The Pursuit of Happiness

“The pursuit of happiness.” This well known phrase from the Declaration of Independence has always called up for me visions of a lecherous older man chasing after a voluptuous, scantily clad nymphet. That image is not too far afield from our modern notions, but it surely is not what Thomas Jefferson and his committee had in mind in the summer of 1776.

Appearing in a recitation of the “unalienable rights” possessed by every person by virtue of human equality—appearing in the company of “life” and “liberty”—it deserves serious consideration. It is, after all, one of the basic rights which it is the duty of government to secure for its citizens. We need to understand “the pursuit of happiness.”

Many have puzzled over the use of “pursuit of happiness” in place of “property.” John Locke, the influential seventeenth century English philosopher whose work shaped much of the thought associated with the eighteenth century Enlightenment, was well known to have recited “life, liberty, and property” as the great basic rights shared by all people. Some have chosen to believe that “the pursuit of happiness” was only a softer, kinder euphemism—“property” with a wink and a smirk.

Such an interpretation ignores the fact that Locke himself had used “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and that by 1776 the decades since Locke had produced an astonishing range of philosophical exploration of “the pursuit of happiness”. Of special importance to many Americans was the work of writers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Among them “the pursuit of happiness” was a philosophical term of art.

So what did “the pursuit of happiness” mean to Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries?

Both the pursuit and the pursued need our understanding. “Pursuit” was not a random or arbitrary conception. Unlike “property,” which was external to persons, “pursuit” was an innate drive, an internal, personal need as basic as life itself and liberty.   It was a right equally possessed by all, unlike “property,” which was possessed by only some of the people and by them possessed very unequally. It was something that people DID, individually and collectively. Unlike life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness was both a philosophical concept and a human activity.

The pursuit itself was a basic human right because it was a basic human need, an innate drive. In a detailed study of the philosophical backgrounds of the Declaration of Independence, Garry Wills observed that “[The pursuit of happiness] is the basic drive of the self, and the only means given for transcending the self.” (Inventing America., 1978; p. 247).  This formulation recasts “the pursuit of happiness” in twentieth century terms, and it captures the eighteenth century understanding that the pursuit of happiness was much grander than the mere subjective pleasure of individuals.

As a basic human right, “the pursuit of happiness” assumed that the happiness of each depended on the happiness of all. Over the intervening centuries we have been so shaped by self-reliant individualism that such an assumption seems absurd. Or, as has generally been the case, it has been treated as “an ideal,” by which we mean that it has no practical bearing on real life and can be dismissed as irrelevant. To restore meaning to the right to the pursuit of happiness, we need a new vocabulary.

The best candidate is Robert Fuller’s emphasis on “dignity.” He wrote in a recent blog posting that “More than anything except life itself, people want dignity. They will compromise both their liberty and equality to get it.” (“Blueprint for a Majority Third Party,”, Feb. 24, 2010).

We have lost the eighteenth century’s shared understanding of “happiness,” but we still share an understanding of “dignity.” It is most important to those whose claim to it is most in doubt. On the streets, the primacy of dignity is asserted by the sensitivity of the most hardened young men to being treated without dignity. On the streets, disrespecting (“dissing”) another can prove fatal. 

 A sense of dignity is an individual experience, but its roots are social. Dignity is a sense of one’s own worth in the world. Some individuals can preserve their sense of dignity in spite of what the world thinks, does, and says, but most of us are exquisitely sensitive to actions by others that humiliate us. 

The loss of dignity is not trivial. As Fuller noted in the posting quoted above, “To suffer an indignity carries the threat of being deprived of social and material resources essential to well-being, even to life itself. The need for dignity is more than a desire for courtesy or respect. To be ‘nobodied’ is an attack on one’s status in the tribe, and carries an implicit threat of exclusion that, not long ago, amounted to a death sentence.”

“Dignity” has the further advantage that, unlike “happiness,” it presents an achievable goal. Unlike modern notions of “happiness,” “dignity” remains an observable, objective condition. It is preeminently a social experience. We know when others assault our own dignity, and we know when others are humiliated by our own behavior. We know when public conditions, such as the varied indignities visited on all of us by bureaucracies, public or private, humiliate individuals. We know of the systematic denial of dignity suffered by children in school and by the aging in nursing homes.

Fuller has also identified the mechanism that underlies most assaults on dignity, “rankism.” Rankism is simply the abuse of the power inherent in rank. He calls it the mother of all isms, the begetter of such familiar problems as racism, sexism, or ageism. (See Robert W. Fuller, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank.) Rankism, whether public or private, whether a matter of institutional policy or personal self-serving, obstructs the pursuit of dignity.

Like racism and sexism, rankism has been institutionalized. Like racism and sexism, rankism can and must be combated to secure to all of us our right to the pursuit of dignity. As a criterion for action the pursuit of dignity can illuminate choices ranging from our deeply personal and private lives at home to our actions at school or at work and to all levels of governmental policy approaches. (For a full exploration, see Robert Fuller, All Rise:Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity.)

When we see dignity as a fundamental right, we will find it easier to elevate the rights of humans over the rights of money. When the dignity of all becomes a matter of shared concern, we can restore the central importance of government by the consent of the governed and recover the legitimacy of electoral politics so badly eroded over recent decades.

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