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. 


Lex Lata said...

Perhaos a bit off-topic, but there's some interesting etymology here. Eudaimonia, εύδαιμονια, literally reflected a spirit (δαίμων) of wellness (ευ-). From δαίμων came the Latin spin-off dæmon, which picked up some diabolocal connotations over time, and of course eventually came to us as the English word, "demon."

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 the topic of happiness. He does not examine it from a philosophical point of view, but rather ties it to an American "cultural orientation" seeking to live at ease rather than in anxiety, in contentment rather than in want, in respectability rather than in meanness, and, perhaps most important, in freedom from the will and control of other men. Sounds almost like that Eudaimonia (or thriving), at least in a material sense, that you alluded to.

Tom Van Dyke said...

seeking to live at ease rather than in anxiety, in contentment rather than in want

This sounds like Jefferson, an Epicurean. Not a hedonist, but close. The avoidance of suffering.

in respectability rather than in meanness

not quite the magnanimity of Washington, not quite even virtue. "Respectability" is in the eyes of other men, by definition.

and, perhaps most important, in freedom from the will and control of other men

Heard an interesting thesis this weekend that 'liberty' in 1600s colonial America [and I suppose civil war England] merely meant living under the rule of law, the Magna Carta--their 'rights as Englishmen.' The king had become lawless, at least in his subjects' eyes.

this guy

Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans

Hardcover – November 11, 2014
by Malcolm Gaskill

Lee said...

I am not sure it is very helpful to our understanding of the inhabitants of British North America to reduce their desire for lives of ease and contentment rather than poverty and anxiety to any eccentric philosophical doctrines. For most of human history, societies lived one bad harvest away from starvation. Technological improvements in agriculture and the expansion of commerce changed all that. The English people could aspire to lives beyond mere sustenance. And colonies of British North America provided an exceptional(!) opportunity in this regard. The most relevant philosophical observations on this point come from Locke and Smith rather than Epicurus--both of whom affirmed the desirability of a "comfortable" life. And suppose Harrington could be brought in--as British North Americans secured their status as armed freeholders, independent of the control of other men and (irony alert) clinging to their guns, their religion, and their land.

Lee said...
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Lee said...

Avoidance of suffering appears universal--although Stoics and Christians accept it or least try to explain it. Stoics endure it as part of the laws of nature I guess. That's ok as far as it goes. Their claim that suffering can cause no harm is a grievous philosophical error. Aristotle observed that poor health and poverty can inhibit one's quest for virtue and happiness despite one's best efforts. Christians engage in that inner reflection about whether the suffering is God punishing then for sins, or approving of then for their righteous life, or merely afflicting them as part of their sanctification process to make them more like him, er, Him. Most of the colonists professed some version of Christianity. Aside from some pre-Awakening Jeremiads in New England about rise of worldliness and luxury at the expense of godliness, colonists do not appear to have been troubled by any antimony between Christianity and the desire for a better life in the New World (Epicurianism?).

Lee said...

Respectability--or honor as the planter elite might call it--does indeed rest in the eyes of others. Its worth depends on who is doing the respecting and what are the grounds of respect. I suppose many if not most colonists sought respect in the eyes of their fellow freeholders for being freeholders rather than a day laborers or beggars, for operating a well-maintained farm, for integrity in business dealings, for neighborliness, and for basic Christian morality.

Lex Lata said...
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Lex Lata said...

Hi, Lee.

You wrote: "Sadly we do not have any works (that I know of) that examine what 'happiness' meant to 18th century Americans." An intriguing point--did "happiness" have the same meaning(s) then as it does now?

For what it's worth, here's the definition from Webster's first (1828) dictionary:

* * *

HAP'PINESS, noun [from happy.] The agreeable sensations which spring from the enjoyment of good; that state of a being in which his desires are gratified, by the enjoyment of pleasure without pain; felicity; but happiness usually expresses less than felicity, and felicity less than bliss. happiness is comparative. To a person distressed with pain, relief from that pain affords happiness; in other cases we give the name happiness to positive pleasure or an excitement of agreeable sensations. happiness therefore admits of indefinite degrees of increase in enjoyment, or gratification of desires. Perfect happiness or pleasure unalloyed with pain, is not attainable in this life.

2. Good luck; good fortune.

3. Fortuitous elegance; unstudied grace.

For there's a happiness as well as care.

* * *

My tentative sense is that we moderns tend to think of happiness as an entirely emotional state not too far from joy, and that the Founding generation might have given greater weight to connotations of prosperity and harmony, of things working out well.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Most of the above seems rather materialistic, that's to say carnal, and I suppose it's safe to say that the great mass of men don't rise above the carnal. But I think that misses Jon's invocation of eudaemonia.

Ideals are not to be discounted, even if seldom achieved. Ben Franklin:

If our desires are to the things of this world, they are never to be satisfied. If our great view is upon those of the next, the expectation of them is an infinitely higher satisfaction than the enjoyment of those of the present.

There is no happiness then but in a virtuous and self-approving conduct. Unless our actions will bear the test of our sober judgments and reflections upon them, they are not the actions and consequently not the happiness of a rational being.

JMS said...

Jon – “The Origins of the Pursuit of Happiness” by Carl N. Conklin concurs with your thesis.

from p. 260 “far from being a “glittering generality” or a direct substitution for property,the pursuit of happiness is a phrase that had a distinct meaning to those who included that phrase in two of the eighteenth-century’s most influential legal documents: William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769) and the
Declaration of Independence (1776).

That distinct meaning included a belief in first principles by which the created world is governed, the idea that these first principles were discoverable by man, and the belief that to pursue a life lived in accordance with those principles was to pursue a life of virtue, with the end result of happiness, best defined in the Greek sense
of eudaimonia or human flourishing. The pursuit of happiness is a phrase full of substance from Blackstone (and before) to the Founders (and beyond). It was part of an English and Scottish Enlightenment
understanding of epistemology and jurisprudence.334 It found its way into eighteenth-century English sermons and colonial era speeches and
writings on political tyranny. It had meaning to those who wrote and spoke the phrase in eighteenth-century English and American legal contexts, and it had meaning to its listeners.”

Lee said...

Hi Lex . . .

When I read Jefferson's expression "the pursuit of happiness," Aristotle and the traces of eudaimonia that Jon mentions in his post come to mind. The concept has a long history with which Jefferson and the other founders were familiar. But a lot of water passed under the bridge between Aristotle and Jefferson. As I thought about your question I revisited my copy of Locke's ECHU. He discusses happiness in the context of the power or faculty of human will. He basically defines happiness as pleasure in the sense of the modern definition that you quote: the satisfaction that comes from acquiring the object of one's desire. And to touch on what TVD posted above, this is not really hedonistic. . . but close. To my mind, hedonism is not the pleasure that comes from getting the object of our desire; hedonism is when pleasure itself is the object of desire.

Lee said...

Meanwhile, back in Athens, Aristotle had something to say about pleasure and pains. Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics is concerned not primarily with objects of desire and pains and pleasures that come from success at acquiring those desires, but rather with how to become a certain kind of person. (The Greek work for ethics, the internet tells me, is best translated character.)In Book II, he writes on virtuous acts, "The pleasure or pain that accompanies the acts must be taken as a test of the formed habit or character." If pleasure accompanies virtuous acts, then a person is truly virtuous; but if pain accompanies these acts, then a person is not. He then adds a second way that pleasure and pain is related to virtue by referencing Plato: "man needs to be trained from his youth up to find pleasure and pain in the right objects.This is what sound education means."

Lee said...

As an aside, Jon noted that puzzling substitution Jefferson made--from "life, liberty, and property" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." In that section of Locke's ECHU I referenced above, he makes several references not just to happiness, but to the pursuit of happiness. It appears to me that Jefferson conflated Locke's thoughts in his DOI.

Jonathan Rowe said...

All: Thanks for the comments. I will check out the Conklin piece.

Tom Van Dyke said...

But a lot of water passed under the bridge between Aristotle and Jefferson. As I thought about your question I revisited my copy of Locke's ECHU. He discusses happiness in the context of the power or faculty of human will. He basically defines happiness as pleasure in the sense of the modern definition that you quote: the satisfaction that comes from acquiring the object of one's desire.

I don't think the Founding era accepted him locke, stocke, and barrelle.

In fact, it's unlikely most had read or studied him thoroughly--it's well-known he was excerpted heavily in the Cato's Letters pamphlets. It was in his utility to American liberty that he was most cited. As Jon noted, it might be fair to say he wasn't even a philosopher.

As for Jefferson, despite his occasional brilliant flashes of inspiring idealism, I would say he was a hedonist, far from magnanimous or virtuous. His value system and character were as idiosyncratic as his religion.

Bill Fortenberry said...

As Lee pointed out already, Locke referenced the pursuit of happiness quite a bit in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Here's a link to the specific section:

Locke's use of this phrase was far from unique. It was also used by:

Bolingbroke -
Priestley -
Shaftesbury -
Addison -
As well as several philosophers of lesser repute.

Each of these uses of the phrase seems to convey the idea that the right to the pursuit of happiness was understood as a right to self-determination. These philosophers believed that every man had an inherent right to choose to do what he thought was the right thing to do. This did not mean that men have a liberty to do what they want without any consequences, but rather that they have the right to choose what they do and then learn from the consequences of those choices. A man may choose to break the law, for example, and receive the consequence of imprisonment without violation of his right to the pursuit of happiness. He is not restricted from choosing even if he is punished as a result of making a bad choice.

Many 18th century philosophers seemed to view this as the ultimate liberty - the right of each individual to choose for himself what course his life would take and to learn from the results of that choice in order to direct his life into the path of true happiness which only comes from submission to the will of God.

Tom Van Dyke said...

What do those guys all have in common with Locke and Jefferson? ;-)