Are You Dreaming of Riches?

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Wealth and the Pursuit of Happiness

The relevance of wealth for true happiness.

We are discussing the moral philosophy of Thomas Aquinas in one of my courses today, and I was struck by his argument that happiness does not lie in wealth. The basis of this particular argument is not religious, but rather it has to do with logic and the structure of happiness.

Aquinas points out that there are two kinds of wealth, natural wealth and artificial wealth. Natural wealth includes the things we need that satisfy our natural desires for food, shelter, and drink. Artificial wealth, such as money, is invented for the sale and exchange of goods. Our happiness cannot consist in natural wealth, because these goods are instrumentally valuable. That is, we seek them for the sake of something else--physical health, for example. But this means that natural wealth is not our final end, or ultimate aim in life. And since happiness is our ultimate aim, according to him, it cannot be equated with natural wealth.

But what about artificial wealth? According to Aquinas, we seek it in order to get natural wealth. We seek money for the sake of other things, and so it cannot be our final end, i.e. true happiness. He concludes that since our happiness cannot lie in artificial or natural wealth, it is impossible for happiness, our final end, to consist in wealth.

This doesn't mean that wealth is irrelevant to our happiness. We need it to secure certain good things in life. But it does mean that wealth is not the same thing as happiness, and that those who act as if the two are identical are making a mistake.

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Are You Dreaming of Riches?