What’s wrong with the right to happiness?

A few years ago, I sat down with my two oldest kids and read them The Chronicles of Narnia.  While it took several months to get through all seven books, the experience was of working our way through them was wonderful.

I treasured being able to share the magic of the Narnia stories with my kids and at the same time while I was also reminded of Lewis’ uncanny ability to transmit profound truths with a beautiful simplicity. This reading became a reminder of how much I appreciate the treasury of C.S. Lewis’ non-fiction writings, including his final published work: an essay entitled We Have No ‘Right to Happiness which was published about a month after his death in the fall of 1963.

From start to finish, this essay reflects on the way in which C.S. Lewis saw western society seek happiness above all else.

He wrote: “In words that are cherished by all civilized men, but especially by Americans, it has been laid down that one of the rights of man is a right to ‘the pursuit of happiness.’”

On the one hand, this seems like a reasonable goal.

During the papal welcoming ceremony at World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, St. John Paul II said: I have felt the deep longing that beats within your hearts: you want to be happy!” I don’t know that I’ve ever come across anyone who doesn’t wish to be happy.

While St. John Paul II pointed out that there is one place that we can find the answer to this longing (in Christ), Lewis saw that western society also uses the pursuit of happiness as a justification for the means by which we seek to be happy.

One might say “I want to be happy, therefore it doesn’t matter what I do or whom I hurt, so long as it makes me happy.”

Any sane society will see that there must be limits to this line of thought. I can’t just kill someone because I think it will make me happy, which is why we as a society generally agree that murdering another person is immoral.

The Catholic Catechism describes this as “natural law,” which is “written and engraved on the soul of each man” (CCC 1954).

Natural law also tells us that lying, cheating, and stealing are immoral while honesty, fidelity, and sacrifice are virtues to be admired. But while we seem to be clear on things like lying, cheating, stealing, and murder, there is one moral question C.S. Lewis saw us treat in a whole different light:

“…sex was to be treated as no other impulse in our nature has ever been treated by civilized people. All the others, we admit, have to be bridled. Absolute obedience to your instinct for self-preservation is what we call cowardice; to your acquisitive impulse, avarice. Even sleep must be resisted if you’re a sentry. But every unkindness and breach of faith seems to be condoned provided that the object aimed at is ‘four bare legs in a bed.’  It is like having a morality in which stealing fruit is considered wrong — unless you steal nectarines.”

Our society claims in as loud a voice as it can scream that to try and bridle our sexuality is unnatural and immoral. How DARE anyone — especially the Church — impose on anyone a limit to their ability to express themselves sexually (to their happiness)? Men and women who accept a calling to celibacy are doing something ‘abnormal’ or even ‘unhealthy’.

C.S. Lewis, writing 45 years ago, saw many using the pursuit of happiness as a justification for the choices they made surrounding love, marriage, and sexuality. The fact is that not much has changed. Even for those trying to live the Church’s teachings in these areas, one’s quest for personal happiness can seemingly justify almost any decision that impacts a romantic relationship: sex before marriage, cohabitation, adultery, contraception, sterilization, and so on.

The heart of the matter is quite simple: we try to justify things in the name of being happy, because a small part of us knows that something is wrong. This is often the voice of God speaking in our hearts: a voice we can acknowledge, allowing Him to transform us to discover something better than happiness (joy), or a voice we can smother and ignore – hardening our own hearts and often causing ourselves (and others) real pain. Lewis concludes his essay with a troubling thought:

“…though the ‘right to happiness’ is chiefly claimed for the sexual impulse, it seems to me impossible that the matter should stay there. The fatal principle, once allowed in that department, must sooner or later seep through our whole lives. We thus advance toward a state of society in which not only each man but every impulse in each man claims carte blanche. And then, though our technological skill may help us survive a little longer, our civilization will have died at heart, and will — one dare not even add ‘unfortunately’ — be swept away.”

We Have No Right to Happiness was originally published in the Saturday Evening Post on December 11, 1963, and can be found in God in the Dock, a collection of 48 essays written by C.S. Lewis on theology and ethics.

 – Mike Landry is the chaplain for Evergreen Catholic Schools. He is based in Spruce Grove, Alberta.

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