Finding Universal Happiness in a Society of Divisions

LeAnne Maduka

Period 6

Honorbound

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Is there comfort in labels, or are they just a tool to divide American citizens further?

Many citizens, primarily young adults, have begun to use labels as a method to define themselves and identify with others of similar situations. The issues of race, gender, sexuality, gender identity, and socioeconomic status have possibly always contained the most numerous and prominent separations; it is these separations that people are starting to notice and that minorities are starting to find empowerment in. However, with every movement comes a group of people who dislike it and everything it stands for. America seems to run on the fuel that comes from the fight between opposing forces, a fight that transcends history. For example, the civil rights movement had its opposing forces back in the 50s and 60s, just as the Black Lives Matter movement has opposing forces now; the women’s suffrage movement in the early 1900s had opposing forces similar to those of new wave feminism; LGBT are still facing discrimination; and the fight for equal pay is still facing the same opposition it was facing in the 1960s. In being opposing forces, it can be argued that what makes one side happy will most likely make their opponents unhappy, and vice versa. How, then, is it possible to make everyone happy or define happiness for everyone?

According to John Stuart Mill in chapter two of Utilitarianism, happiness can be defined. He writes that “happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain.” Therefore any action that is aiming to achieve pleasure, or happiness, can be considered good; and, those actions that do not, can be deemed bad. Not only that, but Happiness is also considered to be “not the agent’s own happiness, but that of all concerned.”[1]

Utilitarianism is the moral belief that “conduct should be directed toward promoting the greatest happiness of the greatest number of persons.”[2] One can argue that America is a country that runs on the concept of majority. Take, for instance, the presidential election process. The primary candidate with the majority of the votes wins the state; then, the primary candidate with the majority of the states win the primary; and finally, the primary winner that gets the majority of votes becomes president. These kinds of process run our political system so, it would make sense for the dominant moral standard to be of the utilitarian variety.

However, as mentioned before minorities are feeling more power than ever in society, no longer allowing themselves to be silenced by the majority. What is now believed is that happiness for “all concerned,” truly means happiness for every single citizen.[3]

Transgender people, a minority group currently in the public spotlight, are speaking out about their right to use the bathroom the corresponds with their gender identity rather than their birth-assigned gender. The United States has a history of LGBT getting physically and emotionally abused in the United States, and this is not the first time that transgender and non-conforming gender people have found the voice to speak out (i.e. The Stonewall Riots). However, these citizens are now living in a time where speaking out and coming out does not mean fearing for their lives. In this sense, it could be argued that by speaking out against violence and pursuing a life that would enable their pleasure, transgender people are simply just trying to find happiness.

Yet, transgender and non-conforming gender people still makes some citizens uncomfortable. When it comes to the bathroom debate, for instance, 59% of Americans believe that transgender people should use the bathroom that corresponds to their birth-assigned gender.[4] An argument often heard is that people do not want grown “men” going to the same bathroom as young girls. Although it is a reach, the reasoning behind these worries is sound. Those who are looking to protect the safety of young girls can be assumed to be acting to decrease pain and discomfort.

Another minority group that has gained a definite public presence over the last few years is African Americans. Since the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, the question of justice, and consequently, happiness, has come into play many times. The Black Lives Matter movement claims to be “a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism” in society and “a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.”[5] It can be argued that those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement are doing good acts by trying to abolish the pain of racism. Therefore, the Black Lives Matter movement is a movement that is pursuing happiness. However, for every person in support of the movement, there is someone who disagrees with it and its premise.

In an article meant to expose the truth of the Black Lives Matter movement, Katie Pavlich criticizes the movement in saying that it promotes violence against police officers. She condemns the movement for “thriv[ing] on division and embrac[ing] a racial social justice narrative.”[6] Instead, Pavlich suggests in her article, Americans should celebrate their interconnectedness through the All Lives Matter movement. Can it not also be argued that people who believe in this mindset are also trying to reach the ultimate goal of happiness. All these citizens are aiming to do is promote peace and unity; could that be the “intended pleasure” that Mill talks about?[7]

This is where the problem arises: two opposing groups, both thinking that that are promoting happiness through good acts and ridding society of pain, have very different stances on the pursuit of happiness. According to the traditional definition of utilitarianism, the majority’s happiness should be the primary focus and concern. However, in situations like these with powerful movements that involve millions of strong-willed followers, the voice of the “few” is difficult to silence. In addition, what will America do when the voices of minorities becomes the voices of majorities, as minorities are set to become the majority in the United States by 2020.[8] What happens then? Will the tables suddenly turn? Will rules need to be changed? Will the voice of the minority continue to hold little value against that of the majority? Ignoring the views and concerns of an entire group simply because they are not congruent with the views and concerns of the majority suggests that the majority is enjoying a “privation of pleasure,” which Mill defines as unhappiness.[9] So what are Americans supposed to do?

It is common that in social conflicts, the two sides are on different pages of the same book: one side is talking about ending racism while the other is talking about killing cops, or one side is discussing feeling comfortable when using the restroom while the other is mentioning the abuse of little girls. All this ever turns into is a heated exchange of words without any real discussion occurring. In order to reach any sort of universal happiness, an open discussion about compromise must occur between opposing sides. In order for this to occur, both sides need to listen to what the other is saying.

Miller states that “the utilitarian morality does recognise in human beings the power of sacrificing their own greatest good for the good of others.”[10] This does not necessarily mean that one side needs to cave in and give up everything they believe in on behalf of the opposition; and it definitely does not mean that the minority must subject itself to the will of the majority. Mill is just saying that happiness is not all about only seeking pleasure for yourself. In order to have the best outcome for “all concerned,” two opposing sides must both be willing to consider the views and beliefs of all citizens.[11]

It is true that labels divide. However, this division is not necessarily a bad thing as long as the happiness of all citizens is being considered. America is a melting pot, after all; and there is no harm in wanting to know exactly what ingredient you are.

 

 

 

[1] Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.

[2] utilitarianism. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/utilitarianism (accessed: May 04, 2016).

[3] Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.

[4] Nichols, James. “Poll Shows The Majority Of Americans Oppose Transgender People Using Preferred Bathroom.” The Huffington Post. February 02, 2016. Accessed May 04, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/13/transgender-bathroom-rights_n_5492286.html.

[5] “About the Black Lives Matter Network.” Black Lives Matter. 2015. Accessed May 04, 2016. http://blacklivesmatter.com/about/.

[6] Katie Pavlich. “Exposing The Black Lives Matter Movement For What It Is: Promotion of Cop Killing.” Townhall. September 02, 2015. Accessed May 04, 2016. http://townhall.com/tipsheet/katiepavlich/2015/09/02/exposing-black-lives-matter-for-what-it-is-promotion-of-cop-jilling-n2046941.

[7] Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.

[8] “For U.S. Children, Minorities Will Be The Majority By 2020, Census Says.” NPR. March 04, 2015. Accessed May 04, 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/03/04/390672196/for-u-s-children-minorities-will-be-the-majority-by-2020-census-says.

[9] Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.

[10] Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.

[11] Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.

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2 thoughts on “Finding Universal Happiness in a Society of Divisions

  1. Eliza Palter – Period 6
    It’s interesting to consider the LGBTQ+ community within the context of John Stuart’s Utilitarianism. I remember that John Stuart wrote about how if society were to accept Utilitarianism as a normal practice, we would all eventually conform. However, there is a history of people with different sexual orientations in cultures and times when that was not seen as morally acceptable. Were they not defying the cultural norms and living out their own truth? This leads me to believe that just by accepting Utilitarianism as a socially acceptable (and enforceable) practice, we can’t necessarily expect all people to conform.

  2. I find this blog post to be very interesting because it addresses the problems that occur when labeling ourselves. Personally, I believe that we should not be ashamed of our labels, but I understand why people would have an aversion to labeling themselves, especially when these labels are met with opposition from other groups of people. She mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement, which is mostly met with opposition in the older white generation. It is a shame because, like this article said, this movement is only trying to achieve happiness, which should not be a problem for other citizens. This nonviolent movement does no harm to other groups of people, but rather spreads awareness of what is happening to a specific group of people. It is our obligation to make sure that the majority of the people in our country are comfortable and happy.

    Molly McNulty

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