The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Objectivism and Thomas Jefferson


3. Happiness as Moral Purpose

Having a moral purpose implies that one's purpose in life is within the context of a moral sense, for how can a person conceive of a moral purpose for himself unless he has some concept of what actions, what goals, what intentions, that he may choose lie within the compass of morality? A moral sense is therefore implied when Rand defines man's moral purpose in her famous synopsis:

Right off, we are aware that this is an inadequate definition of moral purpose. Happiness is a universally desired state; no normal human being wants to be unhappy. To say that it is a person's moral purpose says little unless we consider what is his source of happiness. From a philosophical point of view, it is not merely happiness, but the means by which a person achieves happiness that has moral significance. The question really is, Is happiness man's only purpose? Is anything that produces happiness therefore good and desirable? Does happiness take precedence over all other considerations? For example, if knowing the truth makes you unhappy, would your moral purpose be served with a lie?

When we realize that happiness is a nonspecific standard, that what makes one person happy might make another miserable, that what might make a happy Hitler dance a jig can be the most evil, immoral act the world has seen, we then realize that happiness as a moral purpose is essentially meaningless. As a friend pointed out, all of Rand's characters in her novels are happy, regardless of their abominable characters; which all too well illustrates that "happiness" as a moral purpose says virtually nothing. To say that Hitler shouldn't have been happy doing evil only illustrates that this standard--happiness --is abstract and indefinite, and is not an objective standard at all. Happiness, in other words, may mean something different for each and every person. In fact, in a free society, it probably should. But to define moral purpose in terms of happiness says nothing unless we also define by what means the happiness was obtained.

When we consider the moral purpose of an individual, we are considering his existence in its broadest sense. We are asking, What is the purpose of his life? What are the dynamics of his existence? What is it that makes life meaningful? What, indeed, is the point of it all?

To say that it is merely happiness leaves unanswered anything that relates to man's existence in that broader sense. We would hope that human life, lived to its fullest, produces happiness. If it doesn't, then all our efforts are farcical. Yet we are unable to define precisely what, for each individual, will produce that happiness, nor should we. If a man is free, he should be able to pursue his happiness within certain moral restraints, and the basis of those restraints forms the true definition of moral purpose. If we define moral purpose as happiness, what we are left with is just another floating abstraction that has no practicable application and little meaning. At most, therefore, we as a society cannot be specific about happiness, but can only grant to every person the RIGHT TO PURSUE HAPPINESS, to determine what, for himself, that shall be, and to grant the right for him to find out for himself what that shall be within the limits of a society of persons all engaged in the same pursuit. An indispensable part of the moral purpose of an individual, then, is his relationship to others in the society in which he lives. And an understanding of that is important in the study of government, for as Jefferson wrote:

Happiness can never be merely an individual consideration, because individual happiness must be compatible with the happiness of others in a just society. This social relationship is not accidental or incidental; it is an intrinsic part of existence and of the consideration of moral purpose. To pursue happiness while ignoring the social relationship, with its duties and responsibilities, is to seal oneself off from the deeper meaning, as well as the deeper necessity, of what it means to be alive.

Happiness as a moral purpose, therefore, implies a social right to pursue happiness, and considers our relationship to others in society, which involves morality itself. We do not pursue happiness in isolation, but in and through our interactions with others. Thus, moral purpose is not a matter only of that which brings us our own happiness. It is a matter of our moral relationship to others as well. As members of a social group, all of whom are seeking happiness, our happiness necessarily has a link to, a common concern with, the happiness of others in the group.

Man is, above all, a social animal. His happiness is not to be found in isolation from other humans. Without the presence and nurture of others, he would be without language, without the broad based understanding necessary for his fullest development, and without everything that makes him a civilized human being. To ignore this interrelationship is to ignore the most obvious aspect of man's life. It is not possible to formulate a moral purpose for man apart from this fundamental relationship. And thus it is that morality itself--his principles of conduct--relates to his acts towards others.

The whole purpose of morality is to enable us to live in a society of other humans, not merely to seek our own ends. When Rand says that "his own happiness" is the moral purpose of man's life, she thus builds a wall of separation between the individual and society, and narrows her philosophy to one of selfishness and alienation--which, in fact, is borne out by other aspects thereof. But our moral purpose necessarily involves our relationship to others, and our moral sense is, to a great degree, an instinctual part of our being.

    "I believe that justice is instinct and innate, that the moral sense is as much a part of our constitution as that of feeling, seeing, or hearing; as a wise Creator must have seen to be necessary in an animal destined to live in society." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1823.

Rand, however, takes a different course and discounts any innate moral sense.

    Objectivist Moral Values

Rand makes no allowance for a moral sense other than that which comes via reason.

    "You who speak of a 'moral instinct' as if it were some separate endowment opposed to reason--man's reason is his moral faculty. A process of reason is a process of constant choice in answer to the question: True of False?--Right or wrong?" --From Galt's speech.

But why such a simplistic alternative? Why must moral instinct be opposed to reason? Why cannot reason be a supplement to instinct? Certainly, Jefferson would see it as an unreliable supplement, and that a professor following only reason is likely to be "led astray by artificial rules," whereas a ploughman might instinctively do as well or better. Indeed, Jefferson saw brain-based morality as possibly in opposition to a genuine moral sense.

    "The practice of morality being necessary for the well-being of society, [our Creator] has taken care to impress its precepts so indelibly on our hearts that they shall not be effaced by the subtleties of our brain." --Thomas Jefferson to James Fishback, 1809.

In fact, Jefferson sees instinctual morality as a part of the design of Nature and evidence of that design.

    "The moral law of our nature... [is] the moral law to which man has been subjected by his Creator, and of which his feelings or conscience, as it is sometimes called, are the evidence with which his Creator has furnished him." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on French Treaties, 1793.
Suggesting that the only moral values worthy of the name are those determined rationally is contrary to every-day observation. Relying solely on reason can result in a "Dr. Strangelove" kind of thinking, without any humane or natural center, governed by a studied, artificial, abstract ideology. Nevertheless, Rand says,

    "Reason is man's only proper judge of values and his only proper guide to action. The proper standard of ethics is: man's survival qua man--i.e., that which is required by man's nature for his survival as a rational being (not his momentary physical survival as a mindless brute). Rationality is man's basic virtue, and his three fundamental values are: reason, purpose, self-esteem. Man--every man--is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life." --Ayn Rand

Of course, the ultimate standard of ethics is man's survival as fully man! But here again, this is saying nothing until one specifies what that phrase really means. Till then, it is hardly more than saying man=man. When Rand writes,

    "'Man's survival qua man' means the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan--in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice" --"The Objectivist Ethics," p. 24, The Virtue of Selfishness, pb. ed.

she apparently specifies what this standard means, but does she? "The terms, methods, conditions and goals" are unspecific generalities that define nothing. What are they? Who decides? To use a series of non-specific terms to define one non-specific phrase tells us little.

As we have seen, man's survival as man cannot be understood in isolation apart from other men, since all our destinies are tied together. Any philosophy that considers only the individual's happiness apart from social considerations is only a partial philosophy, unworthy of the name of philosophy. But Rand, in effect, denies the existence of man's social nature.

    "A great deal may be learned about society by studying man; but this process cannot be reversed: nothing can be learned about man by studying society--by studying the inter-relationships of entities one has never identified or defined." --Ayn Rand, "What is Capitalism?" Capitalism the Unknown Ideal.

If man's moral purpose does not encompass his indispensable interrelationship with others, then his philosophy provides no necessary support for his not sacrificing others to himself. Forbidding that becomes mere dicta if it is not founded in philosophic necessity. Why should he not sacrifice others to himself if his own happiness is his only guide? Just because he believes that every man is an end in himself? That belief becomes mere dogma if the equal rights of others is not a necessary part of his own existence. And if it is not, why should he heed some sentimental admonition to respect the rights of others? And if it is, then the extent to which he is concerned with the welfare of others becomes a consideration in his own welfare. Indeed, when government is properly conceived, it acts for the general welfare of all.

    "No government has a legitimate right to do what is not for the welfare of the governed." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1792.

Thus it appears that personal happiness that does not include a consideration of others as, taken a moral principle, is a formula for alienating an individual from the world in which he lives. Many individuals readily adopt such a "self-only" principle because it reinforces an anti-social inclination they already feel, i.e., a tendency merely to use others for whatever they can get out of them. Such a principle can be phrased in terms that are laudatory, especially if it includes the idea of not being used oneself, for in truth, no human being was put on this earth to serve the ends of any other.

    "The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God." --Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman, 1826.

And a person's first obligation is surely to himself.

    "If we are made in some degree for others, yet in a greater are we made for ourselves. It were contrary to feeling and indeed ridiculous to suppose that a man had less rights in himself than one of his neighbors, or indeed all of them put together. This would be slavery, and not that liberty which the bill of rights has made inviolable, and for the preservation of which our government has been charged." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1782.

This, however, is a principle of equal rights and liberty, not a justification for social irresponsibility. When a disregard of others is pursued, as it often is in real life, the result is not something noble as portrayed by Rand in her novels, but something destructive, as seen in the pages of our newspapers. When people are led only by their own interests to seek their own ends, they invariably take what they can and run rough-shod over the rights of others. Indeed, the tendency in man is to distort every right and power he can to further his own interests.

    "Mankind soon learn to make interested uses of every right and power which they possess, or may assume." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782.

This we see all too often in the behavior of children who try to do whatever they can get away with. Having a philosophy that justifies such behavior no doubt serves a useful end for such grown-up children. But to serve only his own interests is hardly a moral principle for man. Indeed, it is more often an immoral principle as it seeks gain by whatever means it may. To make self-interest a moral principle can be a self-deluding path to corruption. We act as moral agents when we deal rightly with the other members of society for the mutual benefit of all, not when we focus on our own interests and concerns in disregard of our responsibilities to others.

"Self-interest" could properly be defined as the essence of Ethics, which Rand does. But it would need to be understood in such breadth and depth that it would cancel out the whole principle of selfishness, which Rand does not. Thus we find again, that it is a simplistic idea to define ethics as self-interest. Philosophically, it is to say nothing if the broader context of self is left undefined. The task of philosophy consists in determining wherein lies one's self-interest, and the extent to which participation in society and fulfilling the duties and responsibilities owed to others is actually in our own self-interest.

    The Trader as a Social Model

Rand describes the ideal social relations as follows:

    "The symbol of all relationships among ... men, the moral symbol of respect for human beings, is THE TRADER." --from Galt's speech, in Atlas Shrugged.

This contains a certain appeal to justice and fairness in it as we think of two individuals both interested in exchanging value for value, each wanting something else and willing to give up something of their own for it. On paper, it can have a kind of symmetrical beauty to it. But anyone who has lived through even the brief span of childhood knows that is pure fantasy. The Trader sets out naturally to get the better of the other person to the trade. Without law and regulation, every trade tends to become, not a respect for human beings, but an attempt to cheat the other. As Jefferson noted with respect to human nature in government,

    "If once [the people] become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787.

Moreover, the trader is concerned only with exchange, not with the person. It is, in truth, the ultimate relationship of alienation, with the minimum of contact between human beings as human beings. When the Trader is the basic relationship, economic gain replaces benevolence, concern and respect. This idealization of the Trader may work nicely on paper, in the novelist's imaginary world of contrived relationships, but in the real world, as even a child knows, it is always caveat emptor.

One of the purposes of government is, as much as possible, to protect the people from "The Trader." When morality thinks only in terms of individual happiness (translation: personal gain), and when society is so organized as to foster that principle, the glue that holds society together is undone, and each individual functions as if he were alone in this world. The Trader becomes, not the symbol of the honest exchange, but the spectre of exploitation, the person on the make.

    The Morality of Equality

This nation was founded on the principle that "All men are created equal," which, as a moral principle, acknowledges individual rights, but it also includes an acknowledgment by the individual of the same rights in every other member of society. Moreover, these individual rights are guaranteed, not to each individual separately, but to the whole people, because these rights cannot be secured except on a mass basis. The whole point of the first part of the Declaration of Independence was to show that these inalienable rights were the foundation of rightful government. In composing the Declaration, Jefferson began with the basic rights of human nature, and declared, "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men..." Man may, by nature, be entitled to his inalienable rights, but that is merely an empty promise unless there exists a government that will secure those rights for "all men," jointly and severally. Or, as Jefferson copied into his Commonplace Book from Montesquieu,

    "In the state of nature, indeed, all men are born equal; but they cannot continue in this equality. Society makes them lose it, and they recover it only by the protection of the laws." --Montesquieu: Spirit of the Laws, VIII,c.3.

Man's inalienable rights are inherent, but when he comes together in society, those rights can be secured only under the protection of the laws of rightful government. The Declaration uses plural forms, not singular ones, because man enjoys his rights en masse or not at all.

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Cross References

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