Ethics is not the science of happiness

Today I find myself thinking about Janusz Korczak. A Polish-Jewish author, teacher, pediatrician, and orphanage director, he refused to leave the orphans during the Second World War even though he was offered refuge. The Nazis murdered him, together with the children, at the death camp called Treblinka.

Speaking of this Jewish martyr, John Paul II said, “For the world of today, Janusz Korczak is a symbol of true religion and true morality.”

Amidst the sadness evoked while learning of his tragic death, how can we explain the profounder admiration this story summons in us, how it edifies us?

Karol Wojtyła knows. It is because, above and beyond happiness, simply put, moral excellence resounds more strongly. 

In his Ethics Primer, Wojtyła explains, “Ethics is not of its essence the science of happiness; it is the normative science, and happiness stands beyond the norm and above it. [… It] is not the road, but the end of every man’s road.”

Korczak’s act is to be taken as a symbol of morality but we could hardly understand it as an example of the pursuit of happiness; instead he wanted to remain with the children and was willing to do so at all costs.

Against ‘eudaemonism’, i.e., happiness-centred ethics, is a philosophical approach that proposes that ethical excellence is borne out in man’s relation to transcendence, his mature response to the majesty of objective values, which give man his dignity.

Virtue consists in self-giving love witnessing to this conviction and this is how we can grasp how someone who was not seeking his own happiness, in the way we usually understand it, became such an extraordinary exemplar. 

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