Friday, July 22, 2011

Pursuit of Happiness

John Stuart Mill
I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.
John Stuart Mill 
I was reading the blogs of Jeffrey Carter, an "Independent Speculator" and Stock Market commentator, for the first time today. Most of his blogs are targeted at market traders but one title caught my eye, "Taxing Rich Guys". It makes the usual (conservative) points about how it's the investments from the Rich Guys that fund start-ups, create new businesses and create jobs. By reducing Rich Guy's wealth with higher taxes, you also reduce the available money to create jobs.

But that's old news if you read my blog. What made me sit up was his July 4th observation on the phrase "pursuit of happiness". People interpret this today as a right to happiness itself. That government must somehow save us from every pain and woe. But that is not the original intent. The Founding Fathers wanted the freedom to find happiness on their own terms. Freedom to pursue happiness.

This made me realize that we are far from that ideal today. The government blocks many forms of "enjoyment" - dog fighting, child porn, drugs, fox hunting, etc. You might argue that these are "evil" types of happiness and I would agree. But it's not so easy for society to draw the line between good and bad happiness. Gay sex was once illegal (and still is in some countries). One of the greatest minds in mathematics and computer science, Alan Turing, who helped win World War II by breaking the German Enigma code, was criminally prosecuted in England in 1952 for homosexual acts and died in prison. The British Prime Minister officially apologized for this in 2009. What was once officially banned is now allowed while things that were once allowed, like salty and fatty foods, are now being banned.

Suppose you like the wind in your hair as you ride a motorcycle - sorry not allowed; helmets required.

How should society decide between right and wrong activities for individuals (or consenting groups)?

One option can be found in John Stuart Mill's book, On Liberty, and apply his concept of Self-regarding actions vs Other-regarding actions. One website summarizes this as,
The sole permissible end for individual or collective interference with individual liberty of action is the avoidance of harm to others (other regarding actions). In  matters concerning only oneself, one’s right is absolute (self-regarding actions).  Over oneself, one’s body and mind, the individual is sovereign.  Hence, the following sacrosanct: absolute liberty of conscience, tastes, opinion & speech; limited liberty of pursuits and association (no harm to others clause). 
Another site has this to say,
When a person is only hurting himself or herself, Mill says that people can advise him/her to adopt self-regarding virtues but ultimately, each person has the complete freedom to make their own decision. If a person does not adopt self-regarding qualities, society cannot publicly denounce him/her, although they can hold their own personal negative opinions. These private opinions are what ultimately may hurt a person who is not pursuing what society perceives as his/her own best interests. This is referred to as a natural penalty that is incurred by bad self-regarding interests. In addition to that natural penalty, Mill states that in a harmful self-regarding action, the only harmed person is the perpetrator who in effect, is giving and receiving his own punishment.
Mill agrees in part to the counterargument against his philosophy stating that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to believe that any action can solely affect the agent and will not be relevant to the community. However, he asserts that only when the action brings on the risk or actuality of public damage does society have the right to punish the perpetrator. Mill gives the example of a drunk man who shouldn't be punished for his intoxication unless he is a policeman or similar protector of society on duty and unable to fulfill his duties. In Mill's opinion, if a person's actions have little significance to society, then it is in the best interest of society to allow basic human liberties to prevail.
However even this "simple" concept quickly falls apart. Should animals count as "others"? If so then no fox hunts, dog fights or cock fights. Is it other-regarding if I hurt your feelings or offend in some way but do no physical harm? Some societies ban kissing in public as offensive. 

Bottom Line

What do you think? Should government protect your happiness at the cost of limiting what others may do? Limit your activities in order to protect animals from harm? Should government protect individuals from being offended? Protect people from injuring themselves with "bad" food or "dangerous" hobbies?

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