To pursue your own happiness, you need the foundation of two values.
When I used to teach basic philosophy, I came across a reading about cultural relativism. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote about customs in various societies around the world. Sometimes they practiced violent ones. She didn’t want us to criticize them. If we did, we would be judgmental, and that’s bad.
However, I could never manage not to judge bad, violent, oppressive customs (not benign ones like how people dressed or what they ate).
For example, a student told me about a tribe in the Amazon River that expects the newlywed wife to get beaten, and she welcomed it. If he didn’t hit her, she would think he’s less than a man.
I didn’t accept that custom. I just couldn’t. In fact, if by waving my hand I could stop it forever, I would. Do I really want to say wife-beating is okay? Slavery? Well, don’t judge! Murder? Don’t judge!
Why did I judge?
To figure it out, I listed some customs I couldn’t accept: slavery, murder, wife-beating, stealing, mugging, burning down property without permission and a lot more.
I asked myself what all of them had in common. That might lead me to find out why I couldn’t accept them and judged them as bad for me and society.
I had to leap from cultural relativism to moral objectivism—there really are moral truths out there that could benefit all societies.
I gradually realized the list of customs promoted death and injury and destruction, which is the opposite of the highest quality of life. At the same time I realized they promoted oppression and severe restriction, which is the opposite of liberty.
Life and liberty!
I congratulated myself on discovering those two values. But while I was doing my victory dance, it occurred to me in a hurry that one political philosopher had arrived there before me: Thomas Jefferson (and John Locke before him).
The Declaration of Independence proclaims:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The three universal values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have penetrated our psyche whether we acknowledge them or not. They no doubt penetrated mine, and that’s where my eureka moment came from, though I didn’t realize it at first.
So let’s unpack those three values.
Happiness appears at first glance to be so subjective and so open to a wide interpretation that it is impossible to nail down. However, it is not as subjective as it first appears. At bottom, it depends on life and liberty.
Happiness means functioning in excellence and fullness, living to the highest potential and freedom. If one’s life and liberty is restricted and oppressed, then one cannot be happy, even if he thinks he is.
On the opposite end of oppression and restriction is loose living. An excellent person does not confuse happiness with pleasure. Sometimes he has to deny pleasure to be happy. Example: debauchery and smoking marijuana gives him pleasure, but in the end how can he honestly say he is living the optimal life? Put out the joint, pursue wholesome relationships, and stop being self-centered. Become other-centered for a change.
Pursuing happiness means that an individual creates his own utopia, as he lives in society and follows basic laws, like honoring contracts and respecting other people’s property and person. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” is a good maxim. And so is, “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want done to you.” Those two guidelines would make for a lot more harmony in society.
Life and liberty, though they have a subjective feel to them, are not entirely subjective. Extreme behavior or policies do not lead to life and liberty, whether an individual or an entire society believes this or not, and whether a religious system teaches the opposite. Despite his belief or religious system, when an act or policy does not actually promote life and liberty, then he cannot be happy by definition, because happiness is built on life and liberty.
What about in society?
The government does not create utopia for him. Government is formed to ensure that the values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are possible—have the best chance to be actualized in his life. Government clears the path and creates a safe environment for the individual to be free and have a high quality of life and pursue his own happiness, as he defines it.
A person living under oppression, religious or atheistic, cannot be free and have a high quality of life; therefore, he cannot be happy, even if he thinks he is. He is not the best judge of what happiness is because he does not have a broad perspective.
I like how Jefferson said “pursuit of happiness,” instead of what Locke said, “property.” Happiness leaves the door wide open to go his own propertied way or his own simple, minimalist way without land or many possessions. And a right to property might lead a government to provide it, if a citizen didn’t have it. when a government guarantees property, then it interferes in our lives, and we lose our liberty.
Those three values are the opposite of communism / socialism. When the government gets bigger and more intrusive into the first two values, the pursuit of one’s own happiness is restricted and oppressed. Conservative philosophy, on the other hand, teaches that the government needs to back off and remain limited (but without anarchy).
Discussing how limited the government should become exactly goes beyond this short piece. Suffice it to say, though, that we have wandered far off from what our Founders originally envisioned, with our massive law code, heavy-handed regulations, high taxes, and an unprecedented, peacetime national debt.
So, here are the three values laid out in a formula. The arrow means “leads to”:
Life + Liberty → Pursuit of Happiness
The three values are universally good. They are not merely the product or invention of America. She only discovered them, as the Declaration of Independence says: these truths are self-evident and come from God.
But if all societies don’t have those three values, how can they be universal?
The hit-and-miss application and practice in this or that society, big or small, does not deny their universality and timeless goodness. If they are not universal in practice, that is, if they are not (yet) applied in various societies, then they should be. That’s another way of saying we can evaluate—judge—behavior as to its promoting life and liberty or not.
Sometimes moral truths go undiscovered in some societies, just as natural truths do, like the earth being spherical, are undiscovered in certain societies. But that truth still exists. The earth really is round, whether some societies have discovered this fact or not. But if these objective moral and social truths were to be inculcated across the globe, then we would enjoy much more international peace and harmony. We need to spread the message of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness or living in excellence to political leaders who often oppress people and take away those values. Think of Cuba and North Korea.
Moral truths are objective, based on the goodness of your being alive—your very life.
Let’s bring it back to a personal level.
So how do I go from cultural relativism to moral objectivity? If you’re reading this piece, then it’s a fact that you’re alive. Your life is an objective moral good. From there, the fact that you can read this piece is a moral good. The government has not restricted the web, as they do in China and certain Islamic societies, for example. Your liberty is an objective moral good.
In contrast, a custom that takes your innocent life or injures you so your life is damaged is objectively immoral. A custom that enslaves and oppresses you is objectively immoral.
Two newlyweds in the Amazon: one wife smiling with an unbruised face means she has a higher quality of physical life than does the other smiling wife with a bruised face.
So … a custom that abuses her and takes away her optimal life is objectively immoral. A new custom that liberates her from the abusive custom and opens the door to her pursuit of true happiness and freedom and well being is objectively moral.
The first wife has an objectively happier life.
It’s all about life; it’s determinative, in moving from cultural relativism to moral objectivism.
So live excellent lives.
Saving grace and more common grace are needed.