Johnson & Johnson Records a $3.3 Billion Charge for Product Liability
“Big Brother” Google to Impinge on Personal Privacy

What is meant by Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Virtue is the Key to True Happiness

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. These three aspects are listed among the "unalienable rights" or sovereign rights of man.

This, the second sentence in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence, has been called one of the best-known sentences in the English language. It remains to this day the most profound, self-evident, and—to sovereigns everywhere, the most gut-wrenching—sentence ever penned and declared by the citizenry of any country.

Most people agree about the meaning of life and liberty. In one sense life gives us the freedom to pursue happiness. However, disagreement exists over what is meant by the phrase “pursuit of happiness.” I address this issue because of the increased attention placed on the question of how should one go about pursuing happiness in the current Republican primary cycle.

When the Founders spoke of the right to pursue happiness, what they meant, according to Newt Gingrich, was the right to pursue "wisdom and virtue, not hedonism." Rick Santorum's interpretation is that, “Happiness is not enjoyment or pleasure. Happiness means to do the right thing — to do not what we want to do, but what we ought to do.” Putting these two explanations together one might say that in pursuing happiness we should do so in a reasoned way; in a manner motivated by an inner sense that it is the right thing to do -- the right way to behave -- and not solely for our own self-gratification. 

Contrast this explanation with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism that holds the right to pursue happiness protects the individual’s ability to live for her own sake, rather than for the sake of society. It is based on the idea that the pursuit of one's self-interest is one's highest moral purpose.  This belief has been identified with the capitalist ethic that by pursuing one’s own interests the result will be benefits for all in society.

I believe that the pursuit of self-interests notion embedded in modern capitalism is largely responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown whereby financial institutions made home mortgage loans to unsuspecting buyers not qualified for such loans and then sold off a basket of loans as a collateralized debt obligation thereby transferring risk to another party. Why should have commercial and investment banks care about the qualifications of a home buyer when they knew at the end of the day risk would be transferred to some other party?

The ancient Greeks had a very different perspective on happiness. Aristotle spoke about achieving eudaimonia, which is roughly translated into happiness.

Eudaimonia is not an emotional state; it is more about being all that you can, fulfilling your potential. The idea is that by living in a way that reaches your full potential you bloom or flourish and so display the best version of you that you can be. This meant striving for "arete," which loosely translated means excellence or virtue. So, for the ancient Greeks, leading a virtuous life would lead to happiness.

For Aristotle the act of living in balance and moderation brought the highest pleasure. Not in the action itself, but in the way of life. It is this way of life that would lead to the greatest long-term value rather than just a passing amusement. A modern illustration would be the difference between earning a high income, but spending it all and living in more moderation and having great wealth that will last you and provide security.

By virtues, Plato meant developing positive traits of character that would enable one to achieve true happiness. Wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice were the cardinal virtues according to Plato.

I teach ethics and emphasize to my students the explanation of classical Greek virtue espoused by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. He believed that the exercise of virtue requires “a capacity to do the right thing in the right place at the right time in the right way.” One’s judgment in making these decisions comes from those dispositions (tendencies) that enable choices to be made about what is good for people and by holding in check desires for something other than what will help achieve this goal. For MacIntyre, virtues such as truthfulness and trust, justice, courage, and honesty would direct one’s actions in the betterment of society.

Given the challenges facing our society, each of us must remember that it is one’s actions that lead to true happiness. We gain the ability to act morally through knowledge and reason. We make deliberate choices that move us toward achieving happiness but should do so through virtuous behavior that advances society, not self-indulgent behavior.

As we watch the race for the Republican nomination unfold let us not forget that we have responsibilities to others in a civil society. Our actions affect others and it is through virtuous behavior that we achieve the end goal of happiness.

Let me conclude with a quote from Thomas Jefferson:

"Self-love . . . is the sole antagonist of virtue, leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others."

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 30, 2012