More Timely Than Ever!

Friday, July 05, 2024

TGIF: On the Pursuit of Happiness

The most remarkable phrase in the Declaration of Independence, whose anniversary we just celebrated, is the pursuit of happiness. Looking back 248 years, that phrase may strike the modern ear as strange for a political document. But it apparently did not seem that way to Americans in 1776. The second paragraph told the world:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The term among these indicates that Thomas Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress did not think that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were our only unalienable rights. But the pursuit of happiness made the brief enumeration, which speaks volumes.

The first thing to note is that Jefferson did not write that we had a right to happiness, but only the right to pursue it. Legal scholar and historian Carli N. Conklin of the University of Missouri School of Law states in "The Origin of the Pursuit of Happiness":

[T]he pursuit of happiness is not a legal guarantee that one will obtain happiness, even when happiness is defined within its eighteenth-century context. It is instead, an articulation of the idea that as humans we were created to live, at liberty, with the unalienable right to engage in the pursuit.

Through historical investigation, Conklin shows that contrary to common belief, the phrase was no "glittering generality" (in Carl Becker's phrase) back them but rather was a term of substance.

I trust no one will take seriously that the omission of property from the list of examples means that Jefferson et al. thought property unimportant. Of course, it did not mean that. We know that the people behind the Declaration understood the deep importance of private property to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A possible reason for not listing it is that property was often used differently from the way we use it today. While we say, "That's my property," an 18th-century person might say, "I have a property in that," although today's usage was hardly unknown back then. James Madison, who was not a member of the Continental Congress but who had a lot of say about property, used the word both ways. However, here are examples of what he called "the larger and juster meaning" of the word:

[A] man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them. [Emphasis added.]

He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.

He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person.

He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them. [Emphasis added.]

In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.

It's widely known that Jefferson and other founders were deeply influenced by John Locke, the 17th-century philosopher who did so much intellectually to usher in the age of liberalism. Locke, who himself was inspired by the ancient Greek philosophers' focus on happiness, or eudaimonia, invoked the pursuit of happiness. Already, the term had a long and esteemed pedigree.  (Jefferson was also influenced directly by the Greeks. He wrote in a letter, "I too am an Epicurean.") Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690; Book II, chapter XXI, section 52) says this: 

As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action, and from a necessary compliance with our desire, set upon any particular, and then appearing preferable good, till we have duly examined, whether it has a tendency to, or be inconsistent with our real happiness: and therefore till we are as much informed upon this inquiry, as the weight of the matter, and the nature of the case demands; we are, by the necessity of preferring and pursuing true happiness as our greatest good, obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases.

But a puzzle arises. In his influential Two Treatises of Government, Locke referred to "life, liberty, and estate," that is, property, and not the pursuit of happiness. Why Jefferson, without a challenge, switched to "the pursuit of happiness" has been much discussed by scholars over the years. I am certainly not qualified to render a verdict. On why Jefferson made the switch, Carli Conklin writes,

The most persistent explanation offered is that Jefferson was
uncomfortable enough with slavery to want to avoid perpetuating a
property ownership in slaves by including an unalienable right to property in the Declaration.

If that is so, we might wonder if Jefferson's immortal phrase all men are created equal was his way of assuring the future demise of slavery. He had included a condemnation of slavery in the Declaration but had to remove it to make the Declaration acceptable to the Southern colonies. We also can see from his Notes on the State of Virginia that he knew slavery was wrong: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever."

Finally, we surely can chalk up a point for Ayn Rand, the novelist/philosopher who made the rational pursuit of happiness—self-interest—the foundation of her Objectivist ethics and politics. She has been a lone voice in this endeavor. People who find the free market repugnant—and most who do not—never tire of equating self-interest with "selfishness," that ugly-sounding word that Rand herself used in a book title just for its shock value. The equation, however, is invidious. It suggests that other people necessarily are impediments to one's happiness and thus one should sacrifice one's happiness at least to some extent. But why would anyone believe that "selfishness"—making the most of one's life by holding it as one's ultimate value—entails the disvaluing of other people? It's crazy on its face. Rand, like the ancient Greeks, understood that he who cares about only himself demonstrates that he doesn't care enough.

A belated Happy Fourth of July!


Fooled Once said...

OTHER PEOPLE (broadly understood) ARE the source of ALL of (each one of our) OWN happiness(es).

JdL said...

"People who find the free market repugnant—and most who do not—never tire of equating self-interest with 'selfishness'..."

This is a vital point. The word "selfish" is equated with "doesn't care about others", which becomes the leverage for guilt-tripping anyone who opposes endless government rip-off-and-distribute schemes. But each of us MUST tend to himself first: no one else has the knowledge or the motivation to do so. Having seen first to our own needs, we are then free to engage in genuine charity out of honest generosity from the heart.

The notion that government-managed "welfare" is an expression of man's love of fellow man is exactly backward. It turns everyone into resentful, grasping shadows of humanity who spend much of their energy whining that their particular victimhood deserves more attention and money.

Anonymous said...

The welfare system was purposely designed and implemented to benefit the ruling class. It generates millions of loyal servants, which are composed of recipients who are fooled into thinking that they are getting something for free and employees of the system who will do what they can to perpetuate their job security.