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.