more fundamentally according to whether the primary emphasis is placed on pleasure and happiness or duty. The parties to this basic issue in moral philosophy, which is discussed in the chapters on DUTY and HAPPINESS, inevitably propose different ways of forming good character–by strengthening the will in obedience to law, or by habituating the appetites to the moderate or reasonable in their inclinations.


Syntopicon-AdlerIt seems to me that the author of this chapter (Adler is the Editor-in-Chief) is reflecting a longstanding debate within the Great Conversation from the beginning and all throughout the Western canon of great ideas. Namely, humans must choose from two opposing ideas. In collection of excerpts from her novels, entitled For the New Intellectual, Ayn Rand recounted the philosophical battle through the ages that has taken its roots from Plato versus Aristotle. (I’m not sure I agree with that characterization entirely, but it makes for an interesting discussion. For the record, I am a huge fan of Mortimer Adler, the Syntopicon, and Ayn Rand.) She puts Plato on the side of Duty and mysticism and Aristotle on the side of rationally pursuing one’s own happiness (rational self-interest). With this conclusion, Ayn Rand would set up her own philosophy of rational self-interest against any religion on the grounds that a religion is a set of rules whereby human beings are said to earn favor with God. If Ayn Rand views Christianity that way–“earning favor with God through adhering to rules or following duty”–then I think she misses the core of who Jesus is and what he came to do. The Gospel is not, “I do for God and then He owes me…” The Gospel is “Jesus has done everything for me, and I owe Him… EVERYTHING.” The message of Christianity is that I am more broken than I ever dared believe, but in Jesus Christ, I am more loved and accepted than I ever dared hope.

Chapter 8 of The Soul of Atlas is entitled “Selfishness.” Discussing the Gospel versus the Kantian notion of Duty (on which, it seems, Ayn Rand builds her criticism of Christianity).

I think the following verses from the 18th century poet, William Cowper, describes an experience beyond religion. It describes an individual who has encountered the Gospel.

glory and delight

Our pleasure and our duty
Though opposite before,
Since we have seen His beauty,
Are joined to part no more.
It is our highest pleasure,
No less than duty’s call,
To love Him beyond measure,
And serve Him with our all.
To see the law by Christ fulfilled
And hear His pardoning voice,
Transforms a slave into a child
And duty into choice.

—William Cowper


“Our pleasure and our duty, Though opposite before, Since we have seen His beauty, Are joined to part no more.” [emphasis mine] Whether an individual is motivated by pleasure or duty, an encounter with the Gospel changes everything. I can see why Ayn Rand’s understanding of Christianity led her to the conclusion she reached. If she were here, I say it may be time to “check your premises.”

How would you respond to the “choice” between Happiness and Duty?

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