“We Have No Right to Happiness” is a fascinating essay. Lewis covers a wide range of topics and addresses a lot of sticky questions in only three short pages. He begins by recounting a tragedy that occurred as the result of a divorce. The story is all-too familiar—a man and a woman divorce their spouses in order to remarry in the hopes that they will once again be happy, as they were at the start of their first marriages. Despite their seemingly innocuous motives, however, the divorce has unforeseen emotional consequences, and causes the man’s former wife, who, earlier in life, poured herself into nursing him through a long illness, to commit suicide.
I can’t help but notice here what a masterful writer Lewis is. He delivers the news of Mrs. A’s tragic death with a subtlety and power that turned my opinion of Mr. A completely on its head almost without my noticing it. It’s no wonder, I think, that people so often find themselves agreeing with Lewis’s arguments. Not only do many of his statements have the ring of truth, but his writing is incredibly persuasive.
Lewis continues to make a host of excellent points. What do we mean when we claim to have a “right to happiness”, or at least to the pursuit of such? he asks. The idea of a right—as a legal guarantee of something—and happiness—which is often outside the realm of human control—don’t seem to fit together. No human law can promise happiness to every individual. Thus, what is meant by a “right” in this case must be a moral right. It is never morally wrong to act in a way that will secure one’s happiness; and, furthermore, the laws of society should reflect that underlying moral law. Surely, though, that can’t be right. No one has a right to do anything and everything—to commit atrocities, and disregard the rights of others—in the name of happiness. The “right to happiness”, then, must mean that everyone has a right to do whatever is legal in order to obtain happiness. This idea seems strange—of course people have a right to do whatever is lawful—until placed in historical context. The important idea is that everyone possess this right, not just the wealthy and privileged. All people have an equal right to act within the bounds of the law to pursue their own happiness.
But what is meant by “happiness”, especially in the case of Mr. A and Mrs. B? Lewis argues that in modern arguments “happiness” almost always means sexual happiness and fulfillment. Sexual desire, he remarks, is placed on a pedestal in our society, allowed a free reign which we would find shocking if applied to any of our other impulses. “Absolute obedience to you instinct for self-preservation,” he says, “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’.” We give precedence to our sexual impulse because of its strength, and because of what it seems to promise—untold happiness, lifelong contentment. However, in the end the promises of our desire may turn out to be false. We may be happy for a while, even a very long time, if we get what we want. But passion fades. Happiness that lasts, Lewis notes, does so not only because the people involved are in love but also because they are steady, loyal, and flexible, willing to stick to their promises even when things get rough.
I’d like to say one last thing, about Lewis’s second to last paragraph. I don’t entirely agree with his statements about women. What he says about women being “more naturally monogamous than men” might be true or might not, I don’t know; and his assertion that men mostly care about a woman’s beauty and women about a man’s personality is certainly stereotypically true. But I would like to think better of my brothers than that. I will say that no man will ever win my heart who doesn’t love all of me—including my ugliness, inner and outer—and who’s only looking skin-deep. I would also like to think that having a loving, safe place to call home and raise a family (“domestic happiness”) is important to men as well as to women. I’ve heard plenty of young men say they’re eager to be fathers and husbands—and plenty of young women say they just aren’t interested in being mothers and wives. I respect Lewis a great deal, but I can’t accept his rather shallow views in this area. Stereotypes do both women and men a disservice.