Not Liberty, Happiness

Photograph Source: Becker1999 from Grove City, OH – CC BY 2.0

In 1863, John Stuart Mill posited the utilitarian principle as the foundation of ethics. Even today this lets us weigh actions morally: the more happiness an action promotes, the more upright it is. But if this simple calculus allows us to determine the greatest good for the greatest number of people, then how do we fare?

Take the pandemic, say. Will our posterity believe we passed the test, morally speaking?

Not likely.

Why? Because too many extol liberty, not happiness, as “the only thing desirable, as an end”––to quote Mill, who identifies happiness as this end (and everything else as “only desirable as means to that end”).

No. To have passed this test, we needed liberty to be a means to happiness, not an end itself. Probably, then, we can never laud ourselves as moral exemplars in light of the COVID crucible.

And that ballast that once righted our ship out of a deference for the common good? That stuff Mill once sensed suffused our collective ethical ether? A treasure, now, lost to the depths as the overboarded Africans who refused slavery, or the drowned migrants and refugees who, just yesterday, hoped for Europe.

Now, the greatest good for the greatest number is a mere specter, haunting those who mourn the future, too bereaved to bury the past.

Nor does this new understanding totally excuse us: even if we can never truly know why, as Mill says, “the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness,” we can still see, clearly, that liberty really does unseat happiness for some.

Too, any irony at present will not be lost on future generations who judge us, and rightly so.

Those appeals to market-based economics? Remember, they always pretended a moral probity by alluding to Mills’ principle: markets do the most good for the greatest number. And, having wanted no Caesar in Washington, small government and states’ rights should have prevailed painlessly, right?

Well, why so much state capitol protest?


The freest among us now submit: happiness for a haircut––nothing more. And any moral turpitude really is so banal: they are losing their heads only to lose their hair, and maybe a life or two.

Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.