Happy freaking Fourth of July, a day late. Freedom! America! Yay America! Yay the Declaration! Yay the Constitution! For of course we know all men are created equal, and have inalienable rights including the right to pursue happiness!
Well, the equal part is obviously complete BS. Plenty of people would admit that, even if only in private with trusted friends. The pursuit of happiness part is a little harder. It’s very much in our heritage as Americans, and pretty much everybody believes they should be free to do what they want, and they should get what they want, facilitated by the government at the cost of others if necessary, so they can be happy. The conservatives are quick to say it’s only the pursuit of happiness that is a right, but who the hell wants the right to that? It’s something anybody can do anyway. What people really think is they have the right to be happy.
In my religion blog I talked about the functionality of different belief systems, and how most affluent people are functionally Epicureans. We are told the founders, particularly Jefferson, were deists, but that’s just a nicer way of saying Epicurean.
Epicureanism is a pretty radical philosophy because it changes the focus of life, of purpose of life, from duty to family, community, nation, and the gods to the cultivation of the self. The gravity of this can’t be underestimated. Almost all human beings, now and to the beginning of time, have lived for their families and the greater extensions of their families. Living for oneself has been and is impossible for most, and a frankly ridiculous idea for all but a few.
In America, though, the possibility was real. The option existed as it had for very few people before to go far from your family and community, start your own farm- almost everyone was a farmer then- and be far richer than you could be otherwise. If you were a tradesman, rather than smarting under the rule of a guild master for years, to middle age or older, you could go to a new community and open a shop and be independent and possibly affluent.
For later immigrants, you could go from being a farm laborer on the verge of starvation to being an industrial worker with adequate food. This didn’t always work too well, as there were more starving peasants than industrial jobs even in late 19th century America, and to avoid total social chaos immigration was ended after World War I. The industrialists didn’t really mind, as America had plenty of southern blacks who could move north and work cheap.
As long as America was a growth business, the pursuit of happiness seemed like a good way to live. When there were no more material goods to offer, personal freedom from traditional morality became the new good. Everybody had a car and a house, but now you could have sex with anybody you wanted, get a new spouse when the old one tired you, take any drugs you wanted.
I deal a lot with rich people, and I see the concept of hedonic limit in action. A person can only experience so much pleasure, and one becomes accustomed to the pleasure one has and it seems normal. Enjoyment requires even more, but there is only so much the body can feel. It’s more a matter of contrast. I’m sure there is a homeless guy eating a can of beans by his campfire, and he is enjoying his food a lot more than a rich guy in an expensive French restaurant.
Really the average American is more like the rich guy than the homeless guy. Almost everybody, including a lot of poor people, has a lot of stuff, more food than they can digest, gadgets, and unlimited entertainment. Uninhibited sex is only limited by your looks and social skills.
Are Americans- the proud heirs of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, with a vast array of rights, including in the minds of most the right to be happy, happy? This is the very basis of our national existence, so it’s a big question.
It’s a basic psychological insight, and the basis of Buddhism, that the pursuit of pleasure is ultimately futile. Epicurus qualified this by saying the pursuit of pleasure should be careful and measured, but even so it has its limits. You can crash up against them like a rock star at a backstage party or creep up to them like a wealthy couple touring the wine country, but they are there.
It’s also a basic psychological insight, I think, that happiness is one of those things that can’t be obtained by being pursued, but must come incidentally from other things. I modestly propose it comes from working for and performing your duty to your family, community, nation, and God- your real family, community, and nation, and the real God, not the one Obama talks about.
For this reason, the entire American experiment is essentially false. It worked, or appeared to work, in the good times, but the good times don’t last.
We are defined not by our rights and our freedoms, and how we enjoy them, but our duties and obligations, and how we fulfill them.