Acton Institute Powerblog

Happiness is Subjective

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One of the conclusions from last week’s commentary was that the government shouldn’t be in the business of promoting a particular vision of the good life in America. That’s not to say that the government doesn’t have some role in promoting the common good or making some normative judgments about the good life. But it shouldn’t get anywhere near the level of specificity of promising a family, home, college education, and retirement for all.

In part this is because while moral good is objective, happiness is, by definition, subjective. The technical gloss on happiness in the scholarly literature is “subjective well-being.” This subjective element gets at why there can be such paradoxical disparity, say, between objective standards of rising affluence and static or even declining levels of happiness. Happiness has much more to do with how people assess their own levels of satisfaction and well-being than with simply objective measures.

Becky Hsu explores this over at the Black, White and Gray blog by observing the irreducible diversity and subjectivity of defining happiness: “The trick is in how people define happiness to begin with.”

The delicate balance that results from these considerations is that people must be free to define happiness for themselves within the boundaries of the moral order. And the role of the civil government and positive law in promoting that connection between liberty and happiness is definitive for good government. As Jefferson put it, “the freedom and happiness of man” are the “main objects of all science,” and such concerns help to “keep ever in view the sole objects of all legitimate government.”

I would argue that the best conceptions of happiness are those that intimately connect the subjective sense of well-being with the objective moral order, the source of which is God. The Christian doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation can go a long way in explaining why there is so often this disparity between objective material well-being and subjective well-being in human life.

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” confesses Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Or as the Teacher puts it, God has “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV). This life is the beginning of the story.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • I’m confused.  How is the moral order not subjective in a pluralist society?  
    While Christians may have adopted a peculiar moral order, the elements of sacrifice which make it unique simultaneously make it irrational for unbelievers to adopt.  The best we might hope for from the world is a market system which allows Coasian bargaining for rights and properties.  But the constant allure (sin) of political manipulation perpetually throws wrenches into the market system.  These competing ideas of the good are really competing bids for power-over.  The most appropriate role for the Christian in the face of this is to seek to eradicate power altogether.  To oppose systems which employ power by assuming the costs thereof sacrificially.
    The Christian never imposes a positive conception of the common good, he always demonstrates it through sacrifice.  This demonstration may have a transformative effect on the one who is sacrificed for, and on the one whose power was quenched through sacrifice.  We leave that to God.

    • I’m not referring to the “moral order” as objective in reference to a particular social order (e.g. “in a pluralist society”). I’m talking about the moral order as applicable universally across societies, something like what Lewis called the Tao, others have called natural law, and still other simply the moral order. It is transcendent, ultimate, rational, objective, and knowable. It is therefore the law “beyond” positive law in the sense you describe related to a particular society.