What Did TJ Mean By “Pursuit of Happiness,” Anyway?

The satirist PJ O’Rourke, What Did TJ Mean By “Pursuit of Happiness,” Anyway?:

…I’m an American. And we are, to my knowledge, the only nation that has hounding down joy written into our foundational documents. Declaration of Independence, second paragraph, first sentence —- we’re “endowed… with certain unalienable Rights… among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

…In his “unalienable Rights” passage, Jefferson was openly cribbing from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, published in 1689. But Locke’s phrase was “life, liberty, and estate,” meaning property.

What made Jefferson go off script? Professor Forrest McDonald, in his magisterial book Novus Ordo Seclorum—The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (tree farming gives you a lot of time to read), argues that Jefferson may have gotten the alternative wording from British jurist and proponent of natural law, William Blackstone. Or from John Adams, who was hovering over his shoulder and was big on property if not the vanities and levities of showing off about it. Or, says McDonald, Jefferson may have been expressing an “Aristotelian idea.”

…Maybe Jefferson simply spotted a flaw in Locke’s logic. If “life, liberty, and property” are “unalienable Rights” then property can’t be alienated. That is, property can’t be separated from an individual….

…So Jefferson, going “Life, Liberty, and… and…” pulled “Pursuit of Happiness” out of his wig. To give a modern reading: “Life, Liberty, and WTF.”

…And happy with the notion that the meaning of “happiness” has shifted since 1776.

The word did not then have the connotation of “jumping up and down with joy” (even on the bed with Sally Hemings) and certainly not the connotation of “jumping up and down with ironic joy” (Brooklyn vintage clothing store snap-brim fedora find).

Jefferson was familiar with Dr. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (farming with slaves gives you a lot of time to read). Dr. Johnson defined happiness as “state in which the desires are satisfied.” (Okay, okay, jumping up and down on the bed with Sally Hemings after all.)

But Jefferson was also familiar with Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man. This is cited by The Oxford English Dictionary in its slightly archaic definition 2 of happiness: “The state of pleasurable content of mind, which results from success or the attainment of what is considered good.”

The Happiness Hypothesis

From Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis:

Where does happiness come from? There are several different “happiness hypotheses.” One is that happiness comes from getting what you want, but we all know (and research confirms) that such happiness is short-lived. A more promising hypothesis is that happiness comes from within and cannot be obtained by making the world conform to your desires. This idea was widespread in the ancient world: Buddha in India and the Stoic philosophers in ancient Greece and Rome all counseled people to break their emotional attachments to people and events, which are always unpredictable and uncontrollable, and to cultivate instead an attitude of acceptance. This ancient idea deserves respect, and it is certainly true that changing your mind is usually a more effective response to frustration than is changing the world. However, I will present evidence that this second version of the happiness hypothesis is wrong. Recent research shows that there are some things worth striving for; there are external conditions of life that can make you lastingly happier. One of these conditions is relatedness—the bonds we form, and need to form, with others. I’ll present research showing where love comes from, why passionate love always cools, and what kind of love is “true” love. I’ll suggest that the happiness hypothesis offered by Buddha and the Stoics should be amended: Happiness comes from within, and happiness comes from without. We need the guidance of both ancient wisdom and modern science to get the balance right.

The Obligation to Pursue Happiness

Alternative Hypotheses explores rights are obligations and can be applied to the pursuit of happiness.

…Here we come to the fundamental paradox of modern liberalism. On the one hand, liberalism in all its stages has always treated human freedom as sacred. On the other hand, modern liberals also believe that in order to guarantee their freedom, they can in practice use the state’s coercive power to compel others to do what they believe is wrong.

This is the logical consequence of liberalism’s autonomy view of rights. Since the state is supposed to be “value-neutral” about what each party desires, in cases where human autonomy is at stake it really has no principled way to decide between competing claims. The result, more often than not, is not a fair contract between the two parties but an arbitrary exercise of political power, justified by the myth that we have a right to technological progress and convenience.

The natural law tradition avoids these problems by insisting that rights protect obligations rather than autonomy. Rights are tied to those goods objectively required by human nature for flourishing, such as life, truth, and virtue. Since we would suffer harm by neglecting to seek such goods, we have obligations to seek them.

…This simple idea has two enormous consequences.

First, it entails that no earthly power, no government of men, has absolute dominion over our lives, freedom, or conscience. As our founding fathers argued in the Declaration of Independence, the priority of natural rights and duties over man-made rights and duties entails that governments are limited by natural law. Governments are instituted in order to secure our natural rights, they wrote, and “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it”—or at the very least, to resist it.

The second consequence follows from the first. If rights protect our ability to do and be good, and if natural law has priority over civil law, then not only do we have a natural right to exercise ourselves in ways necessary for the fulfillment of our obligations, but we also have the right to refuse to obey when a government commands us to do what is wrong, which includes those things that we are obligated not to do. That argument also has a long pedigree, having famously been made by American abolitionists during the civil war, by the Nuremberg Court against Nazi war criminals, by Mahatma Gandhi against the British, and by Dr. Martin Luther King in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” to name a few.

…As diverse thinkers across the ages have held, human beings are born with the desire and the capacity to seek truth about issues of ultimate meaning. Whether we describe this with Aristotle as the universal desire of reason to know why, or with St. Augustine as a heart restless for relationship with God, this search defines us as rational beings.

Each of us has a duty to seek, then, as far as we are able and in our own way, the truth about first things. To refuse this duty is to neglect ourselves as human beings. Likewise, the equal dignity of every rational soul gives us an obligation to enable and encourage all persons’ honest and sincere search for truth.

Hat tip to Do Rights Protect Autonomy or Duties?

Alternative Source for Jefferson’s Pursuit of happiness

There are Alternative Hypotheses to the source of Jefferson’s use of Pursuit of Happiness:

Garry Wills has argued that Jefferson did not take the phrase from Locke and that it was indeed meant to be a standard by which governments should be judged.[16] Wills suggests Adam Ferguson as a good guide to what Jefferson had in mind:

If, in reality, courage and a heart devoted to the good of mankind are the constituents of human felicity, the kindness which is done infers a happiness in the person from whom it proceeds, not in him on whom it is bestowed; and the greatest good which men possessed of fortitude and generosity can procure to their fellow creatures is a participation of this happy character. If this be the good of the individual, it is likewise that of mankind; and virtue no longer imposes a task by which we are obliged to bestow upon others that good from which we ourselves refrain; but supposes, in the highest degree, as possessed by ourselves, that state of felicity which we are required to promote in the world.
—Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society


Ferguson, Adam (1995) [1767]. Oz-Salzberger, Fania, ed. An Essay on the History of Civil Society. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press. pp. 99–100.

Wills, Gary (2002) [1978]. Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. New York, NY: Mariner Books.

How To Be Happy

In How To Be Happy happiness is linked to values.

What makes you happy? Happiness comes from achieving your values: pursuing a career you love, a romantic relationship, perhaps raising a family, or running a successful business. According to Ayn Rand, “happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.” But how does one know what values to pursue and how to achieve them? This is where ethics comes in. Fallible beings—we humans—don’t know automatically what values to pursue and how; ethics provides the guidelines.

The first question in ethics is “what values should I pursue?” Is it my own life and happiness, or should I put others’ interests first? The second question is the “how:” How do I achieve my values? Virtues provide the answer to the second question; they are the actions necessary to achieve values, and they of course vary significantly, depending on the answer to the first question.

For many people, “virtue” conveys a chore or a duty—because they have accepted serving others as the answer to “what values should I pursue?” They follow the conventional morality of altruism that identifies actions such as charity, compassion, tolerance, and humility as virtues. According to altruism, such virtues are the means to a good life.

However, if we adopt “my own life and happiness” as the answer to the first question in ethics, the virtues guiding our actions look very different. It is our selfish interests of survival and flourishing that define virtuous action; therefore, the virtues are derived from the requirements of human survival. Lacking speed, strength, claws and fangs, we survive primarily by thinking; therefore, the primary virtue is rationality, or exercising reason (as recognized both by Aristotle and Ayn Rand). The rest of the virtues for human survival and flourishing, as identified by Rand, are aspects of rationality: productiveness, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, and pride. (Note that she didn’t consider this an exhaustive list).

And, being happy ourselves, contributes to the happiness of others, of society.

Economic Liberty Creates Happiness

As the The Pursuit of Happiness points out, simply being left alone to pursue happiness leads to contentment.

…the idea that the king was somehow interfering with Americans’ propensity to chase after bliss was a novel one at the time. No more. One of the notable changes in the world in recent decades is the spread of freedom, including the freedom of each person to pursue happiness as he or she conceives it.

Letting people do that, it turns out, actually makes them content….

So what is necessary to happiness?

Two things, it appears, are needed to increase the supply of happiness: freedom and money. As it happens, a substantial amount of freedom is crucial to the creation of wealth. There is no such thing as a rich totalitarian country, as even the onetime totalitarians in Beijing finally realized. So in a very real sense, freedom is the key to happiness.

The survey, by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, involved asking people in 97 countries two simple questions: “Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, rather happy, not very happy or not at all happy?” and “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?”

What the researchers found is that in the 52 countries where the poll has been done over the last couple of decades, the percentage of people giving upbeat answers rose in 40. Among the places where smiles have been spreading are such developing countries as China and India, which have grown freer as well as more prosperous.

The same has occurred in much of the advanced world as well, including the United States, France, Canada, Denmark, and Japan. Only four countries (Austria, Belgium, Britain, and Germany) have gotten less happy since the pre-1981 era. They are all free as well as rich, which suggests those two factors are necessary but not sufficient for people to count their blessings.

And what of government?

The 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson wrote, “How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” The people who wrote the Declaration of Independence, by contrast, understood that if you want to be happy, it helps to have a decent government and a free society.

Happiness is Social

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.

~Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments

Happiness is social. We share in other’s happiness just as they share in ours. Pursue happiness and improve everyone’s lot.

Pursuit of Happiness as a Natural Right

Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty: Natural Law and Natural Rights, addresses the pursuit of happiness as a natural right.

…The myriad of post-Locke and post-Leveller natural-rights theorists made clear their view that these rights stem from the nature of man and of the world around him. A few strikingly worded examples: nineteenth-century German-American theorist Francis Lieber, in his earlier and more libertarian treatise, wrote: “The law of nature or natural law . . . is the law, the body of rights, which we deduce from the essential nature of man.” And the prominent nineteenth-century American Unitarian minister, William Ellery Channing: “All men have the same rational nature and the same power of conscience, and all are equally made for indefinite improvement of these divine faculties and for the happiness to be found in their virtuous use.” And Theodore Woolsey, one of the last of the systematic natural rights theorists in nineteenth-century America: natural rights are those “which, by fair deduction from the present physical, moral, social, religious characteristics of man, he must be invested with . . . in order to fulfill the ends to which his nature calls him.”

If, as we have seen, natural law is essentially a revolutionary theory, then so a fortiori is its individualist, natural-rights branch. As the nineteenth-century American natural-rights theorist Elisha P. Hurlbut put it:

The laws shall be merely declaratory of natural rights and natural wrongs, and . . . whatever is indifferent to the laws of nature shall be left unnoticed by human legislation . . . and legal tyranny arises whenever there is a departure from this simple principle.

A notable example of the revolutionary use of natural rights is, of course, the American Revolution, which was grounded in a radically revolutionary development of Lockean theory during the eighteenth century.[6] The famous words of the Declaration of Independence, as Jefferson himself made clear, were enunciating nothing new, but were simply a brilliantly written distillation of the views held by the Americans of the day:

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 more common triad at the time was “Life, Liberty and Property”]. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the people to alter or to abolish it.