Eudemonism: What It Is, Its Origin and Characteristics

Eudemonism is an ethical-philosophical position that bases the moral actions of human beings on happiness. Therefore, it claims that the only way to be happy is to act morally.
Eudemonism: What It Is, Its Origin and Characteristics
Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati

Written and verified by the philosopher Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati.

Last update: 08 December, 2022

Eudemonism is a philosophical current that brings together various ethical theories. This position holds that happiness is a supreme good that everyone wants to achieve. To achieve it, however, we must act correctly. In other words, we will be happy to the extent that we do good.

But what does it mean to act correctly? Below, we will briefly explain this ethical approach, some of its aspects, and in which situations of everyday life this philosophy is reflected.

What is eudemonism?

Eudemonism comes from the Greek term eudaimonia, which means “happiness or welfare.” The Royal Spanish Academy defines eudemonism as an ethical theory that places happiness as the foundation of morality.

In this sense, eudemonists assume that happiness is the ultimate goal that every human being wishes to achieve and that the only way to experience it is by acting morally well.

There are some ethical theories that have been considered to be like eudemonism, since they base their moral norms on the realization of full happiness. Some of them are the following:

  • Ethical hedonism states that every human being should pursue pleasure and diminish pain. Likewise, it’s based on the idea that the obtaining of pleasure should come from sources considered morally good. This may be achieved tangibly (through the senses) or on the spiritual plane.
  • Stoicism proposes that the search for happiness is not obtained in material things or in excessive pleasures. Instead, it’s found in the rational control of desires, deeds, or passions that may disturb the soul. Whoever succeeds in doing so will have attained virtue and full happiness.
  • Utilitarianism affirms that the best action is that which produces the greatest happiness and well-being for the greatest number of people.
Eudemonism and happiness
The search for happiness has led people to think of ways to achieve it. From there, philosophical currents have appeared that investigate this point.

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How did eudemonism originate?

It’s believed that eudemonism had its origin in Ancient Greece during the 6th century BC. In this period, deep and critical reflection on the moral principles of the time was common. From there, many different ethical positions emerged, among them eudemonism.

However, Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) is considered the father and the most important defender of eudemonism. According to this thinker, if we do good we will be able to achieve happiness. With the passage of time, many currents began to consider eudemonia as a supreme good. Among them were Cyrenaism, Stoicism, Neoplatonism, and Utilitarianism. Eudemonism was even brought to the Christian church by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

There are two types of eudemonism

Depending on the scope of happiness, eudemonism has been categorized as either individual or social. Each of these types and their differences is detailed below:

  • Individual Eudemonism: This can be said to be the classical form of eudemonism developed by Aristotle. In this case, the pursuit of personal happiness is the ultimate goal. Therefore, humans must act correctly to procure their own happiness and satisfaction.
  • Social eudemonism: This affirms that happiness does not belong only to an individual, but also involves the collective. This type of eudemonism is found in utilitarian philosophers. According to them, actions will be good or bad to the extent that they facilitate or hinder the happiness of all or the greatest number of people.

It’s worth mentioning a third type called political eudemonism, according to which the doctrine of law and the state would be based on the principle of happiness. Kant made an important criticism of this concept stating that it is not happiness but freedom according to universal laws the principle that should govern.

The main characteristics of eudemonism

In order to provide a clearer idea about eudemonism, we’ll briefly summarize its main features here:

  • This is an ethical position that affirms that happiness is the supreme good that every human being longs for.
  • Moral norms are based on full happiness (individual or collective).
  • Living and acting in accordance with reason should be the highest trait sought by all people.
  • Being driven by passions (emotions, feelings, prejudices) does not usually lead to happiness.
  • Happiness is achieved through the proper use of reason.

The main representatives of eudemonism

There are many eudemonistic thinkers who have emerged throughout history. However, we will name some of the most influential ones.

Aristotle

Aristotle is one of the pioneers of this theory and the most important eudemonist. According to this Greek philosopher, we will be just and virtuous to the extent that we know how to find a balance between two opposing passions.

For example, how can we act in a generous way? According to this philosopher, we can do so by finding a middle ground between generosity and selfishness. That is, it’s all about finding a balance between a detached and altruistic attitude toward others and a complete interest in one’s own welfare.

We can find this balance through reason. Thus, if we have identified these opposing pulls and reason our way to the middle ground, we will be able to achieve happiness.

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Epicurus of Samos (341 B.C. – 270 B.C.)

This thinker affirmed that human beings should always seek happiness. Happiness is to be achieved through prudence, sobriety, and friendship. Like Aristotle, he asserted that reason should be used to avoid excesses since these can lead to later suffering.

For his part, he assumed that the pleasures of the soul are superior to those of the body. Both must be satisfied with intelligence. The ideal is to reach a state of well-being that he called ataraxia.

He was not in favor of debauchery, but neither did he support the renunciation of carnal pleasures. Instead, he affirmed that a middle ground should be sought and that bodily satisfactions should be realized as long as they do not provoke later pain.

Greek philosophers
Greek philosophy delved into this current from different approaches.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

Jeremy Bentham is known as the father of utilitarianism. His ethical doctrine is based on the enjoyment of life instead of sacrifice or suffering. In this sense, the ultimate goal is to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number of peo ple.

This thinker even created a calculation of happiness, an algorithm that measures the degree of happiness produced by a given action. This is also known as utilitarian calculus or hedonistic calculus.

Eudemonism in everyday actions

Today, many people act under the precepts of eudemonism, almost certainly without knowing it. Some of the situations in which this ethical stance is evident are the following:

  • Large non-governmental organizations or NGOs that provide their services free of charge to contribute to the recovery of the environment.
  • Teachers and educators who dedicate their time to teaching without receiving any economic remuneration for it.
  • A person who dominates his or her emotions in situations that merit it (related to stoicism).

So, perhaps, this philosophical current has marked your existence and you didn’t even know it. Learn more about it and evaluate if it’s something you can apply in your everyday life!

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