Happiness and the Good Life: A Classical Confucian Perspective

Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 18 (1):41-58 (2019)
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This essay examines the classical Confucian perspective on the topic of happiness through the lens of three Western theories: hedonism, desire satisfaction theory, and objective list theory. My analysis of the two classical texts—the Analects and the Mencius —reveals that three salient aspects of the Confucian conception of happiness, namely ethical pleasure, ethical desire, and moral innocence, play the fundamental role in the guidance and evaluation of an individual’s life. According to Confucius and Mencius, happiness consists primarily not in pleasure, but in ethical pleasure; the good life is not a life in which all or most of one’s desires are fulfilled, but a life in which the satisfaction of prudential desires is subject to the constraint of ethical desire; the source of the greatest happiness lies not in the attainment of the greatest political power, but rather in the cognizance of one’s moral innocence. For classical Confucian thinkers, the relationship between happiness and the good life is that happiness is a critically important constituent of the good life. However, happiness—defined in terms of pleasure, desire satisfaction, or a list of goods—needs to be tempered by moral constraints. In light of their views on happiness and the good life, I conclude that Confucius and Mencius each lived a good life that exemplified the three salient features of happiness, and to that extent they were happy.



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Citations of this work

Happiness.Dan Haybron - forthcoming - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
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Reasons and Persons.Derek Parfit - 1984 - Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press.
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Welfare, happiness, and ethics.L. W. Sumner - 1996 - New York: Oxford University Press.

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