As part of his argument that our primary purpose in this life is to be good rather than happy, Kant offers the following “one-two punch.” First, Kant rejects any weak, reductionist sense of happiness. Happiness is not eating a Boston Cream donut. Rather:
“For the idea of happiness there is required an absolute whole, a maximum of well-being in my present and in every future condition.” (trans. James Ellington)
That is to say, it isn’t really “happiness” if you know it can disappear in the future. This uncertainly poisons happiness a bit–it makes the moment more properly “bittersweet” than happy. True happiness, according to Kant, would be having a good, and knowing that it will never be taken from you and never lose its luster.
Having posited that strong sense of happiness, Kant then throws his second punch, a rather sobering analysis of how our rational finitude–or to put that more bluntly, our ignorance–prevents us from really knowing what will make us happy:
“Now it is impossible for the most insightful and at the same time most powerful, but nonetheless finite, being to frame here a determinate concept of what is is that he really wills. Does he want riches? How much anxiety, envy, and intrigue might he not thereby bring down upon his own head! Or knowledge and insight? Perhaps these might only give him an eye that much sharper for revealing that much more dreadfully evils which are at present hidden but are yet unavoidable, or such an eye might burden him with still further needs for the desires which already concern him enough. Or long life? Who guarantees that it would not be a long misery? Or health at last? How often has infirmity of the body kept one from excesses into which perfect health would have allowed him to fall, and so on?”
And then Kant delivers the coup de grâce:
“In brief, he is not able on any principle to determine with complete certainty what will make him truly happy, because to do so would require omniscience.”
One would have to know everything, including all future events, in order to truly achieve happiness, not merely a fleeting, bittersweet pleasure. Since today is Holy Thursday, it seems appropriate to point out that the case of Judas is an example of the point Kant is making. Judas seemed to think that handing over Jesus to his enemies for 30 pieces of silver would bring him some measure of happiness. How else could one explain the stunning reversal in which Judas attempted to return the blood money–and when unable to do so, hung himself? Apparently it did not all turn out as planned. The future always tends to do that to us.
Here’s the thing, though. Kant’s point here–that we are just too stupid to really make ourselves happy–is actually not necessarily bad news for the Catholic. The upshot of Kant’s argumentation is that happiness requires infinite knowledge, omniscience. While it is true that none of us possesses such knowledge, it is also true that through faith we are granted a friendship with–really, a sharing in the life of–an omniscient God. So omniscience is not totally lost to us. We can be confident that God knows what would truly make us happy.
Kant meant to exclude happiness as a goal in favor of duty and goodness (and that is, by and large, a wholesome thought). But in doing so Kant also gave us a reason to hope, for he inadvertently opened a back door to happiness . . . through faith.