“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, perhaps the most remembered words of the Declaration of Independence, have lost much of their original meaning. Individual happiness, explained Jefferson, was invalid unless it was pursued within the context of community.
US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy explained this often forgotten sense of happiness in his 2005 lecture at the National Conference on Citizenship. Kennedy notes that while in modern times there is a “hedonistic component” to the definition of happiness, for the framers of the Declaration of Independence “happiness meant that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.” In the context of the Declaration of Independence, happiness was about an individual’s contribution to society rather than pursuits of self-gratification. (Lexical Explanations – Happiness)This interpretation of ‘happiness’ dates from a generation earlier than the drafting of the Declaration:
The term happiness comes from the Old Norse term happ meaning “luck” or “chance.” It’s also related to the Old English word hæpic meaning “equal.”
While early senses of happiness dating from the 1500s are still very much in use, such as “good luck,” “success,” and “contentment,” Francis Hutcheson, an Irish reverend, brought a new, more political interpretation of happiness to English speakers with his 1725 treatise An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue.
His political philosophy: “that Action is best which accomplishes the greatest Happiness for the greatest Numbers; and that worst, which in like manner occasions Misery” (Lexical Explanations – Happiness)
“Happiness” in the public discourse of the time often did not simply refer to a subjective emotional state. It meant prosperity or, perhaps better, well-being in the broader sense. It included the right to meet physical needs, but it also included a significant moral and religious dimension.
In correspondence between James Madison and James Monroe in 1786, Madison notes that “happiness” cannot simply be identified with meeting people’s interests, but includes a higher reference:
There is no maxim in my opinion which is more liable to be misapplied, and which therefore needs elucidation, than the current one that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong. Taking the word “interest” as synonymous with “ultimate happiness,” in which sense it is qualified with every necessary moral ingredient, the proposition is no doubt true. But taking it in its popular sense, as referring to the immediate augmentation of property and wealth, nothing can be more false (James R. Rogers, The Meaning of the Pursuit of Happiness)
That’s what does harm: greed in my relationship with money. Having more, having more, having more… It leads you to idolatry, it destroys your relationship with others. It’s not money, but the attitude, what we call greed. Then too this greed makes you sick, because it makes you think of everything in terms of money. It destroys you, it makes you sick. And in the end – this is the most important thing – greed is an instrument of idolatry because it goes along a way contrary to what God has done for us. (10.13)The Gospels are filled with references to the acquisition of wealth. Like Francis, he was not condemning riches per se, but only suggesting how a pursuit of personal gain can detract from one’s far more important goal – spiritual salvation.
The Hindu concept of maya or illusion is far stronger in its admonition. The whole world is false, Hindu philosophers have said, and any interaction with it other than as a necessary given foundation for spiritual evolution, is false and delusional.
The Buddhist Middle Way is similar in intent. Passions including if not especially that for wealth and the status and power it confers are poisonous and can only detract from the path of enlightenment.
If philosophers, theologians, and our own Founding Fathers have understood so completely that ‘happiness’ can never be a matter of personal satisfaction only, how is it that modern-day Americans have so completely neglected their advice?
Or have they? More Americans volunteer through community service than any other nation; and charitable contributions beggar those of Western Europe. We are generous to a fault when asked to support a needy cause whether natural disaster, children orphaned by war, epidemics, or extreme poverty.
Yet it is disingenuous to assume fidelity to Jefferson’s principles simply based on charity. In fact, charitable acts and contributions may be simply ways of justifying acquisitiveness. Giving to charity may offset the guilt associated with thoughts of excessive wealth and nagging questions of how it was made.
Americans seem to be able to compartmentalize morality. There is nothing strange about the idea of offsetting guilt with charity. Noblesse oblige was the royal way giving back. Privilege which came through family, heritage, and divine appointment had at least some attendant obligations. Although Marie Antoinette famously misread her contract – “Let them eat cake” were the words which sparked a revolution – most regents understood that the continuance of power and authority depended to at least some degree on public displays of generosity. They, like their modern counterparts, may also have felt good about sharing. Royal munificence, tithing, or the yearly earmarking of funds for charitable causes are all part of the same compartmentalization of morality.
Yet neither noblesse oblige nor the generosity of commoners was in the spirit of Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Hutcheson. Their intention was that the pursuit of individual happiness be indistinguishable from that of the community. No action is taken in isolation. Every action has moral and ethical implications which must be considered before it is taken.
“Happiness” in the public discourse of the time of the Founding Fathers did not simply refer to a subjective emotional state. It meant prosperity or, perhaps better, well-being in the broader sense. It included the right to meet physical needs, but it also included a significant moral and religious dimension (Rogers, loc.cit.)Within this philosophical framework one could never justify questionable individual pursuits with ex post facto generosity. There could be no disambiguation of terms, no disaggregation of meaning or intent. An action must be judged on its inherent value, intention, or purpose.
What has incited Pope Francis to such harsh and condemnatory words was not this immoral duplicity but the excessive greed itself. More and more Americans were forgetting all moral, ethical, and especially spiritual considerations in their distorted pursuit of individual happiness. Things have become the be-all and end-all of modern life, he said, and the kingdom of heaven is receding for two reasons. First, as Jesus said in the Gospels, the pursuit of wealth tends to detract from spiritual pursuit; and second, the acquisition of wealth for some often means the deprivation of wealth for others. A moral zero-sum game in other words. Riches gained on the backs of the poor.
It certainly seems as though Americans have lost their moral compass. Jefferson would have been appalled at the civil disorder and unrest needed to redress inequality of status and opportunity. Such disharmony and social and economic divisions should have been avoided by the conscientious choices of all individuals. Today many on the Left are as aggrieved as the Pope by what they see is the economic inequality of America. Why should there be such accumulations of wealth in the hands of so few when so many go hungry? Yet these progressive causes are examples of the dissolution if ‘inherent morality’. We would not have gotten ourselves into such a divisive state if we had paid attention to Madison and Monroe.
The point of no return has long passed. Consumer demand is the engine of the American economy; and consumerism, for all its questionable ethics and morality, provides the fuel. The more we want things, the faster the motor turns. Capitalism is by nature an amoral enterprise. The market makes no distinction between moral and immoral actions, but only their impact on economic growth. It is up to society to mediate and to apply moral and ethical brakes.
While governments try to mediate, such intervention becomes more and more problematic and the world’s economies become more and more interrelated and complex. Meanwhile the appetite for new, innovative products and services is even more insatiable.
The days of the late 18th century seem far away indeed. The late Justice Antonin Scalia was by his own words an ‘originalist’, and he of all the judges on the Supreme Court recognized and respected the words of Jefferson and his colleagues. His opinions reflected this honor and respect. Some observers criticized Scalia for what they saw as his stubborn adherence to an outdated document, and one which should be modified to reflect the tenor of the times; but they were myopic in doing so. They ignored the basic, fundamental principles of the Founding Fathers which incorporated religion, social justice, and individualism in a remarkably consistent and logical way.
So the Pope’s words will be cheered by many who are as idealistic as he; but most others will realize that this particular train left the station decades if not centuries ago. Consumers we are and will always be; and fewer and fewer of us balance the concept of the pursuit of individual happiness with that of community well-being.