Virtue, Human Nature and the Quest for Happiness


Melissa Cain Travis

Article ID:



Aug 30, 2022


Feb 22, 2021

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 5 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.


It is evident from social observation that human beings desire happiness, not as a means to something else but as an end in itself. Many major worldviews seem to agree that one crucial ingredient of happiness is virtuous living. This idea goes back at least as far as ancient Greek philosophy, particularly the works of Aristotle, who argued that virtue is necessary for a healthy soul, and that the soul is the part of humankind that is closest to the divine. Later, the idea was expounded by the great medieval Christian philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas, who wrote that God is the ultimate good, the end toward which humankind must move in order to properly flourish. In contemporary thought, virtue-based happiness is endorsed in the writings of various world religions as well as secular humanism. However, unless a belief system posits the existence of God and an essential human nature that is designed to flourish under divine moral law, then the proposition that virtue, in the classical sense, is integral to happiness is incoherent. Without a transcendent good, virtuous living (moral behavior) has no content beyond mere subjective opinion on right and wrong, good and evil. Prominent atheist philosophers of the Western tradition, such as Nietzsche and Sartre, readily admitted this. Repelled by the notion that objective goodness does not exist, some espouse moral Platonism, but this view suffers from major shortcomings. Christianity provides the best grounds for believing that our happiness is closely linked to how we live.

The 2018 spring term at Yale University included a course on the effective pursuit of happiness. To be more precise, the elective was entitled Psychology and the Good Life, and well over a thousand students registered to hear biweekly lectures on the attitudes, thought patterns, and behaviors purported to improve one’s sense of life satisfaction and overall happiness. The implicit idea being that humans have some conscious control over their level of personal happiness. The high enrollment of the course (Yale’s most popular offering to date) seems to imply that many of Yale’s students are seeking to mitigate discontentment and achieve the proverbial Good Life.1

To be sure, this timeless quest isn’t limited to any particular demographic. The thriving self-help publishing industry suggests that many in our culture are attempting to rid themselves of what they perceive as obstacles to a happier life. An interesting case in point is the 2016 collaboration between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu entitled The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. The book was an immediate New York Times Best Seller and has remained on Amazon’s top ten list of bestsellers in the “Spiritual Self Help” category since its release. Leaving aside the incoherence of the religious pluralism the book implicitly promotes, one thing that stands out about the often humorous and poignant conversation between these two world-renowned religious leaders is how well it communicates the universality of mankind’s longing for authentic and enduring goodness — a wellspring for the good life in a world that has, in so many ways, gone terribly wrong. The key message is that though there is unavoidable suffering in this life, joy can be found by intentionally choosing the virtues of gratitude, generosity, and compassion over the vices of entitlement and self-centeredness. Although many circumstances are beyond our control, there are more important ones that are not, such as how we respond to both personal adversity and the misfortunes of others. Thus, according to the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu, a deep, abiding happiness — what they call joy — that transcends the inevitable ills of terrestrial life is within our power to achieve.

It is interesting to note that happiness, according to the secular psychology taught in the Yale course as well as the religious perspectives of the Dalai Lama and Archbishop, is not about maximizing material wealth and sensory pleasures. Rather, it involves intentionally choosing certain ways of living that affect a more fundamental aspect of the human person and positively impact those around us. Even secular humanists affirm that “we do not have to choose between being good and being happy. The humanist goal is for everyone to be happy and by recognizing that our own happiness is tied up with everyone else’s we can work towards achieving this ideal.”2 They argue that social justice is the key to maximizing human happiness, and therefore we have a moral imperative to refrain from acts that promote any sort of human oppression.3 Thus, according to the secular humanist, there is a morally correct way of life that is conducive to happiness for ourselves and others.


For millennia, great thinkers have pondered the nature of happiness and how it is attained. Aristotle’s famous insight about humanity was that everyone desires happiness for its own sake rather than as a means to gaining something else. He believed that happiness — defined as human flourishing (eudaimonia) — involves having sufficient external goods (physical necessities), goods of the body (such as health), and goods of the soul, all of which enable us to live well and do well. However, he deemed the goods pertaining to the soul “the most authoritative and especially good.”4 Aristotle believed that a thriving soul is the result of living a virtuous life; he said that “the prize of virtue or its end appears to be best and to be something divine and blessed.”5 In other words, the virtuous person is more godlike than the nonvirtuous, and thus lives a life of genuine fulfillment. A man who does good thereby becomes good, and a good man is a happy man.

But what defines the virtue one should pursue in order to flourish? Aristotle offered no standard procedure for making ethical decisions, since situations vary and circumstances must be factored in on a case-by-case basis, but he generally characterized virtue as being the mean between the extremes of deficiency and excess, both of which he considered vices. For example, bravery is the mean between the vice of cowardice and that of recklessness; generosity is the mean between the vice of stinginess and that of being a spendthrift. The grounds Aristotle offered for believing that characteristics such as bravery and generosity are inherently good, why they are human virtues, is that such feelings and actions are closest to the divine and consistent with the proper function of a human being. He says that “the most choice-worthy activity is the one that accords with the characteristic proper to [a person], and for the serious person, of course, that activity is the one that accords with virtue.”6 This is important, because the happy life is the virtuous life; the virtuous person is fulfilling their highest natural function and is thereby flourishing.

In addition to affirming objective goodness and therefore true virtues, Aristotle’s account of human flourishing (like the Dalai Lama’s, Archbishop Tutu’s, and secular humanism’s) presupposes the human capacity for knowing and striving toward objective goodness. In the seventh chapter of Book X of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that the best part of a human being (what he calls the soul or intellect) is the thing “that seems natural to rule, to command, and to possess intelligence concerning what is noble and divine, whether it itself is in fact divine or the most divine of the things in us — the activity of this, in accord with the virtue proper to it, would be complete happiness.”7 He says that the contemplative life, an activity of the soul, is the happiest life and that “it is not insofar as he is a human being that a person will live in this way, but insofar as there is something divine present in him.”8

In using the word divine to speak of the intellectual dimension of a human being (what he also calls the nous or soul), Aristotle seems to mean that there is something godlike and essential about this highest part of human nature that distinguishes mankind from the lower animals. (Incidentally, the term eudaimonia literally translates as “well divinity” or “well spirit.”) It is this soul that gives a human being the ability to know the good by way of reason and have sovereignty over his activities.

Centuries after Aristotle, Christian philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas similarly associated happiness with orienting oneself toward the proper end of human life. In his Summa Theologica, he said, “Happiness is the attainment of the Perfect Good.”9 He contended that happiness is a state of perfection of the soul, yet what constitutes happiness — the Perfect Good — is outside the soul of man.10 Aquinas identifies this ultimate goodness as the personal God of Christianity.11 God, he says, is “happiness by His Essence,” and human happiness results from participation in this divine essence.12

For Aquinas, only imperfect happiness can be attained in earthly life, but perfect happiness is realized after death, when the saints fully commune with the Perfect Good and have nothing left to desire.13 The degree of happiness that mankind can have in this life, Aquinas says, is attained through virtue, in which it consists.14 He shows agreement with Aristotle in his remark that “happiness is the reward of works of virtue.”15 It is by his natural powers of reason and free will that man can grasp the good and carry out virtuous works and, for Aquinas, these are capacities had by the human soul. He says, “For man can will and not will, act and not act; again, he can will this or that, and do this or that. The reason of this is seated in the very power of the reason. For the will can tend to whatever the reason can apprehend as good.”16 He says that “since the will is a rational power, it may be variously directed to act” and such powers are distinctively human: “Only those powers which are proper to the soul, namely, the rational forces, belong to man alone.”17 Mankind can know the good and pursue it through virtuous living because of the faculties with which the human soul is endowed. In this way, he can achieve a measure of authentic happiness in this life.


In these accounts of happiness, the pursuit of eudaimonia includes virtuous living — acting in accordance with objective goodness and thriving as a result. In contemporary philosophy, this is referred to as classic virtue ethics (hereafter, CVE). As philosophers William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland explain it, “Virtue ethics focuses on the overall purpose of life, namely, to live well and achieve excellence and skill as a human person. In this sense, virtue ethics is deeply connected to a vision of life as a whole and of the ideal human person.”18 Presumably, what they refer to as the “ideal human person” is one who is flourishing in the eudaimonic sense. The central idea behind CVE is teleological: that we have an essential nature, a necessary and sufficient set of common properties that define us. Living virtuously means living in accordance with this designed nature and thereby functioning properly as a human being. This is what it means to flourish — to be happy in the highest, most comprehensive sense.

Note that Aristotle and Aquinas both affirm a necessary condition for a meaningful and coherent conception of virtue: objective goodness. In other words, if the concept of virtue is to have real content, what is needed is ontological grounding for moral goodness. If this requirement is not met, the concept of virtue becomes meaningless, and human happiness cannot be seen as dependent upon virtuous living in the classical sense.

Atheist existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche recognized that if there is no transcendent lawgiver in which to ground morality, objective morality simply does not exist. In his Twilight of the Idols, he says that “in denying God, we deny accountability,” and declared that “there are no moral facts whatever. Moral judgement has this in common with religious judgement that it believes in realities which do not exist…[moral] ‘truth’ denotes nothing but things which we today call ‘imaginings.’”19 Nietzsche regarded the idea of moderating or suppressing our base natural instincts as absurd; he calls all attempts at coercing mankind to be moral “thoroughly immoral.”20 (One may rightfully wonder how Nietzsche’s own beliefs about moral values permitted such a judgment.)

Nietzsche’s logic seems sound; if there is no moral standard that is not manmade, there is no reason to believe that any invented moral rules are truly binding. Why should the so-called baser passions be denied if one can get away with indulging them? If morality is merely a human convention, why should we behave morally rather than with utter self-interest? Nietzsche’s view is a fine example of the fact that even some staunch atheists of the Western tradition have submitted that a transcendent source is necessary for grounding the goodness that supplies content to virtue.

Some nontheists are unwilling to sacrifice objective morality and instead argue for atheistic moral realism — the idea that good and evil, right and wrong truly exist in an abstract sense, even though there is no higher explanation (God); moral values just are, and that is all. For example, the atheistic moral realist might say that we have the moral duty to refrain from punishing people for crimes they did not commit, or discriminating based on sexual orientation. However, he can offer no independent grounding for such moral claims; he merely assumes them as brute facts. Philosopher Erik Wielenberg has suggested that it could be the case that “some ethical truths are necessary truths.”21 For example, he says that it is necessarily true that pain is evil and that it is wrong to break a promise to someone if you do not have “some sufficiently weighty reason for doing so.”22 He explains: “These necessary ethical truths, I believe, are part of the furniture of the universe. If God exists, they are not rendered true by Him nor are they dependent upon His will for their truth….These necessary ethical truths constitute the ethical background of every possible universe. It is within this framework that all beings and their actions, divine and human alike, are to be evaluated.”23

Wielenberg’s claim is radical, and it seems to run headon into the problem of moral relativism. Who has the right to judge which ethical truths are necessarily true? (To be sure, the masochist would disagree with Wielenberg’s assertion that pain is evil, necessarily.) Moreover, Wielenberg offers no reason why, if pain is necessarily bad, that fact lays any moral obligation on anyone. Craig and Moreland explain why, even if this were true, it would not be enough: “Let us suppose for the sake of argument that moral values do exist independent of God. Suppose that values like mercy, justice, love, forbearance and the like just exist. How does that result in any moral obligations for me? Why would I have a moral duty, say, to be merciful? Who or what lays such an obligation on me?”24 Atheist philosopher Richard Taylor agrees, saying that moral obligation is “unintelligible apart from the idea of God.”25

Similarly, atheist French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre rejected the idea that moral values could be self-existent and acknowledged that objective morality depends on God. In his defense of existentialism, Existentialism Is a Humanism, Sartre wrote:

Existentialists…find it extremely disturbing that God no longer exists, for along with his disappearance goes the possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There could no longer be any a priori good, since there would be no infinite and perfect consciousness to conceive of it. Nowhere is it written that good exists, that we must be honest or must not lie, since we are on a plane shared only by men. Dostoyevsky once wrote: “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.”26 This is the starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and man is consequently abandoned, for he cannot find anything to rely on — neither within nor without….Thus, we have neither behind us, nor before us, in the luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse.27


By “intelligible heaven” and “luminous realm,” Sartre seems to mean some sort of transcendent domain in which atheistic moral realists situate any objective standard of goodness. By “abandoned,” Sartre is referring to man’s state without the existence of God, a state in which we are left to invent some sort of moral scheme on our own.

In addition to the grounding problem, the atheistic moral realist is faced with the question of how, on naturalism, blindly evolved creatures just happened to develop a moral awareness that correctly corresponds to the moral values “out there” in abstract reality. Craig and Moreland deem this “fantastically improbable”: “This seems to be an utterly incredible coincidence when one thinks about it. It is almost as though the moral realm knew that we were coming. It is far more plausible to regard both the natural realm and the moral realm as under the hegemony of a divine Creator and Lawgiver than to think that these two entirely independent orders of reality just happened to mesh.”28

There is simply no reason why evolutionary fitness for survival and reproduction would be influenced by an immaterial realm of self-existent moral ideas.


What then is the standard or criteria for the goodness (or lack thereof) in virtuous human actions? According to Christianity, God’s essential goodness is the unmoving standard for all moral duties and prohibitions, and virtuous behaviors and dispositions are those that align with this standard.29 This is an idea St. Augustine expressed explicitly in the opening chapter of his treatise, On the Good. He says, “The highest good, than which there is no higher, is God, and consequently He is unchangeable good, hence truly eternal and truly immortal. All other good things are only from Him, not of Him.”30 William Lane Craig elaborates: “On the theistic view, objective moral values are rooted in God. God’s own holy and perfectly good nature supplies the absolute standard against which all actions and decisions are measured. God’s moral nature is what Plato called the ‘Good.’ He is the locus and source of moral value. He is by nature loving, generous, just, faithful, kind, and so forth.”31 Thus, theism posits God as the ontological grounding for the reality of goodness. This view is compatible with CVE, since God is both essentially good and the creator of human nature; the fact that humans are made in God’s image is the objective reason why they flourish best when they are behaving in accordance with the moral law grounded in His character.

Thus, the understanding of authentic happiness as a state that is at least partially dependent on virtue is coherent in the context of Christianity but not in any nontheistic account. Theism, unlike naturalism, provides objective grounding for the good. Moreover, the fact that mankind is made in the image of God means that we can know the good and choose to live a life of virtue, thereby fulfilling our creator’s intention for human flourishing.

Melissa Cain Travis is an assistant professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University and a PhD candidate at Faulkner University. She is the author of Science and the Mind of the Maker: What the Conversation Between Faith and Science Reveals about God (Harvest House, 2018).


  1. David Shimer, “Yale’s Most Popular Class, Ever: Happiness,” New York Times, January 26, 2018,
  2. “Understanding Humanism: Resources for Education,” accessed June 25, 2018, at
  3. “Social Justice,” accessed June 25, 2018, at
  4. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 15.
  5. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 17.
  6. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 223.
  7. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 223–24.
  8. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 225–26.
  9. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I–II, Q.5, A.1.
  10. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I–II, Q.2, A.7.
  11. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I–II, Q.2, A.7–8.
  12. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I–II, Q.3, A.1.
  13. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I–II, Q.3, A.2.
  14. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I–II, Q.5, A.5.
  15. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I–II, Q.5, A.7.
  16. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I–II, Q.13, A.5.
  17. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I–II, Q.55, A.2.
  18. William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), 455.
  19. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 65–66.
  20. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 70.
  21. Erik J. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 51.
  22. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue, 52.
  23. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue, 52.
  24. Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations, 492–93.
  25. Richard Taylor, Ethics, Faith and Reason (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985), 83.
  26. Paraphrase of a passage from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Part XI, chap. 4.
  27. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 28–29.
  28. Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations, 493.
  29. Christian B. Miller, “Morality Is Real, Objective, and Supernatural,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 1384 (November 2016): 75.
  30. Augustine, On the Good, chap. 1. Accessed October 9, 2017, at
  31. William Lane Craig, “The Indispensability of Theological Meta-ethical Foundations for Morality,” Foundations 5 (1997): 9–12. Accessed October 9, 2017, at


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