Some Thoughts About “The Pursuit of Happiness”

What did the Declaration of Independence mean? And why does it matter?

     When looking for something else, I stumbled on a Fourth of July post that I wrote a decade ago.  Despite the temptation to rewrite,  I’ve made a only a few small tweaks.   It seems, if anything, more relevant today, when our society seems so divided about fundamental values and our President has devoted his life to the pursuit of money, publicity, and conspicuous consumption.   But that’s not at all what the Founding Fathers meant by the “pursuit of happiness.”
    Without ever really stopping to think about it, I had always assumed that the right to the pursuit of happiness meant freedom from governmental restrictions on your activities.  (Since Thomas Jefferson was the author and was always extolling the life of the yeoman farmer, I guess I pictured this as the legal right to cut down part of the forest and start your own little farm.)  So, in modern terms, it seemed to mean that the government can’t stop you from “doing your own thing.”
    But I realized the other day that this can’t be right.  The Declaration says we have an inalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  The reference to “liberty” already covers the freedom to pursue your own goals, whether that’s your own happiness or something else.  So what did Jefferson mean by the right to the pursuit of happiness other than freedom from governmental restraint?
     A little on-line research reveals that a number of philosophers of the time extolled the rational pursuit of “true and solid happiness.”  Locke argued that in “pursuing true happiness as our greatest good, obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases.” 
     In other words, there is a more deliberative aspect to choice than merely fulfilling our immediate desires.  Locke also contended that we need to be able to avoid committing ourselves to any particular goal until we know “whether it has a tendency to, or be inconsistent with, our real happiness.” 
     Thus, for Locke, the pursuit of happiness involves self-knowledge about what would really make us happy, the ability to discern what actions will promote that happiness, and the self-control to rein in contrary impulses.  The pursuit of happiness is different from hedonism or what economists call preference satisfaction; it requires a certain kind of wisdom and character.
   For at least some eighteenth century philosophers, real happiness involved a person’s pursuit of society’s happiness, not just his or her own.  Either way, the sense seems different than that of homo economicus, pursuing arbitrary individual preferences by accumulating wealth. Rather, the sense seems closer to Aristotle’s view that “the happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action.”
      There is a growing body of happiness research showing that wealth has only a modest relationship with happiness once a minimum threshold has been met.  Poor people are less happy than the middle-class, but after that, additional increments in wealth matter less.   This research also reveals that fame, like wealth, does not have a deep impact on happiness; social ties and family are much more important.  Unemployment creates great unhappiness that lasts even after the individual finds work again.    Thus, some scholars argue persuasively that well-being analysis (WBA) would look much different than cost-benefit analysis.

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.


Reader Comments

4 Replies to “Some Thoughts About “The Pursuit of Happiness””

  1. Thanks for taking the time to post this today Dan… very apt, and your concluding paragraph is right on. The blind pursuit of short term economic gains, with no externalities factored in, has caused huge harm and “unhappiness” to our planet, as well as baking into our oceans and atmosphere heat that will plague many future generations it seems.

  2. People who know they’re living in harmony with nature (sustainably) are bound to be happier than people who find their community is unsustainable. The boom-bust cycle of the economy depending on fossil fuels has always led to much unhappiness when the mine shuts down.

  3. UC powers that be have failed many times to protect “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

    One extreme case is the fact that Linus Pauling suffered the consequences of these failures when he championed peace protests at UCSD during the Viet Nam war and, since this was not the establishment (Regents and academic leaders) way, he was marginalized and forced to leave UC even though he is probably the greatest American born scientist in the 20th century, as documented by the following:

    BOOK REVIEW: The Price of Doing Things His Own Way, LATIMES by Lee Dembart

    The power of money is as powerful a destructive force at UC as it is in Washington DC, and both establishments are destroying future quality of life for our newest generations with no immediately implementable solutions in sight to save our environment in time.

    What good does a PhD do if you can’t join together to protect the human race?

    1. We are in an accelerating decline and fall phase where Trump fans the flames of racial hatred, Hillary fanned the flames of class hatred (“deplorables”) and academics fan the flames of intellectual hatreds (Hofstadter). Is this the end of the life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness dream?

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more