Universal Ethics > Thought of the Month > May 2019


Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Are these universal principles or only local to a particular time and nation?

"Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" is a well-known phrase in the introduction of the United States Declaration of Independence. It was taken from the draft written by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote a slightly longer phrase: "...preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness..."

Was this meant to be applicable only to 13 English colonies that existed along the East coast of North America in 1776, so that life would be preserved only in that generation, and only within those colonies? What would happen if those principles were applied across unlimited time and space? Let's take a closer look at those concepts...

1. Life

If we consider the preservation of life across unlimited time, then it becomes necessary not only for the current generation of people to live to the end of their natural lives, but for their offspring to live as well, for unlimited generations. Likely Thomas Jefferson had people in mind rather than plants or animals, but nevertheless it would also be necessary to preserve the ecology. So plants and animals must continue across generations as well.

If ethical behavior is to fulfil this condition, then the recommended behavior must be such that life continues to exist. Behaviors that cause life to be annihilated from the planet would not be acceptable.

In the NewWorld computer simulation, various behaviours are tested to determine if life will continue across generations. The simulation includes simple forms of animals that act as herbivores or carnivores, as well as more complex group-forming animals. If only the simple kinds of animals exist, there are nevertheless certain kinds of behavior that are necessary to perpetuate life, such as territoriality behavior of animals to preserve their supply of food.

When group-forming animals are added to the simulation, we can also test behaviors such as peaceful cooperation, warring, cheating, and generosity. Although there are different combinations of behavior that can be perpetuated across generations, there are some behaviors that tend to give a group more solidarity, resulting in more power, dominance, and control of their future. Moreover, for that to happen in the most effective way, the cooperative behaviors have to apply across all animals capable of forming groups.

Over the history of the world, people have developed cooperation within individual nations, but they have not had much capacity to cooperate across nations. This has resulted in perennial wars in pretty much every generation. Within the last century, large nations had developed incredible capabilities, including nuclear weapons that have the capability to destroy the whole world. So we see that if continuation of life is to be a goal of ethical behavior, it is necessary to go beyond ethics applied locally within nations but not between them. It is necessary to have universal ethics.

2. Happiness

I will skip "Liberty" for a moment to address happiness first. Happiness in a person or animal is a sense of satisfaction within their life, which might be conceived of as an accumulation of joys and the absence of misery. While it might be possible for life to survive with only a very marginal, bare subsistence level of happiness, people generally don't consider that kind of life to be worthwhile. Some primitive animals may find that to be sufficient, but people have evolved with desires beyond mere survival. For happiness, a person needs to satisfy curiosity, have friendship and love, among other things. It is those motives and the ability to learn and cooperate that have given people dominance over the earth. Those are traits we would expect to evolve in any world in which life exists, eventually. Not surprisingly, most humans have those abilities to a large extent.

It is not possible to guarantee happiness to any given person; a major reason for that is that some people can be very hard to please. But we can agree on conditions in which people might undertake what they wish for happiness--in other words to "pursue happiness."

For simpler animals, who inevitably live by preying on each other, there are obvious limitations in their happiness overall. However, some animals such as pets and domesticated animals can be given a happier life by the decisions that their owners make for them, so that fits within the realm of ethics as well.

Within the NewWorld simulation, happiness is used as an additional goal beyond survival, by rating success scores for various motives that are typical of people and animals. For ethical standards, we seek behavior that results in widespread happiness over time and space, and not merely survival.

3. Liberty

Ethical standards will have some prohibitions and some obligations, but for ethics to be practical it is necessary to allow some flexibility for each person to make decisions within the the prescribed boundaries.

No person is in the exact same situation as any other person, and nor would we wish for each person to be doing the exact same things. We benefit by having differentiation, so that some people learn medicine, others learn engineering, plus many other roles. That enables the overall knowledge and capabilities available in a society to be much greater than if there was an exact prescribed routine that each person is obligated to follow at all times. When individuals are free to choose for themselves according to their interests and talents, this produces a much more satisfactory result.

If you could imagine a world in which it is prescribed exactly for each person when each person is to eat each meal, exactly what is to be eaten and how much, and when their sleep must start and end, and where exactly they are to be at each minute of each day, according to a single prescribed set of rules, think what the result would be! It would not be happiness, because some people will need more food than others, some will need more rest than others, some have different preferences for what they enjoy, etc.

Liberty is necessary for happiness, and perhaps it could be embedded within the concept of happiness, but it is so important that it deserves to be singled out, as Thomas Jefferson did in his famous phrase.

- Arthur de Leyssac, May 2019


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