Pascal wrote:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

Aristotle wrote:

Happiness, therefore, being found to be something final and self-sufficient, is the End at which all actions aim.

So at least two great Western philosophers believe that happiness is the cause of every human action. Aristotle's argument, which is quite thorough, seems difficult to refute.

Are there alternative theories about how people are motivated?

To give a bit of background: It seems certain that Pascal is expanding on Aristotle in his thoughts. And Aristotle isn't exactly using the word "happiness" as we know it in English. Here's a translator's note about the word:

This translation of εὐδαιμονία can hardly be avoided, but it would perhaps be more accurately rendered by ‘Well-being’ or ‘Prosperity’; and it will be found that the writer does not interpret it as a state of feeling but as a kind of activity.

Finally, Aristotle bases his entire system of ethics on the simple idea that all actions aim at happiness, so it's critical that we establish this principle.

Clarification: Some answers suggest that the idea is tautological. Aristotle acknowledged the idea immediately after the quote above:

To say however that the Supreme Good is happiness will probably appear a truism; we still require a more explicit account of what constitutes happiness. Perhaps then we may arrive at this by ascertaining what is man's function. For the goodness or efficiency of a flute-player or sculptor or craftsman of any sort, and in general of anybody who has some function or business to perform, is thought to reside in that function; and similarly it may be held that the good of man resides in the function of man, if he has a function.

And a bit later:

What then precisely can this function be? The mere act of living appears to be shared even by plants, whereas we are looking for the function peculiar to man; we must therefore set aside the vital activity of nutrition and growth. Next in the scale will come some form of sentient life; but this too appears to be shared by horses, oxen, and animals generally. There remains therefore what may be called the practical life of the rational part of man.

The translator notes on the word practical:

‘Practice’ for Aristotle denotes purposeful conduct, of which only rational beings are capable.

Finally, Aristotle asserts:

Moreover, to be happy takes a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or a brief period of happiness does not make a man supremely blessed and happy.

Pascal expands this point by saying that people choose different methods, not because some like to be happy and others don't, but because all are pursuing a better life. Over a lifetime of bad decisions, suicide may seem the happiest choice. For both men, the context of the idea is ethics.

  • @Joe: Mourning and crying are, of course, prompted by pain, loss, discouragement and so on. But mourning aims toward greater well-being in the face of tragedy. Our English translation of "happiness" isn't really sufficient, which is why I included the translator's note. Maybe it would make more sense to ask if we are trying to achieve greater happiness or joy by taking whatever actions we take. Jun 23, 2011 at 0:11
  • thanks and apologies -- I'm moving my thoughts to an answer and going to try to amplify somewhat. Thanks again, what a good question!
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jun 23, 2011 at 0:20
  • @Joe: I look forward to it! Jun 23, 2011 at 0:23
  • is this a general question or do you mean it specifically with respect to Pascal and Aristotle. If you're interested in a different perspective, I remember that Sartre's Transcendence of the Ego had an interesting argument against the contention that all action is selfishly motivated. If you would accept the proposition, that If happiness motivates every action, then selfishness motivates every action (because desire for one's own happiness is selfish), then I could present you with an interesting argument. Jun 27, 2011 at 23:39
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    Currently, the following quotations graces the banner at the top of this page: "I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did." - Steve Jobs 1955-2011 Oct 6, 2011 at 18:22

9 Answers 9


So there seem to be two major ways to address this question.

First, if one takes the definitions as proposed above, the truth of the statements seem entirely tautological. If happiness is that thing that every action strives toward, then by definition, every action is motivated by a desire for happiness.

Alternatively, if one defines happiness without directly referring to it as the intended end of other actions, then a more interesting project can proceed. For example, some evolutionary psychologists might suggest that an increase in the likelihood of the gene is the motivational force behind many (if not every) action. If one identified happiness as the successful reproduction of one's genetic code, and these evolutionary psychologists were correct (which, in my opinion is questionable given the known influence of genetic drift on phenotypes such as behavior), then again this claim is likely true but in a much less uninteresting way.

If you wanted to disprove it, however, this would also require defining happiness. For example @Keith statements above are only true if biological need is not a subset of "happiness". If happiness is merely "the motivation of every man['s actions]", then the tautology still holds and if @Keith's statements are true, then either biological need should be thought of a subset of happiness, or a contradiction is reached.

  • Looking at the reasoning in the original question. The question would more be "does happiness motivate the strategic actions of man?". Where strategic implies some future gain and tradeoff between options. Jun 23, 2011 at 5:15
  • @Keith Does that rephrasing get around the need to define "happiness" in order to make it a non-tautological point when considering these arguments? If it does I don't see it, but I'm very willing to admit that there may be a hole in my logic - but, almost by definition, I don't see it.
    – mpacer
    Jun 23, 2011 at 6:17
  • On the first point, Aristotle actually goes to some pains to establish the properties of ultimate good before he names it: "Aristotle's search for the good is a search for the highest good, and he assumes that the highest good, whatever it turns out to be, has three characteristics: it is desirable for itself, it is not desirable for the sake of some other good, and all other goods are desirable for its sake." plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics Jun 23, 2011 at 17:02
  • @Jon Defining the ultimate good is slightly different from defining happiness, unless the definition of happiness is fully contained within the definition of the ultimate good. Could you clarify if this is the case, why that is the case?
    – mpacer
    Jun 27, 2011 at 2:20
  • I've updated the question a bit to clarify. But even in its original form, the question concerns a somewhat technical definition of "happiness" (εὐδαιμονία in Greek). From Wikipedia: "Etymologically, it consists of the word "eu" ("good") and "daimōn" ("spirit")." Aristotle thinks differently than most of us do, but his arguments are well worth following. Jun 27, 2011 at 18:47

In general I do worry a little about the structure of these sorts of claims. As soon as I'm saying all behavior originates from one single thing, then that one single thing wouldn't seem able to really explain particular behaviors very well anymore. In other words, if every act aims at x, then x becomes so broad as to encompass all action by definition -- we have lost the meaning of x.

After all, are mourning or crying motivated by happiness? Pascal's example may seem particularly bizarre in this light when he claims that even suicide is motivated by happiness.

That being said, I definitely and wholeheartedly agree with the claim at least in the sense that I do take this to be a strong empirical rule-of-thumb regarding human psychology. It's in this sense that I might suggest we could read Pascal's claim, noting in passing the intended irony when he suggests that even those who hang themselves serve their own happiness. At the very least, then, it doesn't seem to be the same happiness in all cases that is served -- we have to look deeper, at least down to way of the life, to get a sense of what kind of happiness we are dealing with. There are some happinesses only possible on condition of an unhappy life.

UPDATE: With respect to your clarification, I certainly agree indeed that the context of the problem of happiness is ethics. In particular, I submit that the kernel of the problem is that even though we agree human nature aims at happiness, that there are necessarily very different qualities of happiness for different ways of life.

In other words my suggestion is that some actions, passions, expressions, values are only possible on condition of a 'low' or 'base' way of thinking and living. I am even tempted to claim this may even indicate the critical dimension of philosophy itself, in a way -- to identify the difference between "high" and "low" thought, to rigorously establish the spiritual distance between "base" and "noble" ways of living. We need to distinguish critical, ethically significant variations in the quality of happiness being served in particular instances.

(Note: I am not an expert on Aristotle.)

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    To the first point, I'd say that happiness is merely a convenient label for something that Aristotle was able to infer. He has a very specific meaning for the idea and he doesn't really waver from that definition. That we chose the term happiness for the idea isn't really a fault with the idea. It just makes certain conclusions have the appearance of paradox. Jun 23, 2011 at 22:51
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    On the second point (about dysfunction in the pursuit of happiness), I think I need to refine my question somewhat. I think the same happiness is being pursued, but after many bad decisions or unfavorable circumstances, suicide could be the only (or, more optimistically, most apparent) path to a εὐδαιμονία. Perhaps I will need to ask a related question... Jun 23, 2011 at 22:57
  • I've updated my question to clarify the issues you raise here. My new question somewhat undercuts this answer, but I appreciate the effort you put in. Jun 24, 2011 at 21:12

Here is a simple counter-example: have you ever eaten until you were sick? Even knowing that having that extra piece of cake will make you feel miserable, you can't stop yourself.

Drug users have more counter-examples. Caffeine makes many people more motivated, but doesn't appear to increase satisfaction once the task you were motivated to do is complete.

At a more physical level, this can be seen as a result of the fact that multiple neurotransmitters are responsible for "motivation" and "happiness." The reason you want to have sex is probably due to your dopamine levels; the reason you feel happy after having sex is probably more related to oxytocin. As Wikipedia says:

Dopamine's role in experiencing pleasure has been questioned by several researchers. It has been argued that dopamine is more associated with anticipatory desire and motivation (commonly referred to as "wanting") as opposed to actual consummatory pleasure (commonly referred to as "liking").

This is a place where we might need to look closely at Aristotle's definition of "eudaimonia." Eating until you're sick might increase short-term pleasure, but decrease long-run pleasure. Is that eudaimonic? I think the usual definition would say no, but Pascal might say yes - I'm not familiar with his philosophy.

The difficulty with defining "happiness" in a reasonable way is one of the reasons why contemporary philosophers frequently focus on preference satisfaction instead.

EDIT: To summarize: inject someone with dopamine. They will be more motivated, but not happier.

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    Pascal would certainly not define overeating as εὐδαιμονία. He would argue that eating brings well-being, but that it can never satisfy fully. So some are fooled into thinking that the highest good comes from eating (or by seeking some other pleasure or avoiding some other pain), and falsely pursue that lesser happiness rather than true happiness. I don't think either Aristotle or Pascal would be phased by the idea that biological impulses in excess defeat achieving well-being. In fact, Aristotle takes up that point in his Ethics as a foundation stone. Jun 23, 2011 at 17:42
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    @Jon: great points. Perhaps we need to clarify if we're talking about a "normative" desire or a descriptive one. As you say, Aristotle would be the first to claim that many people don't follow the correct path to eudaimonia, but that doesn't necessarily affect the claim that people should follow this path.
    – Xodarap
    Jun 23, 2011 at 18:23
  • I've updated the question in a way that I hope clarifies the issue. First, Aristotle moves quickly past biological motivations and sentience to what he calls the practical life, which only humanity participates in. Second, the claim isn't that we never make decisions not directed to happiness, but that we try to direct our entire lives to happiness with varying degrees of success. Jun 24, 2011 at 20:55

Not every action, some are motivated by biological need. Even if the result of satisfying that need will be happiness/well being, its not the motivator.

  • In what case is satisfying a biological need not motivated by a desire for happiness/well-being? Jun 23, 2011 at 10:28
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    But could'nt you say that not satisfying certain needs makes you unhappy? If you're starving for example, you'd always be happy to eat something... unless you wanted to die in which case you are motivated by happiness already.
    – Nobody
    Jun 23, 2011 at 12:23
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    Would you mind addressing this statement: "No one tries to live well for the sake of some further goal; rather, being eudaimon is the highest end, and all subordinate goals—health, wealth, and other such resources—are sought because they promote well-being, not because they are what well-being consists in." plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics Jun 23, 2011 at 16:57
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    could you unpack this a little bit?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jun 23, 2011 at 22:09

Happiness in the meaning of prosperity isn't the cause of every human action. At times we don't motivate our actions to persue prosperity but merely survive, like any other living thing. Once the minimum conditions to support a reasonable life are fullfilled, one can start looking forward improving his lifestyle.

Keep in mind that struggling to survive isn't something that depends on what we believe. It's a natural reaction our common ancestor developed and helped all of us survive. Can you say a person is seeking prosperity by reacting to a hot object?

  • On a purely instinctual level (when I withdraw my hand before my mind knows I touched something hot or when I draw a breath), the happiness motivation is not evident. But the conscious mind isn't involved and it is consciousness that is in view for both Pascal and Aristotle. Even so, the instinct to remain alive is surely in the service of some greater purpose, right? Do we live merely to stay alive? Jun 23, 2011 at 22:47
  • That's a very good question. I think the purpose of life can be left aside if we apply the Dwarvin ideas regarding Evolution. Aren't we more likely to survive and procreate if we react to changes in the environment that can threaten our existance?
    – Renan
    Jun 23, 2011 at 22:52
  • Evolutionary imperative has problems of its own. In particular, it has a difficult time with one action Pascal brings up: suicide. Another puzzle is acts of self-sacrifice for unrelated or even competing individuals. I would appreciate more details about how your view would deal with these sorts of behavior. Jun 23, 2011 at 23:06
  • Giving up the persuit for happiness can be considered a kind of action aimed at happiness? It does conflict with Pascal theory but doesn't with Evolutionism. It's expected that genetic changes are eventually going to produce beings which are not adapted to the environment. As for acts of self-sacrifice, it also doesn't conflict because Evolutionism wasn't used in my response to say every action has a final mean of survival but to deny every action is performed towards happiness.
    – Renan
    Jun 23, 2011 at 23:28
  • I would be interested in evidence for genetic defects being a cause for suicides. My question related more to counter-claims rather than denying the theories themselves. But of course, "there is no final and self-sufficient end" is a counter-claim and the one you seem to be making. If you wouldn't mind moving some of these comments into your answer, I'd appreciate it. Thanks. Jun 23, 2011 at 23:45

The idea that happiness is the final motivator of every action is actually an empirical one because it makes a claim about actual states of affairs, namely the psychological and behavioral nature of the human species. There are a few factors confounding our ability to investigate the claim:

  • Inferences from facts about a person's actions to facts about motivations are hard to impossible to validate. We do not have privileged access to other's minds, and we are notoriously bad at extrapolating consistently. Bias and error frequently make appearances.
  • A person may not even be aware of the real motivations behind their actions, or are only aware on a non-intellectual level. Consciousness isn't unified, and how many people live the examined life?
  • Classifying and distinguishing between the various feelings that could be called "happiness" is a fuzzy task. Physical pleasure, emotional comfort and self esteem, meaning and connection, relief from stress or anxiety, etc. - they all correspond to positive states of mind.

This said, I still think there is good reason to believe humans do make decisions for reasons outside of happiness. Vengeance, petty spite, self-destruction, suicide, clinical depression, delusion - all of these can potentially involve actively seeking or knowingly turning away from happiness.


As just one concrete counterexample, a person who becomes depressed enough to commit suicide (assuming they don't believe in an afterlife) cannot really be said to be acting out of happiness. Granted, their feelings of depression may be directly connected to their desire to be happy and their sense of failure at not being so. But hopefully this helps to delineate the edge case of how connected feelings no longer serve an original goal.


Other than the tautological meanings, practical experiences falsifies these claims. For example, a close friend of mine went to medical school because his parents really wanted him to. I know him well and I can assure you that pleasing his parents gave him no particular happiness and certainly nothing that can justify spending three years doing something he didn't want to do. There are no shortage of similar observations.

Not everyone has the courage to ignore the pressures other people put on them and act to achieve the things that will make them happy. And to argue that they are happy to be dominated and oppressed is both perverse and conflicts with human experience.

If you see a battered woman who doesn't have the courage to stand up to her abuser, must we conclude that she is happy to be abused?

  • I don't want to trivialize these examples, so it's difficult to talk about them. Is it not possible that people, such as the ones you describe, are trapped by circumstances and their own temperament between choosing among several unhappy choices and picked what appeared to them to be the least unhappy? Being unable to achieve happiness does not prove that one does not desire it. Another possible explanation is the martyr complex in which an individual desires suffering for its own sake. Oct 6, 2011 at 18:33
  • I think this proves my point. Notice what you have to do to preserve "happiness motivates every action" -- you have to make it a meaningless tautology. First you have to argue that perhaps people pick what they think will make them the least unhappy even when it appears obvious that they had choices that would have made them much happier. Then you have to argue that some people are "happy to be unhappy" and thus doing what makes them happy even when they bring suffering on themselves. You can save any claim by making it consistent with every possible outcome. Oct 6, 2011 at 18:40
  • Having invested time with people who are trapped by circumstances such as your examples, I suggest that the "much happier" choices often seem unobtainable to the victims of such traps. For a battered wife, the option to leave her husband often seems, not difficult, but impossible. Children who are dominated by parents even as adults have often been trained to see defying their parents as unthinkable. Only to an outside observer do the happy choices exist. Oct 6, 2011 at 19:01
  • I agree. People often ignore the choices that would lead them to happiness for a large variety of reasons, thus falsifying the claim that happiness motivates every action. People even give up on trying to be happy. Oct 6, 2011 at 19:06
  • We must be speaking right past one another. Oct 6, 2011 at 19:11

Does happiness motivate every action? I would propose to invert this: happiness is motivated by your actions. The experience of productive work creates happiness, values for yourself and others, self-esteem and in turn happiness. Creative realistic actions promote happiness.

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