Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness; or Methods on Dying

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that we are endowed “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  As I experience the world, there are certain people that consider one of these as having a higher priority than the others.  For better or for worse, I think most people consider the right to life as the most valuable.  But I also want to suggest that whichever right people hold more valuable, they live a certain way.  More than that, they also die a certain way too.  To show how, let me give a thought experiment:

Suppose that you’re driving by yourself in a secluded area.  You come across a stop light and you’re patiently waiting for the light to turn green.  All of the sudden, there’s a man standing outside your car.  He has a gun and he’s pointing it at you.  He motions you to roll down the window, then he says, “I’m going to get in the car and you’re going to drive until I say stop.  If you don’t do what I say, I’m going to shoot you.”  What would you do?  The way you answer this question depends on which unalienable Right you consider having a higher priority.

I’m assuming that most people would let that person in the car and drive.  Indeed, most rape victims were given the option of being raped or being killed.  The rape victims take the lesser of the two evils: they’d rather be raped than be killed.  These people consider life very valuable.  Think of the Holocaust.  These survivors went through extreme brutality and expended a lot of energy just to simply survive.  Even through these gruesome trials and tribulations, these people valued life.  We often say that if our government was being tyrannical, we would fight the government.  I honestly don’t think we would.  It’s because I think most people value life more than anything.  If people would truly fight a tyrannical government, then why didn’t the Jews fight back?  I think it’s because they knew they would die if they did.  Thus, life is the most important unalienable right to have.  It seems that most people have this mentality.

So how do people live?  It seems that they just lead a not too exciting life.  They aren’t big risk-takers, because that might be a risk to life.  And they generally do what they can to keep going?  It’s a very ordinary life.  How would you die?  I think you would fear it.  You would hold on to life as much as you can, and you would try to prolong your life, even if it was a miserable one.  You’d still suffer through it and try to keep going.  In other words, an ordinary death.

What if instead of life being the most valuable right, it was liberty?  These people risk-takers.  They generally don’t like to play by the rules or laws because that restricts their liberties.  I would imagine these people as being extreme like bounty hunters or gangsters.  Notice that their life is at stake, but it doesn’t matter because liberty is more valuable than life.  I remember teaching ethics and we were discussing war.  I asked the class to be honest and if they lived under a tyrannical government, how many of them would acquiesce?  Almost all of them said they would except for one.  He said he would rather die than to live under a tyrannical government.  That student values liberty than life.

So how would you live?  Because you’re a risk-taker, you’re going to do things that are more crazy.  At the same time, I think you would also be more creative and you’re putting your life on the line, so to speak.  Think of Marin Luther King, Jr.  He valued liberty very much.  So much so that he risked his life for it.  He even died for it.  People who have radical ideas are making liberty a higher priority than life because usually with radical ideas, they aren’t accepted and so their life may be on the line.  It seems that those who value liberty more than life are the most famous people in history.  Socrates is another example.  He was given the choice to live but not do philosophy.  Socrates said he would rather die than not philosophize and that’s what he did.  Thus, how you die plays a bigger role.  You would die for your beliefs because those are valuable.  I would say that the risk-takers seem to value liberty rather than life too.  Thus, they see death as a means.  If death means it will propagate the idea even further, they’ll die for it.  William Wallace is another great example.

What about the pursuit of happiness?  These people will do anything to get happiness, or at least try to obtain it.  It can be short-lived such as sexual gratification or drug usage, or more of a long-term status such as going through long love affairs or going on a lot of vacations.  These people seem to go out a lot like skiing, hiking, going to new restaurants, new bars, new clubs, and generally new activities.  However, they seem to live life not as it’s passing them by.  They are actively engaged in living life.  They don’t let happiness come to them; they actively seek out happiness.  They plan out their lives to make sure they obtain happiness.  Indeed, the only reason they work is so that can use that money for fun, to gain happiness.  A good example of this is Don Juan.  He’s doing what he can to become happy.  I would also say that people who love to get involved in social activities (like the opera, plays, museums) are seeking happiness.

So how do you live?  It seems that these people are somewhat risk-takers but not to the extreme of the liberty-pursuers.  The people who seek happiness live life to the fullest, I would imagine.  They can be happy superficially (like drug users), or they can be genuinely happy (like Epicurus).  They seem to be more social or at least get involved in more social activities.  Perhaps they’re social butterflies, but they’re much more active in life too.  How do they die?  It seems that these people have a bucket list and they’ll do anything to fulfill those goals.  They’re goal in life to not only live life, but to experience it.

In short, this is how I see it:

Those who value life: they live and die in ordinary ways.

Those who value liberty: they live in risky situations and they die for their beliefs.

Those who value the pursuit of happiness: they experience life to the fullest and they die happy, without any fear.

Where are you?  Again, try this thought experiment: you have some extra free time, what would you do?

Those who value life: nothing ordinary.  Simply stay home, perhaps go to a friends house and just hang out.

Those who value liberty: they either fight against some social tyranny, or they make some public condemnation against a social practice.  They put their life on the line.

Those who value the pursuit of happiness: they make sure their free time is spent well by just packing up and going on vacation somewhere, perhaps even spontaneously.  They get on and find a quick affair, or perhaps they find a party to go to.  Maybe they go to a club with a bunch of friends, or a bar.  Whatever it is, they’re having a good time.

And that, my friend, is how to live and die.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Epicurus, Paper Topic, Rights, Values. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness; or Methods on Dying

  1. Handsome Matt says:

    Interesting points. But I think to break them into so cut and dry delineations might not do full justice to one’s position. Look at William Wallace, who supposedly wanted to do nothing more than raise a family and grow crops. Here was a man willing to die for his beliefs, but wanting nothing more than to live life.

    Or take Dietrich Bonhoffer: an avowed pacifist who chose to attempt an assassination on Adolf Hitler. Here was a man who believed in the right to life, but chose to die for what he believed in.

    Or Frances of Assisi, who pursued happiness, but then chose to devout himself to a life in pursuit of life.

    I think Jefferson meant for all three to be equal. One cannot be happy if one is dead, nor can one be happy under tyranny. And why live and be happy if one doesn’t have the freedom to enjoy it?

    This is the triangle to judge life by: If one side is removed the whole thing collapses. And if one has a measure of all three (the freedom to use adultfriendfinder, to find someone to enjoy life with for example) then that is the best life.

    • shaunmiller says:

      That’s a good point and it’s something that I should consider. I was thinking that living a life to the fullest is so rare these days. We often say we must live our life to the fullest and use our full potential. Yet, when we look at history, we can only name a handful of people who’ve done that. So why is living life to the fullest so rare? I was thinking that maybe it’s because we’re more comfortable with the right to life rather than the other rights. I might go with that, but you’re offered me a good challenge.

      • Handsome Matt says:

        All my examples were of individuals guilty of living life to the fullest. Of pursuing something beyond their own needs and desires.

        Maybe the secret to living a full life is to look beyond oneself. To believe in something larger and more worthwhile than one life.

      • Handsome Matt says:

        I think in a way you are in fact right

  2. While I am The Happiest Person I Know, and I do live an active life, I wouldn’t describe myself as “pursuing” happiness. But i definitely live life happy, free of fear.

    Happiness is inside us all, we just need to let it unfold.

    I think we are all a combination of the three categories, with maybe one being the strongest.

    You cover some interesting points and, for at least the next few days, I’ll wager I’m categorizing people according to this post!

    Live Life Happy!

  3. Pingback: What I’ve Learned this Past Year — 2010 Edition « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

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