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Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Golden Rule and the Pursuit of Happiness


I was reading a book on Six Great Ideas by Mortimer Adler. In his chapter on The Domain of Justice, he says that the natural moral law of “seeking the good and avoid evil” has three components. They are as applicable to one’s personal life, as applicable to acting towards others and as applicable to the general welfare of the community. That makes sense.

However, I was totally surprised to learn that “The pursuit of happiness is our primary obligation. Doing what is right with regard to others and doing what is right with regard to the community as a whole are secondary and tertiary obligations.” (Mortimer J. Adler Six Great Ideas. Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1981. Page 193). Now, after all these years, I can understand why the words “pursuit of happiness” secured a place in the Declaration of Independence.

I can also understand how competition can become the driving force when morals are based on this premise. Having taken the position that our primary goal of conduct of personal life should be pursuit of happiness, Adler goes on writing pages and pages about how Truth, Justice, Liberty, and Equality should be interpreted  in the light of  this self-centered view. It is erudite. But it is empty.

What a restricted view to base morality and justice on? How much nobler it will be if we make the Golden Rule as the base instead? This will provide an exact opposite premise. If we want to treat others as we would want them to treat us, we have to acknowledge that we live with others. We do not live in isolated islands. What we do and say will have effect on others. We have to accommodate. We have to share. We have to collaborate.

That does not mean that we have to let others run all over us. Competition is built into our lives. We cannot escape that reality. Seeking food requires competition. Finding a place to live and finding a mate involves competition. We do not have to surrender our individuality and liberty to pursue these sources of happiness. It is just that we acknowledge the liberty of others to do the same.

Let us pursue happiness, by all means. But let us pursue not just material happiness. But also, spiritual happiness. That spiritual happiness is possible only when we pursue whatever we pursue with compassion for others and for the world we live in. I prefer morality and justice based on the foundations of love, compassion and universal welfare and not on competition and “survival of the fittest”.

If any of the readers think I got this all wrong, please share your thoughts and correct me.

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