Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Freedom or Happiness?

Posted by Michael Dickens on June 15, 2010

The foundational tenet of morality is to do the most good for the most people. The individual, while important in some sense, is only relevant in terms of the community as a whole. But similar to the question of individual versus collective happiness is the question of happiness versus liberty.

It shall go without saying that the moral thing to do is to try to make the world better — more specifically, to do the most good for the most people. After that, the natural question to ask is, what is “good”? Two very important ideals of goodness (which unfortunately are sometimes in conflict) are freedom and happiness.

What is happiness? Moral philosophers have been asking this question for a while, and John Stuart Mill was one of the first to provide some really good answers. He proposed the concept of higher and lower pleasures. Some sorts of pleasure, such as that derived from reading great literature, is more desirable than other sorts of pleasure, such as eating very delicious cake. Happiness, to put it simply, is a quantification of desires, with preference given to higher pleasures.

Freedom is comparatively simple to define. Freedom may be defined as the ability to dictate one’s own actions. (I use the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ interchangeably).

Both of these are important things to have, and highly valued by nearly everyone. But the question arises: which is more important?

Unfortunately, we sometimes have to make that choice. Brave New World paints a picture of a future in which liberty is restricted and voluntarily relinquished in order to maximize happiness; it makes a pretty convincing case for choosing freedom over happiness.

On the other side of the spectrum, consider the prospect of absolute freedom. Imagine that no one restricts the actions of anyone else. Greed and selfishness will rule. When given complete freedom, you get Lord of the Flies.

A thoughtful analysis reveals that happiness is the ultimate ideal. Freedom, much like individualism, is useful as a means to happiness and therefore can appear on the surface to be more important than happiness. This illusion is further reinforced by the elusive nature of happiness. The most obvious form of happiness is physical pleasure, which is fun but leaves no lasting impression and is generally not considered a “higher” pleasure. However, this is not true happiness. Although physical pleasure or other low-brow forms of happiness grant a great deal of immediate pleasure, they do not provide as much long-term satisfaction as accomplishing a difficult task, or reading a great novel, or studying philosophy. If we expand how we think of happiness, we may find that it is more important than freedom.

Even if you are being forced to be happy, the happiness is not as complete as if you had found it on your own. Forced pleasure cannot measure up to free pleasure.

It was Benjamin Franklin, one of the great proponents of freedom, who spoke those eternal words: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” These words may seem to be making a compelling argument for liberty over happiness (a.k.a. safety); however, this is not so. Notice usage of the words “essential” and “temporary”: the happiness potentially provided by essential liberty will far outweigh the short-term pleasure obtained from temporary safety. In this case, liberty is a means to happiness, but still not important in itself. Franklin may have disagreed with this last point, but Franklin would have been wrong.

Freedom may seem terribly important, but it is only so as a means to happiness. Often freedom is chosen over happiness, and this is indeed a wise choice; however, this freedom is used to ensure long-term happiness and is thus far more valuable than a short-term comfort such as safety. Freedom on its own is of no importance. Let loose in the universe, with no means to happiness, life would have no meaning. But when one has the deep satisfaction that comes from growth and accomplishment, now the world has a purpose. Higher pleasures are not possible without a certain degree of liberty, and thus we find ourselves striving for freedom; but freedom, if these higher pleasures did not lie behind it, would be empty and meaningless.

In a future post (and possibly more after that), I will further discuss the dilemma of freedom and happiness. I invite discussion on this critical issue, and propose the following questions:

Which is a more important goal — freedom or happiness?

How do you define freedom? What about happiness?

Is true happiness possible without freedom?

Is true freedom possible without happiness?

How important is it (if at all) to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures?

Is freedom or happiness perhaps not the ultimate goal? What else could be?

Please do not restrict yourself to these questions. Any discussion regarding freedom and happiness is welcomed.

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9 Responses to “Freedom or Happiness?”

  1. 3 quotes

    1.”Freedom may be defined as the ability to dictate one’s own actions.”

    2. “Greed and selfishness will rule. When given complete freedom, you get Lord of the Flies.”

    3. “Franklin may have disagreed with this last point, but Franklin would have been wrong.”

    3 Comments

    1. “You have the freedom to jeopardize your own freedom, but once you jeopardize your own freedom, you no longer have the freedom to jeopardize your own freedom.” Scott Hyland (Author of The Five Laws of Liberty)

    2. This statement implies that humans are inherently evil. Was that your intention?

    3. Be cautious declaring that Franklin was wrong b/c my first response is who do I believe one of the greatest American thinkers of all time – Ben Franklin or Michael Dickens?

    Finally, if you have the time, check out http://www.fivelawsofliberty.com. My book – The Five Laws of Liberty will be released in July and I spent almost 210 pages defining freedom. You might want to check it out.

    • 1. I like this quote. So does this mean that once you jeopardize your own freedom, you are no longer free?

      2. I wouldn’t say that humans are inherently evil, but I would say that humans are inherently greedy and selfish. Not all the time, but a lot of the time, and that’s enough to cause problems. And it’s not just me; William Golding agrees with me.

      3. Franklin was a great thinker; I don’t deny it. But he wasn’t infallible. I’m sure that anyone could find plenty of points where they disagree with Franklin, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to change their minds on those points simply because Benjamin Franklin believed one thing or the other.

      Your book looks quite intriguing. I’ll add it to my reading list.

  2. Atle said

    I just now surfed across your keyboarding stuff, love it, and am following the links.

    This topic seems interesting too, but I disagreed with your line of thinking here …

    “Happiness versus liberty. .. It shall go without saying that the moral thing to do is to try to make the world better — more specifically, to do the most good for the most people. ..”

    Rather, in order to make the world a better place, one MUST prefer certain individuals over certain other individuals. The ‘greater good’ requires imbalance, or rather, dynamic equalibrium. The good requires one to give resources to those individuals who are more likely to use these resource towards the empowerment of as many people as possible, and oppositely remove resources from those individuals who are more likely to use them to selfishly empower oneself only. In short, in order to make the world a better place, we must empower symbiotes and disempower predators. But we must also ensure that the lazy (selfish) powerless remains powerless.

    Moreover, what is healthy for one individual is toxic for another individual. Compare raising children. One child must have structure, or lose direction and become abusive. Another child must have freedom, or suffocate. The difference between individuals makes the ‘collective’ good a difficult challenge indeed, and this good has nothing whatsoever to do with conformity.

    The only opportunity to do good happens when one individual gains insight into the unique needs of another individual, and not only makes an effort to ensure that need it met but more importantly teaches that individual how to use their unique talents to empower yet others, others who the first one could never have helped.

    With the needs so each individual so different, and the desires of each individual to share fulfillment, so different, the individual is the foundation of anything that can ever be called good.

    • Atle said

      Also ..

      Freedom is a prerequisite for goodness.

      One cant do good, unless one freely choose to do good. If someone forces one to do good, that action cant be good. The motivation becomes selfpreservation, thus selfish.

      That said, submitting to do a compulsory good is at best neutral. One must keep oneself alive in order to do future good (when free to do so). The greater good itself negotiates a reasonable amount of selfpreservation.

      In any case, the assumed choice between ‘freedom’ and ‘greater good’ is a false choice. Without freedom, good is impossible.

      • I would argue that forced good is good, but it is less desirable than free good because it is unsustainable. I should actually write a blog post about that, as I think it’s a rather important concept. Watch for it.

    • I completely agree with you, and I don’t think that this is inconsistent with my beliefs on morality. Preferring certain individuals over others does do the most good. Giving resources to those who are likely to do good with it will have a positive feedback effect, so the total good is greater than if the resources were given to those more disposed to do evil.

      [W]hat is healthy for one individual is toxic for another individual. Compare raising children. One child must have structure, or lose direction and become abusive. Another child must have freedom, or suffocate. The difference between individuals makes the ‘collective’ good a difficult challenge indeed, and this good has nothing whatsoever to do with conformity.

      Once again, I agree. Collective good is very difficult to achieve because there are so few collective needs — each individual has her own wants and needs. In a previous post, I argued the necessity of individual liberty as a means to collective gain.

  3. Michael,

    You may remember me from comments left this past summer. Just wanted to let you know that for a short period of time my publisher has made available a complimentary digital copy of my book at http://www.fivelawsofliberty.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=60&Itemid=54. Check it out and feel free to let your readers know as well.

    Thanks,
    Scott Hyland (Author of The Five Laws of Liberty)

  4. anon said

    >Higher pleasures are not possible without a certain degree of liberty, and thus we find ourselves striving for freedom; but freedom, if these higher pleasures did not lie behind it, would be empty and meaningless.

    What if one seeks to be free for freedom alone? There are no higher pleasures behind it, except to be left in peace.

    Would it then be empty and meaningless?

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