Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Pursuing Happiness

with 3 comments

I have a standard ritual for Sunday mornings.  I get up and put on water to boil for the tea.  I sit down and check a few things online, then do any work I have to do.  I write the blog, if I’m inclined.  I go listen to music.

For what it’s worth, I often have tea left when I go to listen to music, because I have a 40 ounce teacup.  I put two Double Bergamot Earl Grey teabags in it and let them steep for about twenty minutes, fifteen if I’ve been going through one of those periods of caffeine sensitivity. 

I bring this up because I’ve had a couple of quasi-Sunday mornings recently, days when I haven’t had to go out and do anything and have been able to listen to music in the mornings.  And the music I’ve been listening to has been Bach, but not my usual Bach.

Yesterday, I listened to The St. Matthew Passion, Bach’s great choral piece for lent.  This morning, I’m going to put on his D Minor Mass, which is actually written for the Lutheran Church, and not the Catholic one, but Catholics like it anyway.  Unbelievers like it anyway, too.

Part of this is to point out something that I probably should have said yesterday–I don’t worry about whether or not Bach wrote “the best” symphonic music, because Bach didn’t write symphanic music.  He wrote choral music and chamber music, and he’s as good as he gets in both.

As for the symphonic, I think Mozart had it down before Beethoven.  See the Jupiter Symphony. 

But all of this comes around to self-determination, and the pursuit of happiness, and the entire idea of rights and the ways in which a society defines the human. 

So here it goes.

First, I think that the people who are always having fits about self-determination do it for window dressing.  None of them ever seems to actually be concerned with the right of each of us to “pursue happiness,” as Jefferson put it.  Rather, self-determination becomes code for “everybody should be forced to do it my way,” and the magic trick is carried out by simply playing up the stories of people who want to do it the right way and acting as if stories about people who want to do it other ways don’t exist.

So we hear stories about people who desperately want to quit smoking, but never stories about people who have weighed the risks and decided the chance of lung cancer is better than taking anti-depressant meds that suppress their libido, suppress their ambition, and suppress their creativity.

We here stories about people who want abortions and can’t get them, but not the stories of women whose babies test positive for Down Syndrome of Spina Bifuda or other disabilities and birth defects who are under sometimes extreme pressure to abort whether they want to or not.

And don’t tell me that last one doesn’t happen, it happened to me, and I know I’m notiing like the only one.  And in my case, the tests were wrong, and the baby that would have been aborted was Matt. 

But on every contention issue, what we get is carefully screened narratives that illustrate only one side, as if the other side is not possible.

What’s more, it’s logically impossible that one can be both in favor of individual self-determination AND in favor of treating health care, or education, or housing, as a “right.”  If you have a right to health care, your doctor has no right to self-determination.  He has to treat you whether he wants to or not.  Or if he doesn’t, somebody does.

In extreme cases, some people may have to be forced to be doctors or teachers if not enough people are willing to enter those professions to provide everyone with their “right.’

Actually being in favor of self-determination would result in a very different world than the one we’re living in. 

All that said, let me point out that the entire idea of self-determination is a derivative of the Christian concept of the importance of the drama of the individual soul.  Each of us, the Church says, is put on earth to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.

It’s not that the Greeks and the Romans had no concept of the individual, because they did.  What they did not do was see that individual as pristinely separate from the society that created him.  Socrates dies, he tells us, because having taken all the good things his city has given him, having become who he was because the city made him so, he owes the city obedience to its laws, even when it’s wrong.

Maybe it’s the fact the Christianity began as a persecuted minority religion, but it has had, from the start, a strong principle in favor of the primacy of the individual conscience–that is, the right and duty of each individual to obey the laws of God and to resist the laws of man when they violated the laws of God.

Men and women are obliged to obey the civil authorities in all things except sin, St. Paul says–but the implication is obviously that the individual will know sin when he sees it and resist being coerced into practicing it.

This is not some kind of fanticism.  Western Civilization continues to assume its validity, although sometimes schizophrenically.  We did not allow the German officers their defense–I was only following orders!–because we still think there are times when it is necessary to refuse to follow them.

Before you start jumping up and down on my head, I do know that in practice this would wreck and army.  I’m not saying it’s a very practical principle to hold.  I’m just pointing out that we do, in fact, hold it, somewhere there at the bottom of everything.

When one amongst us acts on it, we tend to defend him if we think his cause is just (and the law is unjust), or to deny him by saying that the conflict in question was trivial and therefore didn’t rise to the level of allowing an exception.

In the latter case, when the issue seems to be too big to be called trivial right off the bat, we either say that the person doesn’t believe what he says he believes (the guy who kills abortion doctors doesn’t REALLY believe that the doctors are killing actual babies), or just skirt past the whole question by pretending it isn’t there.  He’s not obeying the law!  He has to!

The principle of the primacy of conscience–the right to self-determination–is very important.  And the fact that we shouldn’t carry it to far, that we can’t have a decent life if we do carry it too far,  doesn’t change the fact that we need it.

It is, for instance, the basis for the modern progress of science.  In order for science to develop as it has for us, we must have men and women willing to say “your ideas are just wrong, and I’m going to prove it.” 

We must have people who believe that finding and declaring the truth is more important than personal relationships, religious beliefs, civil laws, or deference to elders and authorities. 

Without such people, science either develops extremely slowly, or doesn’t develop at all.

The interesting idea to me is not that some people who want to impose their will on the world use “self determination” to hide what they’re getting at, but the possibility that the right to the pursuit of happiness can only be upheld for most people in any society if that society has a strong, overaching and generally accepted understanding of the world that in itself limits the conceivable acts of individuals.

Okay, that sounded fairly convoluted. 

Let’s put it this way–I don’t think that any society can honor the individual right to self determination in most cases unless there are some cases in which it refuses to do so, and these cases are accepted virtually unanimously as simply, unquestionably wrong.

That is, I don’t think that any society can honor most individuals’ right to self-determination if it is morally relativist. 

Moral relativism–the idea that there is no right or wrong, that the Holocaust was right for the Nazis and sex with children is right for the pedophile and we cannot judge o condemn either of them, since their ideas are just different than ours–

Moral relativism actually restricts the right to self determination for more individuals than almost any form of universally accepted objective moral code. 

I have no idea if I’m making that clear.  Maybe I’ll try again tomorrow.

Maybe the question that should follow all that is this:  why is it that so many people assume that any objectively based moral code would automatically have to outlaw  practices they approve of (like, for instance, gay sex, or even abortion)? 

It’s almost as if the people most strongly declaring the impossibility of objective moral standards are actually more sure there is one–and more sure of what it is–than I am.

I really am getting out of it here.

Time to go find the B Minor Mass, and my book on the Middle Ages, and to think about making a gigantic turkey sandwich from the leftovers from last night.

We were very bad, really.  We made this turkey breast, and then I was going to make pilaf and a vegetable, but Greg and I just looked at each other and went at the bird just like that, with oranges to finish.

Bach.  It’s Sunday.

And I’m cold.

Written by janeh

February 7th, 2010 at 8:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Pursuing Happiness'

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  1. “We did not allow the German officers their defense–I was only following orders!–because we still think there are times when it is necessary to refuse to follow them.

    Before you start jumping up and down on my head, I do know that in practice this would wreck an army.”

    This is what you get for not being interested in military history. Armies can and do work on this practice, including, historically, the Prussian Army, which those officers at Nurnberg counted as ancestor to theirs.

    There is an old story of one of Frederick the Great’s engagements, that he ordered a subordinate commander to attack immediately “or I will have your head.” The General replied that “His majesty may have my head after the battle, but during it, I must use it to better serve him.” This was very much part of the tradition Hitler’s generals had inherited. So was Blucher showing up at balls in the illegal uniform of his disbanded regiment. So was Yorck of Warttenburg asking the King of Prussia to his face on what basis his throne would rest if he abolished his nobles’ hereditary priviledge.
    More directly to the point, when Frederick II ordered the pillaging of parts of Saxony and the Electoral Palace, he had to raise a fresh regiment and commission new officers because the old line Prussian officer corps point-blank refused to do it. All of them.
    Prussian officers might draft peasants, beat them for poor drill, and expect them to remain in ranks while those around them were dead or dying, but they were not people you’d order to shoot uniformed prisoners, nor to round up civilians for massacre.
    “Kadaverdiziplin” (probably misspelled) comes with the SS, not the Army, and I’m told has roots in some Jesuit writings.
    In the United States armed forces today, soldiers are required to execute legal orders only, and orders of a superior officer do not constitute a defense in a court-martial. Every soldier is told this in basic training, and again at intervals throughout his career.
    Maybe peripheral, maybe on point: in the aftermath of 9-11, the orders issued by the White House and the Pentagon were that, though people dressed as civilians and engaged as killing civilians were not “lawful combatants” and so covered by the Geneva Conventions, they were at no time to be treated worse than it was permitted to treat members of our own armed forces in our harshest school. To my knowledge, every interrogator or guard who crossed that line was brought up on charges–and again, “orders” were not accepted as a defense.
    If your conscience won’t permit you to kill enemy soldiers, you’d best not consider soldiering for a career. But neither does a good army expect soldiers to pack their ethics away with their civilian clothes.

    Obama talks a lot about “false choices.” Most of it is nonsense. But this realy is one. It does not “wreck an army” for soldiers to hold law and morality above the orders of an immediate superior. To the contrary. At the worst moments, you need something in a soldier you can’t place there by regulation and court-martial. The 300 died in accordance with Sparta’s law, but Sparta had no means of enforcing that law. The hoplites had to find it within themselves.

    “Wreck an army” indeed!


    7 Feb 10 at 9:54 am

  2. Okay, today’s wanderings are really interesting. First you talk about how in controversial issues, one narrative tends to drown out other possible narratives. I think in our culture, we tend to think in binaries. One narrative, the other. Nobody seems to seek a third, fourth, multiple alternatives to a solution. With a binary choice, though, one must be strong, the other weak, depending on the focus of the individual’s interest or their personal past experience.

    Then you mention (briefly) Socrates, and segue immediately into the Christian narrative of man’s individual struggles with salvation. But I think you glitzed over something significant with Socrates, something that is sadly missing in our social narrative today. We’re all about individual rights (and the need of the individual to restrict everybody *else’s* rights) and being privileged to receive from others what we think is ours.

    Nobody EVER talks about what we owe society. That part of the narrative is lost. And no, I don’t mean owing every living cent we earn in taxes. Not that kind of owing.

    I got this kind of crap from my son when he was 16 and all angsty. (is that a word? It is now) “You have to support me until I’m 18.” He didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about what he owed us, of course. Being required to contribute to the household was an intolerable burden, but by damn, we owed him for merely having birthed him. Apparently all those years of diapers and food and shelter and love weren’t enough.

    I grow increasingly weary of the same kind of demands from people who are allegedly grown up and capable of caring for themselves. “Pay for all my health needs.” “Protect me from every danger under the sun.” “Raise and educate my children.” “Entertain me endlessly.”

    But few want to ask what they can contribute to all this. People want protection, but they won’t enlist in the military. They want health care, but they think “Insurance” means that they never have to spend a dime for any care, rather than just being covered for catastrophic care. (if car insurance worked like that it would cost half your income) They dont’ want to actually participate in their children’s education, they just think it should be done for them, but completely to their preference. Hell, half of them don’t even VOTE! But they all think they can complain about the politicians, even though they won’t get off their asses to vote the bastards out.

    Of course there are exceptions to all of these points. Many people do vote, enlist, participate, give back. But the vast majority spend much more time demanding than they do providing.

    And your point that most people never consider what their individual rights might rob from the rights of another is well taken. How to instill a greater empathy and a better understanding of legitimate differences in desires is a huge problem. Thinking first of others when one is surrounded by messages of Me, Me, ME, is asking people to develop skills in a vacuum.

    Wouldn’t it be great if our social conversation got a bit more mature, and became less like a teenager demanding that the world owes them a living, and more like grownups who can think through the consequences of their choices, and who perhaps realized that the blessings we enjoy are worthy of a bit of social return? If we all realized there isn’t just one narrative, or two, but many, on every issue?

    But that’s another planet I’m thinking of. It’s certainly not this one.


    7 Feb 10 at 3:08 pm

  3. Robert, thanks for a very interesting post. And I agree with Lymaree that people seem to have forgotten that they owe something to society.

    A lot of “social” philosophers have strong beliefs in Human rights. But they do acknowledge that no one has a convincing list of rights and the usual suggestions can conflict and no one has a method of resolving conflicts.

    I believe Australia used to have a system of admitting foreign doctors provided they could pass the Australian medical exams. It was a special visa and one of the requirements was that they had to practice in rural towns for some years. It was a solution to the problem of small, isolated towns with no doctors. Were their rights violated by being told where to practice? Perhaps not – they weren’t force to enter Australia.


    7 Feb 10 at 3:51 pm

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