Tuesday, July 07, 2009

What is the meaning of happiness in "the pursuit of happiness"?

The U.S. Declaration of Independence states that we have rights to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness", but what exactly did they mean by "Happiness"? The text from the preamble to the declaration:

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.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

It seems rather obvious from the context that "happiness" is not being used as merely a synonym for pleasure, so what is it really referring to?

The Wikipedia article on the declaration notes that Jefferson, et al were influenced by the writers of The Enlightenment. A separate Wikipedia article on the key phrase alone notes that John Locke may have been the ultimate source of the general language:

The famous phrase is based on the writings of English writer John Locke, who expressed that "no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions."[1]


1. Locke, John (1690). Two Treatises of Government (10th edition). Project Gutenberg. Retrieved on January 21, 2009.

To me, that superficially suggests that Jefferson may have treated happiness as a reference to health and possessions, at least loosely speaking.

The Wikipedia article also notes that the Virginia Declaration of Rights had the language (by George Mason):

That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

That is not inconsistent with Locke. I would interpret "safety" as roughly the combination of "life and liberty", so "happiness and safety" would leave us with roughly the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This suggests that Mason was considering happiness to be roughly "acquiring and possessing property."

I would superficially interpret property as roughly meaning livelihood, the means to support yourself and provide for your family and the prospect of accumulating wealth.

Almost immediately after the July 4, 1776 signing of the declaration, a draft of the Articles of Confederation were published, on July 12, 1776, with no reference to happiness. Article II said:

Article II. The said Colonies unite themselves so as never to be divided by any Act Whatever, and hereby severally enter into a firm League of Friendship with each other, for their common Defence, the Security of their Liberties, and their mutual and general Welfare, binding said Colonies to assist one another against all Force offered to or attacks made upon them or any of them, on Account of Religion, Sovereignty, Trade, or any other Pretence whatever.

Assuming that "Defence" substitutes for protecting Life, then it would seem that Happiness has been replaced with "general Welfare." To me, that is not inconsistent with interpreting "Welfare" as the means to support yourself and provide for your family, although the concept of accumulating wealth in the form of property is not explicit.

More than a year later (November 15, 1777) the final version of the articles were drafted and submitted to the states, with some wordsmithing, but no essential change in meaning. Article II became Article 3:

ART 3. The said states hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other for their common defence, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare; binding themselves to assist each other against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretence whatever.

For various reasons the articles were superseded by the U.S. Constitution, which also refrained from explicitly referring to happiness. Taking on a little more of the tone of the declaration, the constitution had a preamble, using the language:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Once again, it would appear that the role of happiness is subsumed by welfare. I interpret the term "general welfare" as meaning that pursuit of the welfare of the individual collectively benefits the whole of society.

Then came the Bill of Rights. Did that have anything to do with "happiness"? I think not. I think the rights and freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights fit more squarely under the category of liberty. Nothing in the Bill of Rights seems to relate directly to acquiring and owning property, livelihood, or accumulating wealth.

Overall, my take on these documents is that happiness and welfare seem to relate to the prosperity of the individual and that the states and the nation had a vested interest in the prosperity of the people as individuals.

I ran across a piece by Carol V. Hamilton entitled "The Surprising Origins and Meaning of the 'Pursuit of Happiness'." She quotes Locke from his essay "Concerning Human Understanding":

The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty.  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.

That does suggest a more solid origin of Jefferson's pursuit of happiness, but still does not cut to the heart of the meaning of that happiness. I interpret the reference to liberty and happiness being its foundation as indicating that a person cannot experience true liberty unless they are also experiencing true happiness. In other words, without true happiness, liberty is for naught. You cannot feel truly free unless you are enjoying the pursuit of happiness.

Ms. Hamilton digs deeper and finally informs us that:

Properly understood, therefore, when John Locke, Samuel Johnson, and Thomas Jefferson wrote of "the pursuit of happiness," they were invoking the Greek and Roman philosophical tradition in which happiness is bound up with the civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice. Because they are civic virtues, not just personal attributes, they implicate the social aspect of eudaimonia. The pursuit of happiness, therefore, is not merely a matter of achieving individual pleasure. That is why Alexander Hamilton and other founders referred to "social happiness."

That still does not answer the whole question, but at least informs a belief that pursuit of true happiness at a personal level does relate to doing good for the whole of society. If we read pursuit of happiness as the pursuit of social happiness, that leads us to inquire what form of "happiness" at a personal level would benefit the whole of society. To me, the answer is enlightened self-interest, pursuing activities that serve a dual purpose of directly benefiting the needs of the individual while simultaneously indirectly benefiting the whole of society. Pursuit of prosperity seems to fit that bill. The ancient philosophers speak of virtue and civic virtue, but I think that is compatible with enlightened self-interest.

In short, my reading of all of this is that Jefferson was using the happiness in the pursuit of happiness to mean prosperity with a strong sense of enlightened self-interest, with prosperity referring to livelihood, the ability to take care of your family, the right to enjoy the fruits of your labors (including at least a little pleasure), the obligation to give back to the community, and at least the hope of accumulating wealth in the form of property and money. Coupled with protection of your life and liberty, all of this would benefit both the individual and the whole of society.

-- Jack Krupansky


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