In 1761, an American patriot who subsequently has been long lost to history, the esteemed Boston jurist James Otis Jr., first applied John Locke’s philosophy to the colonial predicament. He espoused that mankind, in a state of nature, has a natural right to “life, liberty and property.” Otis injected the phrase into the colonial lexicon and simultaneously sparked what would become the American revolution.
Fifteen years later Thomas Jefferson, in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, borrowed the phrase from Otis. However, in the final draft he substituted the word “property” with the words “the pursuit of happiness.” He had a noble purpose: he feared southern slaveholders would interpret the use of the word “property” with a perpetual right to own slaves.
Jefferson was a slaveholder himself who, unlike George Washington, did not have a last-minute bout of good conscience and free his slaves upon his death. He remained personally unrepentant even after his demise, thus demonstrating a profound hypocrisy in his purposeful change of Otis’s original phrase. But perhaps the fact that he was a slaveholder was enough reassurance to southern overlords that the change was benign, thereby clearing a path to ratification of the document.
However, the longstanding effect of his change of phrase has doomed America. The vagueness of declaring that everyone may pursue their own “happiness” has morphed into a hedonistic paradigm unique to the United States. The American concept of “Rugged Individualism” took hold wherein everyone is an island unto themselves, independent of the collective, with the sole purpose of achieving happiness for oneself, viewing others as the competition.
The creed of hedonism holds that human behavior is controlled by a striving for pleasure and an avoidance of unpleasantness. In classical philosophy hedonism was conceived of as the rationale for every human activity, and in America the “pursuit of happiness” in its Declaration of Independence has essentially legislated this principal, causing it to take root in every aspect of American life. Social Darwinism is its evil twin, and it has resulted in institutionalized racism, wage gaps, a broken health care system, human rights violations in immigration, sexism, ageism, unmitigated gun ownership, and on and on. It’s “all for me and damn the collective.” The current debate on whether to wear a mask in public during a worldwide pandemic is just one of its latest perversions.
Modern psychotherapy has jumped aboard this ship whose port-of-call is the ever-unreachable land of Happiness. The sole purpose of individual therapy is to relieve the effect of traumatic experience in oneself and accept the injustice heaped upon us as a result of the suffering of others, which must be disregarded in order to be happy (e.g., “their abuse of me is their problem, not mine”). Even the concept of empathy has morphed into a type of projection where we assume qualities in others as a pathological reflection of ourselves. Defined empathy is now a defensive process allowing one to be aware of one’s deficiencies by seeing it in others. Sympathy has withered into a form of self-help.
This has also led to the insipid and unfruitful aesthetic conception of art solely as a source of pleasure. In fact, art, like science, is the noble pursuit of an understanding of the human condition. An examination of society’s ills. But in America a comprehension of works of art have been reduced to a single, scalable variable. It has been reduced to pretty pictures and pleasurable sensations. A movie, for instance, is regarded as no more of a work of art than a roller coaster ride.
The cure for this societal disease is the realization that happiness is not, in fact, a pursuit. It’s right in front of us. It is ever-present and achieved by overcoming self-obsession and instead contributing to the welfare of others. By doing so an individual realizes that every personal action will affect the surrounding community, and thus his or her problems are universal and that individual issues melt away when one loses oneself by contributing positively to the collective. By catering to the interests of others we are in fact helping ourselves. This is the only path to overcoming Jefferson’s profound lapse of judgement and defeating the evils that plague our society.