Sunday, November 27, 2016

Right to Pursue Happiness: Eudaimonia

When I teach introductory or ethical portions of various American law courses, I usually lay the foundations with broad principles law seeks to protect and promote. And I go to America's Foundations (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Jocke Locke, etc.).

Things like: Life, Liberty, Property, Equality, Promotion of Commerce, Order, Health & Safety, Diffusion of Knowledge.

As noted above (parenthetically) we do the Declaration and John Locke. I don't put "pursuit of happiness" on the list; though I do discuss how in Locke's original it was "life, liberty and property" and Thomas Jefferson changed it from  "property" to "pursuit of happiness."

The classes I teach tend to be survey classes (that is we don't get too deep into the tall weeds). So I attempt to briefly gloss over what I am about to write. First, scholars debate why Jefferson and the Declaration's other authors made this change and what, if anything it means. Left leaning scholars, I have observed, tend to emphasize Jefferson did this to give short shrift to property rights. Others, I have observed, argue simply the right to "pursue happiness" means "property rights."

To me and others, on the face of it, the right to "liberty" and "to pursue happiness" sound like a redundancy.

I suspect however, such was a bit of wisdom the authors of the Declaration attempted to impart that traces to Aristotle (Eudaimonia). For reasons I need not get into in this post, I reject the argument that the Declaration and American Founding ought to be understood that there is only a right to do what's right, or that there can be no right to do wrong.

And that's not, as far as I understand, what Eudaimonia means. Rather, what such means is ... well let's let George Washington explain:
There is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; ...
In other words, in order to be truly happy (or perhaps we can say happiest), you must do what's virtuous. Certain unvirtuous behaviors may, in short, make us feel good; but we will probably wake up the next day feeling worse than we did before we did the dirty deed.

So use your liberty wisely. You can use it to do what's right or perhaps not right; but if you use it to do the latter, you won't end up happiest. Perhaps not happy at all. 

4 comments:

Lee said...
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Lee said...

Jefferson's emphasis on "happiness" is echoed in many of the state constitutions drafted during the War for Independence, along with the expression "happiness and safety." Sadly we do not have any works (that I know of) that examine what "happiness" meant to 18th century Americans. One of my favorite historians, Jack P. Greene, wrote a book Pursuits of Happiness that describes the social and economic development of the colonies. In spite of the title, he devotes only a few pages near the end to that question. He does not examine it from a philosophical view, but rather describes it as a "cultural orientation" of Americans who seek a to live at ease rather than in anxiety, in contentment rather than in want, in respectability rather than in meanness, and, per most important, in freedom from the will and control of other men. Sounds a almost like that Eudaimonia (or thriving), at least in a material sense, that you alluded to.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Thank you for the comment. Are you going to post it at AC?

Lee said...

I did not realize that you posted your piece over there. I noticed that things were kinda quiet, so I checked in here and at TVD's place--thinking maybe everyone is working on their personal blogs. I'll post my comment there.