The Pursuit of Happiness


Most people are sensitive to their environments and know they are changeable, and within our power to nurture or ruin. We prefer, as examples, clean rooms over dirty rooms, rivers without sewage, and so on. What seems less clear is our sensitivity to moral environments. Moral environments are places regulated by ideas about how to be good.

These moral environments – sometimes called character – are shaped by what we find acceptable or unacceptable within ourselves, others, and our institutions. It determines our judgment about whether things are going well or badly, and our sense of what is due us, and what we owe others. These environments also shape our emotional responses by causing us to feel pride or shame, rage or gratitude, etc.

Every environment, whether it’s the earth and sky around us, our churches and legislatures, or the character of our own hearts, are best when they are balanced. That’s why gardeners take soil tests, why we have elections, and why the best love story is never about unrequited love. In unbalanced environments things don’t grow well, con artists run governments, and hearts get broken.

Most of us agree our current public – institutional – environments are unbalanced. But how did they get that way?

For early thinkers about morality and ethics, like Plato and St. Paul, the focus was on the condition of one’s soul, meaning one’s personal state of goodness. And for them and the myriad other thinkers who followed them, “good” institutions depend on “good” people. Competence and good character, like charity, begin at home.

Over the past 25+ years – through both Republican and Democrat Party administrations – the U.S. has fallen on nearly all measures for civility, accomplishment, and wellbeing among developed nations. Perhaps that’s because the greatest portion of our moral energy seems to go toward judging one another – and feeling outraged when the favor is returned. The consequence is that We the People believe our Constitution is a menu from which to pick and choose – “Sue the bastards!” – then complain the Judicial Branch has too much power. We’ve become a nation of judges, in and out of the courtroom.

To hell with compromise. We demand verdicts.