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The Most Essential Moral Virtues Enhance Happiness

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A Publisher Correction to this article was published on 07 September 2023

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Eight moral virtues that have figured prominently in various cultures throughout history will be discussed: altruism, empathy, gratitude, humility, and the “cardinal virtues” of justice, prudence, fortitude, and temperance. The focus will be on how to understand them and what their relationship is to happiness. It will be argued that all eight essential moral virtues enhance happiness in most people most of the time. Their favourable impact on happiness may motivate humans to become better, which includes the decision to subject themselves voluntarily to moral bioenhancement (MBE)—in order to achieve this betterment. Nonetheless, the development of MBE technologies is still in its infancy and moral education remains the primary means for the moral enhancement of humans, as well as for the enhancement of their happiness. This may however change in the relatively near future.

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  1. Serious limitations to empathy as a crucial basis for morality are discussed in the context of the cardinal virtue of justice in the following Section. Other limitations, the ones that are not directly related to justice, include the following. The fact that humans are likelier to help unknown victim A than a much more deserving, but personally unknown victim B, is a direct consequence of empathy overriding rational compassion. Additionally, empathy can directly obstruct professional help in, for example, situations when medical needs exceed medical resources in disaster settings in which painful and quick decisions have to be made by the caregiver: in many such cases, it is well documented that strongly empathetic caregivers tend to hesitate and even avoid responsibility for such decisions (see Rakić 2018b). I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for pointing to this issue.

  2. Eudaimonia, literally translated, is the status of “good spirit.” It appears already in Plato, later in Aristotle, Epicurus and in Hellenistic philosophy that has been mainly influenced by Aristotle. What is important here is that eudaimonia is not a temporary feeling but a lasting experience of well-being. Epicurus is particularly interesting for the theme that is being discussed in this paper. He insisted, namely, on the relevance for eudaimonia of rational knowledge of the world, including explicitly the knowledge (ἐπιστήμη) of physics (φυσική), that is, the knowledge of the material world. It follows from this Epicurean position that cognitive enhancement will be useful for achieving eudaimonia. I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for this insight about Epicurean ethics.

  3. Maccabees has been removed from the Hebrew Bible. In 1546 the Catholic Church added it to the Bible after a decision at the Council of Trent.

  4. Additionally, prudent actions that are not related to morality are also conducive to happiness in many instances, although that falls outside the thematic scope of this paper.


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A multitude of discussions on bio(ethics) and related fields have contributed to the development of this paper. They include my extensive discussions with Arthur Caplan, John Harris, Julian Savulescu, Ingmar Persson, Nicholas Agar, Josephine Johnston, Milan Ćirković, Rob Sparrow, Oliver Feeney, as well as various other scholars. I am also thankful to an anonymous reviewer for excellent suggestions regarding this paper.

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Rakić, V. The Most Essential Moral Virtues Enhance Happiness. Bioethical Inquiry 20, 497–507 (2023).

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