Some Thoughts About “The Pursuit of Happiness”
What did the Declaration of Independence mean? And why does it matter?
Strikingly, unlike consumption (which is essentially an individual activity), most of the sources of happiness inherently require not just the cooperation of other specific individuals but supportive social conditions — for instance, an economy that provides employment opportunities or communities that provide the opportunity to form lasting friendships. In other words, “the pursuit of happiness” requires not just being allowed to “do your own thing”; it requires society to provide the conditions that make happiness possible.
If society has a duty to provide such conditions, that means that all of us collectively have that duty. (After all, collectively we are society.) So the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness necessarily means the unavoidable duty (where required) to support the conditions under which others are able to pursue happiness. The flip side of the right to pursue happiness is a responsibility for maintaining a certain kind of community — thus, a degree of civil duty.
What does all this have to do with environmental law? It means that libertarian visions based purely on individual autonomy are missing the meaning of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Perhaps most obviously, it also means that cost-benefit analysis is the wrong way to think about social policy, because money is a poor measure of well-being. Individually and as a society, we need to be more concerned about the quality of our lives and our communities, and less about the quantity of our cash.