An American Tragedy
Tibor R. Machan
Tragedies are morality plays wherein trying to do the right thing ends
people in terrible troubleÂ?just think of Antigone by Sophocles or Romeo
and Juliet by Shakespeare.
We have an ongoing tragedy afoot in our country. It has to do with the
relationship between our political tradition and the dominant moral
viewpoint. In the political realm everyone is supposed to have the
unalienable right to, among other things, the pursuit of happiness. No,
not to happiness but to pursuing it. None can have a right to happiness
since happiness is something one needs to achieve in lifeÂ?it cannot be
given or secured by government.
Still, having the basic human individual right to the pursuit of
happiness very firmly suggests that there is something proper about such a
pursuit. It is perfectly fine for people to focus on becoming happy.
Usually, this is done by means of pursuing various worthy and fulfilling
objectives, such as finding a rewarding career, seeking a joyful family
life, engaging in pleasant hobbies, and seeking to make sure, as a
citizen, that the country remains free.
Unfortunately, there is in the moral climate of the countryÂ?in what most
priests, ministers, writers, politicians, professors, pundits and such
teach and preachÂ?a contrary message. This message says, in effect, that it
is quite wrong to seek to be happy. The morality that plays well among
those who talk about such things most often is altruism.
As the philosopher W. G. Maclagan made clear, Â?Â?AltruismÂ? [is] assuming a
duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our
fellows....Altruism is to ... maintain quite simply that a man may and
should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he
is deciding what course of action to pursue.Â? (pp. 109-110). (Â?Self and
Others: A Defense of Altruism,Â? Philosophical Quarterly 4 :
109-127.) As usually presented, by ministers or priests or in fiction,
altruism means ranking looking out for others in first place in oneÂ?s list
of moral duties and casting aside oneÂ?s own happiness as negligible. As
the novelist Graham Greene put it, Â?None of us has a right to forget
anyone. Except ourselves.Â? (Looser Takes All [Penguin, 1993, p. 51].)
Now what does this come to? A flat out denunciation of the pursuit of
happiness. To engage in such a pursuit is widely deemed to be morally
wrong. So, the American FounderÂ?s put in place an ideal of politics that
too many of AmericaÂ?s moralists consider wrong. And since they are
entrusted with working out the moral issues of how people ought to live,
what principles they ought to follow in their lives, they are clearly
perpetrating a tragic conflict between the politics and the morality of
And it shows. Just the other day a letter writer in one of the newspapers
I read every morning made a big deal of how terrible it is that people
enjoy the movie Sideways. This lighthearted fluff is about two rather
unruly young men, neither exactly admirable, touring a region of
CaliforniaÂ?s wine countryÂ?not the usual Napa Valley but the Central
CoastÂ?while one of the sows his wild oats one last time, in, as I say, a
somewhat roguish fashion. The letter writer condemned the movie for
seemingly promoting such an endeavor and mentioned that in contrast to
such a terrible movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding should be embraced as far
more admirable, morally worthy.
This struck me as odd because My Big Fat Greek Wedding embodied one of
the most despicable human tendencies and made it all look so innocent and
quaint, namely, ethnic prejudice. If you recall, in that movie the father
of the young woman is fiercely insistent that she find a Greek mate. No
one else will do. And this is treated as merely amusing.
Now that attitude is truly disgusting. As if virtue resided only within
Greeks (or whatever group one prefers). As if those who donÂ?t belong could
not be worthy, decent, lovable. Such ethnic prejudice is, in fact, morally
But this letter writer found the mild pursuit of pleasure in Sideways
morally awful, while regarding the blind and pointless ethnic loyalties in
the other film admirable.
It is very, very sad, indeed, that too many Americans consider the desire
for a pleasant and happy life something lowly while admiring it when
people embrace loyalties that are irrational and arbitrary and, as in the
case of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, spawning unhappiness for young people.