Radical individualism left and right

In 1968, David Frost interviewed Ronald Reagan and Robert Kennedy and asked them to address the purpose of life. For Reagan, it came down to “individual fulfillment.” The government’s job was to get out of the way. For Kennedy, it came down to fulfilling his responsibility to society by helping someone less fortunate.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wrote an article in The Atlantic last year entitled, “The Pursuit of Happiness: What the Founders Meant – and Didn’t.” In it, she reproduces Reagan’s and her father’s complete answers to Frost’s question. Then she implies that Reagan’s idea of life’s meaning – an individual happiness that the government could only threaten but never help to achieve or maintain – led to his anti-government rhetoric. Reagan, she believes, left us with “an unnatural obsession with individualism, a single-minded focus on wealth over work, and an anti-government animus.”

In this post, I’d like to use Townsend as a liberal voice in favor of an Aristotelian notion of “happiness.” I’ll also quote Harry V. Jaffa from his book A New Birth of Freedom  as a conservative voice in favor of the same notion. I’ll point out how neither Townsend nor Jaffa has brought the left or the right to the Aristotelian table. Frankly, the Aristotelian notion of happiness on an individual and societal level, which Jefferson and the Framers were schooled in, seems to scare the hell out of today’s political left and right.

Finally, I’d like to take a closer look (but not a particularly thorough one) at what Aristotle says about happiness – the concept of happiness baked into the Declaration of Independence’s inalienable right. I believe we’re not listening long enough, not letting Aristotle’s position sink in enough.

Townsend briefly examines what Jefferson and the Founders who adopted the Declaration of Independence meant by “happiness.” She recognizes the Aristotelian connection:

Aristotle thought happiness was the goal of human activity. For him, true happiness was something more than simply “Eat, drink, and be merry,” or even the honor of high position. Real satisfaction didn’t depend on the pleasures of the senses or what others thought of you. You could find genuine happiness only in a life of virtue and just actions. President Kennedy alluded to Aristotle when he defined happiness as “the full use of one’s talents along the lines of excellence.”

For the Greeks, excellence could be manifest only in a city or a community. Since human beings were political animals, the best way to exercise virtue and justice was within the institutions of a great city (the polis). Only beasts and gods could live alone. A solitary person was not fully human. In fact, the Greek word “idiot” means a private person, someone who is not engaged in public life. It was only in a fair and just society that can men and women could be fully human – and happy.

I recently complained about President Obama having ceded any comprehensible notion of government before, say, Theodore Roosevelt to his opponents. The public seems to hear only the Tea Party’s Reaganesque version of our nation’s founding. Townsend, however, cedes nothing. She goes on to argue that spending money to improve infrastructure, spur the economy and tax revenue, to lower unemployment would be consistent with the Founders’ notion of happiness, or at least consistent with the worker’s connection with society that is a necessary condition of that happiness.

Now we’ll see Jaffa make the same point as Townsend about Aristotle’s societal and teleological notion of happiness, but with a different emphasis:

A great deal has been written to the effect that because the Declaration of Independence speaks of a right to “the pursuit of happiness,” rather than a right to happiness, happiness itself must be something subjective, something each individual should be free to pursue in his own idiosyncratic manner. The implication is that happiness cannot be a goal of public policy, since there is neither an agreement as to what it is nor a means of proving any one opinion on this question to be superior to any other. A free government is therefore looked upon as one that enables each individual to pursue happiness as he things fit to do, in as unrestrained a manner as possible. But what is idiosyncratic is private, and Jefferson speaks in the Summary View of public happiness. The Declaration itself speaks not only of the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, with which each individual has been endowed by his Creator, but also of the “safety and happiness” which each people collectively attempts to secure when it institutes new government. Clearly, whatever is uniquely individual in the private pursuit of happiness must be consistent with the public happiness and must fit within its framework. (10)

Jaffa’s more conservative viewpoint, then, emphasizes that private, idiosyncratic happiness should not be inconsistent with what Jefferson calls “public happiness.” Hamilton also uses the term “social happiness” in a speech, the context suggesting a parallel with Jefferson’s “public happiness.” And Aristotle in his Politics also insists that the individual’s happiness needs to be consistent with what he calls “the happiness of the state”:

There remains to be discussed the question whether the happiness of the individual is the same as that of the state, or different. Here again there can be no doubt – no one denies that they are the same. (Book 7, part 2)

Jaffa uses the term “radical individualism” for Townsend’s “unnatural obsession with individualism”:

[For Jefferson,] individual rights become valuable only insofar as they result in a good society – a society in which man’s moral and intellectual virtues can find their fullest measure of opportunity. There is in Jefferson none of that radical individualism that sees the rights of the individual transcending and opposing the moral demands of a good society. The opposition between the demands of society and the rights of the individual, so familiar in our time, arose only as those rights were no longer understood to be natural rights subject to the natural law. (27)

The first sentence in this quote might frighten libertarians and others. But Jaffa is suggesting that Jefferson sees a symbiotic relationship between the individual and her government, a kind of upward spiral along which the exercise of individual rights improves the society, which is then more empowered to give opportunity to the individual. I see Jaffa’s and Townsend’s notions of society and government as oriented to individual rights and subject to natural law. But one must be oriented to society to fulfill her individual potential, they seem to say. It’s the unstated benefit in President Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Townsend and Jaffa share the same concern about “radical individualism,” then, and they both envision, in Jaffa’s words, “a society in which man’s moral and intellectual virtues can find their fullest measure of opportunity.” I assume, without any certainty, that Townsend’s understanding of “moral virtues” would emphasize what her father emphasized – actions to help the less fortunate. I assume also, with no more certainty, that Jaffa’s would emphasize private morality.

These two sides of virtue remind me of the Apostle James’s understanding of “religion,” one of the few times that word is used in the New Testament:

Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. (James 1:27, KJV)

James here summarizes two strains of duty that frequently recur in the Old Testament’s Book of Isaiah – private and public virtue. The verse also summarizes Townsend’s understanding of Aristotelian happiness: “a life of virtue and just actions.” But in America today, the left is suspicious of the right’s championing of private virtue, and the right is suspicious of the left’s championing of public virtue.

The fact is, the conservative social agenda makes no sense outside of the liberal understanding of society and government. If government needs to just get out of the way – if government has no positive role in an individual’s happiness – then why champion ideals of life and marriage in a national party’s platform? And if the Founders intended for government to have a role in an individual’s happiness, as both Townsend and Jaffa suggest, then why wouldn’t the government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” take steps to connect underprivileged individuals with that society?

Likewise, a liberal understanding of society and government cannot survive forever without what Washington called in his first inaugural address “the pure and immutable principles of private morality.” Why? Washington cited the “indissoluble union between virtue and happiness” in support of his proposition. We may exist in some form without private morality, but our society’s capacity to provide the “fullest measure of opportunity” to advance people’s moral and intellectual virtues would shrink to fit each individual’s diminishing desire for moral and intellectual virtue.

I’m not trying here to solve the abortion issue or the public works question. I’m not even defining virtue and action, though the Greeks and the Founders said much about them. I’m suggesting that a common understanding of the goals and means of society and government through our inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness and, more generally, through a proper understanding of the Founders may help us connect with government again.

A common understanding of happiness itself may come by combining Reagan’s and Kennedy’s responses to Frost’s question.

Frost asked them about the meaning of life. Each responded with parts of what Aristotle would describe as happiness. (Aristotle would have liked that: he thought happiness was the meaning of life.) Reagan got the design aspect and end result aspect right. For Aristotle, people are happiest when they are fulfilling their design. So when Reagan mentioned “what God intended,” he was expressing prior design. Aristotle also thought that people couldn’t know if they are truly happy until close to the end of a long life. Unlike pleasure, happiness is end-oriented, or teleological, in nature. When Reagan was describing “our national purpose,” he was using teleological language.

For his part, Kennedy captured the Greek requirements of action as well as engagement with society for an individual’s – and therefore a society’s – happiness.

Imagine “a society in which man’s moral and intellectual virtues can find their fullest measure of opportunity” (Jaffa). Or “a fair and just society that can men and women could be fully human – and happy” (Townsend). Neither the Greeks’ direct democracy, nor Aristotle’s class-structured government, nor our own current government in which only the rich can determine elections and legislation captures it. A government by and for the people would.

[Three good resources on the Aristotelian notion of happiness are here, here, and here.]