The most frequent complaint that I hear from people who have left their churches is about the hypocrisy they found in them. A less frequent complaint is that the church’s moral teaching is handed down in the form of unchangeable rules that admit of no questioning.

This latter complaint contains a lot worth thinking about. In order to have legitimate force, parochial moral rules must be examinable in the light of ethical principles of universal scope.

One time-honored ethical principle is that the ultimate end of all moral behavior is happiness, and that the best way to reach that end is by way of becoming virtuous.

Everybody understands the first part of this proposition. It’s the second part that modern society is confused about. Wealth, power, fame, and pleasure don’t add up to happiness. Becoming a certain kind of person does.

Not enough people seem to believe this anymore, however, and that is the primary reason why so many people are so unhappy. At least, this is how most of the genuinely happy among them see things.

From Plato and Aristotle all the way through Ambrose, Augustine and Aquinas, human life at its best has been consistently characterized as a state of completeness (or, “perfection”)  and as a process of achieving it (as in “be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” [Mt. 5:48]). The process hinges on developing certain dispositions or habits, which to the ancients meant virtues or excellences of character.

Four virtues in particular came to be viewed as indispensable to the attainment of happiness: moderating our cravings (temperance); staying on task in the face of fear (courage); taking delight in the contemplation of truth (wisdom); and treating people fairly (justice). These four became the cardinal (from the word for “hinge”) virtues upon which all other virtues — such as honesty, fidelity, service, and leadership — turn.

From this perspective, it is not difficult to see why defining morality in terms of unquestioning obedience to a set of imposed rules has become so problematic for so many people. Obedience of this sort may make us compliant, but it will make us neither good nor happy.

Pursuing happiness in the right way is not a matter of pleasing those who make the rules. It is a matter of honoring an ever-deepening fear of losing the best of ourselves if we stop.

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