Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: Thomas Jefferson’s holy triad. Democratic man’s three most sacred values, right?

Sometimes, when we want to say that something has great value, we call it sacred and we say that it is “more sacred than life itself.” But what is the relationship between Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Is there a hierarchy?

Some - for example Patrick Henry and the  New Hampshire’s motto - say that Liberty is more important than Life itself. Such professed idealism implies that it is your OWN life which you would be willing to sacrifice for freedom. But to most people, it makes a big difference whether the life to be sacrificed for a greater good is their own or somebody else’s.

Life is a poor example of a “sacred value,” even though linguistic convention often puts the words “life” and “sacred” together.

Life has never been sacred. In the laws of nature, the destruction of life in the service of other ends (if only to sustain or save other lives) has been the prime directive. Life has always been a means to other ends.

Furthermore, the VOLUME of life being destroyed has increased dramatically over the centuries, to the point where industrial civilization destroys more plant, animal and human life in one day than the tribal world did in a thousand years. Even two hundred years ago, the major historical battle of Yorktown took twenty-seven American lives - about half as many as were lost to “free” the freighter Mayaguez from the Cambodians at the end of the Vietnam war. The entire Napoleonic wars, which lasted fifteen years, cost the British Empire 6000 lives, which is about one day’s fatalities in the Indo-Pakistani conflict of the 1940s.

Even more important has been the change in attitude towards life. Two opposite trends have characterized modern society: On the one hand, modern medicine, scientific progress and the betterment of the human condition have in many cases admirably improved and lengthened human life. On the other hand, life has also been treated with increasing disrespect and inhumanity. Modern society creates bureaucracy, metropolises, mechanized warfare, crime, anonymity. The callousness with which life is treated in the modern world often exceeds the way it was treated in the past.

So, life is a bad example of a sacred value. Modern society holds other things more sacred. Unlike earlier civilizations, the most sacred realm today is not religion either. No. The true ends in themselves which most of us have learned never to question are material well-being, wealth and pleasure. We call this happiness, a euphemism for money.

Today, the vast majority of mankind “pursues happiness,” meaning $, or €, or ₤, or ₣, or fl, or some other denomination. To this end, all other values become means, including life itself. In their pursuit of happiness, corporations sacrifice other people’s lives by polluting the world, causing cancer and black lung. Gangs, drug lords and organized criminals also sacrifice other people’s lives in their pursuit of happiness. In Communist regimes, the pursuit of happiness takes other people’s lives through different means, including militarism and police state totalitarianism. Whenever the US and other powers go to war, they sacrifice thousands of lives for the protection of commerce. And then there is the Third World, which is now also engaged head over heels in the pursuit of happiness. There it takes the form of urbanization, industrialization, militarization, chronic war, revolution, terrorism, bloodshed, sometimes in the name of liberation of the oppressed, sometimes in the name of law and order, but in truth always with economic objectives.

So everyone pursues happiness. The assumption is that the current inhabitants of Calcutta, Sao Paolo or the South Bronx, because they pursue happiness, are therefore closer to it than were, say, the Pueblo or Sioux Indians hundred and fifty years ago, who were NOT pursuing happiness.

Are there any other sacred values which compete with money as today’s ultima ratio? Sex and love perhaps? How about science and technology? Or art and beauty? Truth? For a few deviants here and there - artists, philosophers , martyrs - one of these may occasionally be the ultimate value.

As far as sex and love are concerned, society has pretty much separated the two from each other. Sex is often a means to economic ends. I am not speaking of prostitution. I mean that marriage is largely an economic arrangement. Similarly, science and technology are rarely motivated by a pure thirst for knowledge and truth. They, too, are generally motivated by a desire to come up with a more efficient solution to a practical problem, in other words by economic incentives. As to freedom, most people now understand this to mean the freedom to take and to exploit, without accountability. To most people, freedom means a free lunch, getting without giving.

Conspicuously lacking in today’s dominant ideology is the notion of justice, particularly economic justice. Consider the fact that the average net worth of African-Americans is one twentieth (5%!) of that of white Americans. And the economic advantage of the one-percenters continues to grow. Not to mention the even more insane worldwide inequities. Yet, the catchwords “freedom” and “liberty” nearly always trump any talk of justice and equality, which is dismissed as prompted by envy, laziness or some other defect. leave comment here

© Tom Kando 2015