Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Benefits of Being Wrong

According to the Declaration of Independence, governments exist in order to secure the rights that we have naturally.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men..."
When John Locke speaks of rights, he has a different triumvirate--life, liberty and property.  "The pursuit of Happiness" although not original with Thomas Jefferson is the American innovation.

Happiness is not about emotional well-being.  It is about teleology.  What is the proper end of society?  What are our highest aspirations?  History gives us multiple examples of the ends of social life.   Honor, virtue, salvation and wealth are but a few.  The Declaration was purposely vague on the meaning of happiness.  This was not an endorsement of a moral relativism where truth did not exist.  Instead, the Founders believed that truth would be revealed in the free exchange of ideas. 

Kathryn Schulz in a recent post on the Freakonomics blog doesn't write explicitly about the pursuit of happiness, but her insight is helpful here.  She speaks about the tolerance of dissent and disagreement.
...We are a young country built on a mature idea: that all of us must be at liberty to make mistakes. We are free to say things our fellow citizens think are untrue, worship gods our neighbors regard as idols, hold fast to convictions that contradict those of our leaders.
We think of these liberties as embodying the American tolerance for dissent.  But our nation’s founders were not simply some kind of 18th century ACLU, fighting to protect everyone’s right to express even the fringiest beliefs.  Instead, they protected minority opinions for a pragmatic reason: they recognized that, over time, the fringe rather than the mainstream might prove right. What they inscribed in the Constitution was an awareness of the perpetual possibility that we are mistaken.
The proper role of government is not to interfere with our freedom to discover and pursue our own happiness.  Our laws provide proper channels for the resolution of disagreements when our pursuits conflict.  Whether from a minority or the majority, all opinions are tested.  Even if someone is mistaken, there is a benefit to society.  It serves as a teachable moment.  We revisit the arguments and discover the truth once again.

I recall recently that some of our politicians thought an election ended the conversation.  One party won, and the other lost.  Therefore, the losers should just sit down and be quiet.  Thankfully in the United States, it is never enough to win an election.  We must continually put our arguments before the people.  Our leaders always have the responsibility to teach.

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