The last thing that C. S. Lewis wrote before his death in November 1963, was a short essay entitled We Have No Right to Happiness, that was published by the Saturday Evening Post in December 1963, and reprinted in the God in the Dock collection many years later (1998). At the beginning of the piece, Lewis considers whether we have any particular ‘right’ to happiness in general, but spends the greater part discussing the issue of whether anyone can be said to have an unlimited right to sexual or romantic happiness, and whether this can ever really be said to justify abandoning one’s marriage vows. The answer to this query may seem obvious to many, but in an age where commitment seems to be ranked lower amongst our priorities than ever, it is a question worth revisiting.
In the essay, Lewis not only provides a strong critique against those who would claim all sorts of things as a ‘right’ which are, by the nature of the case, not so at all, but also draws attention to the validity of certain claims to rights per se, and to the assumptions we all make (even those who wish to contravene or supersede commonly held or traditional moral values) when making such claims, thus highlighting the absurdity of isolating some aspects of those assumptions (i.e.; of the Natural Law) and arbitrarily raising them above the others. Finally, this particular issue is linked to the wider concerns and ramifications of individualism and relativism – things already prevalent in Lewis’ day, but yet to have gained quite as much of a hold over the popular imagination as they have today.
Lewis begins the piece by describing a hypothetical conversation between himself and a woman named Clare, about a man (Mr A.) who had divorced his wife in order to marry another woman (Mrs B. – who had also divorced her husband) on the grounds that they had fallen in love and, because of the ‘right to happiness’, were justified in abandoning their spouses. Whilst there also exist many much more sympathetic reasons for ending a marriage this rationale is unfortunately not only an increasingly common one, but is also now widely seen to be acceptable by our society. I present here the bulk of Lewis’ response to the situation (and Clare’s approval of it):
‘I went away thinking about the concept of a “right to happiness”. At first this sounds to me as odd as the right to good luck. For I believe – whatever one school or moralists may say – that we depend for a very great deal of our happiness or misery on circumstances outside all human control. A right to happiness doesn’t, for me, make much more sense than a right to be six feet tall, or to have a millionaire for your father, or to get good weather whenever you want to have a picnic.
I can understand a right as a freedom guaranteed me by the laws of the society I live in. Thus, I have a right to travel along the public roads because society gives me that freedom; that’s what we mean by calling the roads “public”. I can also understand a right as a claim guaranteed me by the laws, and correlative to an obligation on someone else’s part. If I have a right to receive £100 from you, this is another way of saying that you have a duty to pay me £100. If the laws allow Mr A. to desert his wife and seduce his neighbour’s wife, then, by definition, Mr A. has a legal right to do so, and we need bring in no talk about “happiness”.
But of course this was not what Clare meant. She meant that he had not only a legal right but a moral right to act as he did. In other words, Clare is – or would be if she thought it out – a classical moralist after the style of Thomas Aquinas, Grotius, Hooker and Locke. She believes that behind the laws of the state there is a Natural Law. I agree with her. I hold this conception to be basic to all civilisation. Without it, the actual laws of the state become an absolute, as in Hegel. They cannot be criticised because there is no norm against which they should be judged.
The ancestry of Clare’s maxim, “They have a right to happiness”, is august. In words that are cherished by all civilised 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”. And now we get to the real point. What did the writers of that august declaration mean?
It is quite certain what they did not mean. They did not mean that man was entitled to pursue happiness by any and every means – including, say, murder, rape, robbery, treason and fraud. No society could be built on such a basis. They meant to “pursue happiness by all lawful means”; that is, by all means which the Law of Nature eternally sanctions and which the laws of the nation shall sanction…
…But the question as to what means are “lawful” – what methods of pursuing happiness are either morally permissible by the Law of Nature or should be declared legally permissible by the legislature of a particular nation – remains exactly where it did. And on that question I disagree with Clare. I don’t think it is obvious that people have the unlimited “right to happiness” which she suggests.
For one thing, I believe that Clare, when she says “happiness”, means simply and solely “sexual happiness”. Partly because women like Clare never use the word “happiness” in any other sense. But also because I never heard Clare talk about the “right” to any other kind. She was rather leftist in her politics, and would have been scandalised if anyone had defended the actions of a ruthless man-eating tycoon on the ground that his happiness consisted in making money and he was pursuing his happiness. She was also a rabid tee-totaller; I never heard her excuse an alcoholic because he was happy when he was drunk. A good many of Clare’s friends, and especially her female friends, often felt – I’ve heard them say so – that their own happiness would be perceptibly increased by boxing her ears. I very much doubt if this would have brought her theory of a right to happiness into play.
Clare, in fact, is doing what the whole western world seems to me to have been doing for the last forty-odd years. When I was a youngster, all the progressive people were saying, “Why all this prudery? Let us treat sex just as we treat our other impulses.” I was simple-minded enough to believe they meant what they said. I have since discovered that they meant exactly the opposite. They meant sex was to be treated as no other impulse in our nature has ever been treated by civilised 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”…
…The real situation is skilfully concealed by saying that the question of Mr A.’s “right” to desert his wife is one of “sexual morality”. Robbing an orchard is not an offence against some special morality called “fruit morality”. It is an offence against honesty. Mr A.’s action is an offence against good faith (to solemn promises), against gratitude (towards one whom he was deeply indebted) and against common humanity. Our sexual impulses are thus being put in a position of preposterous privilege. The sexual motive is taken to condone all sorts of behaviour which, if it had any other end in view, would be condemned as merciless, treacherous and unjust.
Now though I see no good reason for giving sex this privilege, I think I see a strong cause. It is this. It is part of the nature of a strong erotic passion – as distinct from a transient fit of appetite – that it makes more towering promises than any other emotion. No doubt all our desires make promises, but not so impressively. To be in love involves the almost irresistible conviction that one will go on being in love until one dies, and that possession of the beloved will confer, not merely frequent ecstasies, but settled, fruitful, deep-rooted, lifelong happiness. Hence all seems to be at stake. If we miss this chance we shall have lived in vain. At the very thought of such doom we sink into fathomless depths of pity.
Unfortunately these promises are found often to be quite untrue. Every experienced adult knows this to be so as regards all erotic passions (except the one he himself is feeling at the moment). We discount the world-without-end pretensions of our friends’ amours easily enough. We know that such things sometimes last – and sometimes don’t. And when they do last, this is not because they promised at the outset to do so. When two people achieve lasting happiness, this is not solely because they are great lovers but because they are also – I must put it crudely – good people; controlled, loyal, fair-minded, mutually adaptable people.
If we establish a “right to (sexual) happiness” which supersedes all the ordinary rules of behaviour, we do so not because of what our passion shows itself to be in experience, but because of what it professes to be while we are in the grip of it. Hence, while the bad behaviour is real and works miseries and degradations, the happiness which was the object of the behaviour turns out again and again to be illusory. Everyone (except Mr A. and Mrs B.) knows that Mr A. in a year or so may have the same reason for deserting his new wife as deserting his old. He will feel again that all is at stake. He will see himself again as the great lover, and his pity for himself will exclude all pity for the woman…
…Secondly, 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 towards 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 civilisation will have died at heart, and will – one dare not even add “unfortunately” – be swept away.’
taken from Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (2002), pp.388-392, Harper Collins.