The Search for Happiness

WILLIAM PFAFF

October 11, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- The latest papal encyclical has disappointed the press by dealing with morality in terms of principle rather than practice. The press was waiting for more exciting stuff. As a BBC presenter genially and condescendingly asked before the document was published, would the pope ''declare himself infallible'' on questions of people's sexual behavior?

The pope said something less interesting to the press but more radical. He said that there are absolute values in the order of existence, and things that are intrinsically evil. This is radical in the American context because it contradicts an individualism that dominates both left and right -- on the left a radicalism of individual choice, on the right a radicalism of economic individualism and total market freedom.

Among the intrinsic evils, the pope said, is ''all that is opposed to life itself . . . that constitutes a violation of the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and moral torture, psychological constraint, all that offends the dignity of man, such as sub-human living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, commerce in women and children, degrading working conditions that reduce workers to mere tools. . . .''

The pope included abortion in the list of those things that ''are opposed to life itself,'' but it is difficult to argue with that. However, the list as a whole is not one with which Americans of either ideological right or left can be entirely comfortable.

The question of whether absolute rather than relative values exist is often linked to whether God exists, but it is in fact a question that has to be addressed whether there is a God or not, since social and political policy choices are always made on the basis of assumptions about good and evil. Public policy or social goals may not today be defined in these moral terms, but moral choices, implicit or otherwise, lie behind the decisions that are taken.

The pope's argument is the one generally accepted in our civilization until modern times, that the natural order and a natural law are of divine origin. However, a purely philosophical affirmation of the existence of absolute values, or unchanging first principles, has been a part of the Western tradition at least since Aristotle.

Attempts since then to reformulate value systems in purely rational or philosophical terms have tended to produce results -- resembling the older religious conceptions of morality and human worth. The concept of human rights, for example, proclaimed in the American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, rests on the assumed existence of natural rights and natural law.

Today, in Western society, this idea that there is a natural order from which we can deduce ''laws'' and ''rights'' is widely challenged. People argue that everyone is and should be free to do whatever he or she wants. The caveat usually added is that doing what one wants should not harm others. However, personal and sexual relationships today, not to speak of business or state conduct, do not in practice seem that often to reflect grave scruples about hurting others.

The original argument that the greatest good for the greatest number would result from collective individual searches for happiness -- that of Jeremy Bentham, the 18th-century English philosopher (but it is recognizable as a free-market idea) -- was criticized at the time for its implicit hedonism. In practice, it has proved to take insufficient account of the consequences of differences in power between the different individuals wanting conflicting things.

Today we have a new situation. The search for happiness goes on, but cut off from its original philosophical (or theological) foundations, becoming, as a practical result, a radical and individualist hedonism. In the last quarter-century, radical individualism and hedonism have taken over American society. During its early years, the United States reflected a mixture of religious and Enlightenment principles. The United States' New England origins were religious. The period of the Revolution and the drafting of the Constitution were greatly influenced by Enlightenment thought.

The American cultural and political leadership would seem to have remained predominantly religious in belief until the early 20th century. The American population itself continues today, overwhelmingly, to profess a belief in God. Until the 1960s, public life, public policy, the conduct of the judiciary, all took place within a framework of generally acknowledged values, whose religious and philosophical origins could readily be recognized. That has not been true since.

In recent years, in the United States, there have been a number of attempts to reformulate in purely rational terms a basis for judgments on contentious public and legal issues. These have not yet had much influence upon the political debate, dominated now by values of radical individualism. Conservatives want economic individualism, or even social as well as economic libertarianism, and liberals demand a morality of absolute individualism. Neither seems to appreciate the possible consequences of their choices -- which I am not sure they are hTC going to like.

Radical individualism -- cultural or economic -- and hedonism are by definition a matter of radical isolation. Another name for that is nihilism. Thus, while you may not like the pope's solutions, you must admit that he has identified a problem, and it is an American problem above all.

8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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