The Pursuit of Happiness

Yesterday on Virginia Public Radio I caught Toni Morrison’s interview with Sarah McConnell. At one point (~10:05), Morrison considers how Thomas Jefferson reworked John Locke’s threefold purpose of civil government, i.e., protecting “life, liberty, and estate”. Morrison is critical of Jefferson, not for excising Locke’s reference property, but for replacing it with happiness. Morrison:

Inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of… I think he just wanted three syllables. And Americans believe it. That that’s what we’re supposed to be — happy. Not integrity or some other word that might have worked. Happiness?  Pfft!

Equality, drawn from the same sentence in the Preamble, is the much-vaunted feature of the Jeffersonian architecture of American democracy.  Of course, equality had to be reimagined and applied beyond Jefferson’s original vision.

But what about happiness? Aristotelian political theory can’t sidestep happiness. Aristotle seems to possess a more expansive definition of happiness than Morrison does. There would be a link for Aristotle — not a necessary Socratic link, “justice always benefits” — between integrity and happiness. In Book VII of Aristotle’s Politicshe argues that the best regime (unlike the Republic of Plato) would equip all citizens with the virtues necessary to attain excellence, and therefore happiness.

Why do we talk so much about equality and not happiness? Is it because equality — simple, mathematical, definitive — lends itself to ideological politics? Derek Bok’s 2010 book and Benjamin Radcliff’s argument that expanding welfare states leads to greater overall happiness are two exceptions. Or do we eschew the politicization of happiness because we fear the rise of the “therapeutic state“?


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