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Question of the Month

What’s More Important: Freedom, Justice, Happiness, Truth?

The following answers to this categorical question each win a random book.

My intuitive answer to this question was that freedom is the most important of the four; followed by truth, justice and happiness. Having reflected on this, I have found myself following the intertwining threads of the Enlightenment to the conclusion that freedom remains at the top of my list.

It is my contention that freedom makes it possible to find the truth, create a just society, and therefore increase happiness. My argument is based on the definition of freedom as autonomy, which is the liberty of persons to have agency in their own lives. Unlike Utilitarians, I am not convinced that overall happiness should be the measurement of a moral approach to society, however I do tend towards the notion that personal happiness is easier to find if individuals are free to decide how to live their lives, what they believe, and with whom they associate. If we are autonomous, we are free to pursue knowledge and ideas, to express these ideas, and to discuss them with others. This enhances our opportunities for finding the truth, defined by the Macquarie Dictionary as the “actual state of things rather than beliefs about things.” So I think that there is a strong case that individual autonomy is a good way for humans to live. This freedom allows us to find the truth. The truth is the underpinning for justice. They are interrelated, since there is no justice without truth. Justice is also concerned with the distribution of resources. Using John Rawls’ idea of ‘Justice as Fairness’, it becomes evident that freedom as individual autonomy should be fairly, that is, equally distributed amongst all members of society, because, as I argued, happiness is more likely for individuals if they are free agents. However despite being integral in determining that freedom is a prime social good, individual happiness is a multilayered and situation-dependent experience, and it cannot be guaranteed by autonomy.

Lorin Josephson, Mona Vale, New South Wales


There’s a clear connection between freedom, justice, happiness, and truth. Happiness is our ultimate objective. Freedom and justice, although insufficient for happiness, seem usually to be necessary ingredients of it (I will, however, give the Stoics their due, and acknowledge that some can find some happiness even though they are not free or are not treated justly). Finally, without truth, there cannot be freedom or justice. With that as background, it might seem that either truth or happiness is the more important. One might choose happiness because it is our ultimate objective, or one might choose truth because truth leads to freedom and justice, which make happiness possible. There is a strong sense, however, in which there is a particular freedom, the freedom of expression, which is even more fundamental than truth. Repressed, unrecognized truths are of little value to us. For me therefore, freedom of expression is the more important. This is not only because this particular freedom is essential for truth, but also because this freedom is under attack throughout the world.

We recognize that the violence of extremists or despots infringes on freedom of expression. However, John Stuart Mill admonishes us to also consider that it is not only forcible actions, but political correctness that can also threaten free expression. For Mill, “there needs [to be] protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling.” Mill notes that the silencing of discussion assumes the infallibility of the one doing the silencing, but unfortunately, the “general or prevailing opinion in any subject is rarely or never the whole truth; it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.” Mill would undoubtedly therefore agree that “the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” Speech should not be suppressed because it is annoying or offensive. The tolerance of expression that challenges prevailing opinion is a small price to pay for advancing the truths essential for freedom, justice, and happiness.

Howard Landis, New Canaan, Connecticut


I like the Socratic answer: justice is most important because all other goods flow from it. In the Republic, Socrates explains that justice is enacted by people when the three parts of the human psyche (mind) – reason, appetite, and spirit/soul (emotion) – are in harmony. This harmony is a state in which reason controls appetite and spirit just like a charioteer controls the two horses that pull him.

With this conception of justice, it becomes clear how freedom, happiness, truth and even love depend on it. If I am unjust, I cannot be free because I will be a slave to appetite and emotion. If I am unjust, I cannot be truly happy, because long-term happiness does not arise simply from fulfilling all desires and emotions, but by implementing justice. Like health, happiness arises from a harmonious system in which rational awareness tempers and guides both desire and emotion. If I am unjust, I am also far from truth because I see through the distorted lens of appetite and emotion. Finally, If I am unjust, other people are mere objects for or obstacles to my desires, and so I cannot love others for their own sakes. In short, Socrates believed justice provides a good way to be, and all good things flow from this way of being.

Paul Stearns, Texas


Justice – the quality of being morally just – is the most important quality because it is only through the application of justice that freedom, happiness and truth can exist. The notion of justice incorporates the concepts of impartiality and equal treatment for all. Its existence ensures that institutional decision-making is based on moral as well as legal rules, thus militating against strict legalism, which allows oppression or unfairness. Justice ensures liberty is not curtailed without due cause and process, and so promotes physical freedom. A just political system allows for counterargument, and so promotes freedom of thought and expression. Happiness (as subjective as it is) is sustained when people live in a just society. If a society is unjust, whether economically or politically, at least some sections of it will inevitably fail to achieve happiness. Truth is an even more elusive concept than happiness. This is evident from the struggles of philosophers over the centuries, from Socrates to Russell, to pin down a definition of it. Yet whatever truth may be, it certainly does not flourish where there is injustice. The coincidence of truth and justice is most obvious in a legal context, but a just society, allowing for freedom of expression, is also essential in the pursuit of truth.

Sybil Sharpe, Peel, Isle of Man


Truth is the navigable ocean upon which philosophers sail. Charting its vastness is supremely important to the success of the human journey. Truth is neither a safe harbor where we may douse our sails and rest, nor the land itself, where we may safely plant flags. The truth is not the place where the flag sticks. Truth’s sacred nature does not concretize its fluid nature; yet that which is the most important transcends fluidity.

Our concept of freedom is relative to our expectations of life. The feeling of ‘being free’ is noticed most when absent. If we expect to be able to move about freely, we feel trapped when we cannot. I feel boundless freedom when I am confined alone in a sailing vessel with no land on the horizon. Under those same circumstances others feel panicked and trapped. The expectation of being free to walk away is a rational expectation of a landlubber. After all, as fancy monkeys, solid ground is where we belong. Freedom is relative to our expectations of it; yet that which is most important transcends expectations.

On the high seas, justice is a perspective on a game of cause and effect. For some it is a tragic injustice when Moby Dick pulls Captain Ahab into the depths of the drink. For others – particularly whale lovers – Captain Ahab gets what he deserves. When modern-day pirates are caught and killed on the high seas, some seamen celebrate, while others bemoan the lack of due process. Although the pursuit of justice is important and civilizing, its perspective shifts. That which is most important does not shift perspective.

Happiness is the only profoundly transformative of these four ideas. Happiness changes a man, and those around him. Happiness rises above the oceans and the land; it rises above the relative confines of the vessel; and its perspective does not shift. Happiness is supple and self-emptying and self-filling. As Spinoza teaches, being happy requires great effort, and it is as rare as it is excellent. Truth, freedom and justice are our plotting tools; happiness is the destination.

Capt. Bryan J. Kemler, JD, Half Moon Bay, California


In Paradise Lost, John Milton situates Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. This seems to yield a kind of bliss or felicity rather like being permanently on holiday in Tuscany. But our protagonists both reject the happiness they have been given by disobeying God, for which they are punished by expulsion from their idyllic abode, and introduced to suffering, and ultimately death. However their disobedience shows that for them felicity is not enough. They want to be more. Adam and Eve seek to know even ultimate truth, by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; and so in the end they know what justice is, even if the price is death and loss of innocence.

Satan also seeks some kind of ultimate freedom, in which he obeys no one. In Hell, Satan’s only remaining happiness is the satisfaction of defying God. Milton has him say, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” But I think Milton regards Adam and Eve’s punishment of expulsion as a graduation to something more truly human. So in Paradise Lost, freedom and truth trump happiness, but they have their perils.

In Hamlet, Polonius the courtier makes a ringing declaration of the link between truth and justice when he tells his son Laertes, “To thine own self be true, for then thou canst not be false to any man.” Valuable advice in the rotten state of Denmark, where truth, justice and happiness seem absent. Here the ugly secret of the last king’s murder by his brother Claudius is known only to Prince Hamlet through messages from Purgatory. Is Hamlet the man to bring justice to the situation? Perhaps not when he is so beset by confusion and self-doubt that it undermines his desire for it. He pulls back from killing his murdering uncle at prayer because he fears that may only send him to Heaven. Besides, Hamlet has his own catalogue of misdeeds, such as the accidental killing of Polonius. He also played a part in the suicide of Ophelia by leading her on then ditching her. So can justice ever be done when there is such a lack of truth and true people? I think Shakespeare arranges a kind of providential justice at the end of the play, when anybody who has done something wrong gets killed. So there can be justice when the truth has not come out, but it is of rather a bleak kind.

My own view after reading these works is that freedom is the most important thing, but without truth and justice it is worth much less. Things must hang together. For justice to work it must be preceded by truth. Happiness is the satisfaction gained when the freedom to pursue justice and truth has been successful; so it’s a higher form of happiness than in the Garden of Eden. I’ll conclude by quoting J.S. Mill: “Better Socrates unhappy than a pig happy.”

Chris Gould, Norwich


The thought foremost in the minds of the Jews fleeing the Third Reich would have been freedom from Nazi clutches, not justice. For them justice must have seemed a distant mirage. What makes justice hard to get is that, as philosopher John Gray points out, it is “an artefact of custom.” So when customs change, justice changes. And happiness here? The term can be applied in the context of someone fleeing oppression only if we stretch the meaning of ‘happiness’ to cover emotions such as relief, comfort, or solace. It is doubtful though if Hitler’s victims would have experienced even pale happiness.

Some say that truth consists of beliefs and doctrines. That leaves out a lot. Moreover, one could also distinguish, as Michael Ignatieff does, between factual truth and moral truth. The truth that we encounter in everyday life seems to lie somewhere between the beauty Keats saw in the Grecian Urn and the malleable variety to which our pseudo-statesmen allude, or it may be close to the truth that C.S. Peirce and William James identified in their Pragmatism, as something that works, something that brings success. Evolution tries to set us on the right path through the ‘inherent value systems’ that Nobel-laureate biologist Gerald Edelman says are embedded in our brains – while pragmatism reminds us to also differentiate between what is ideal and what is achievable. We are nonetheless forced to look for at least a working definition of these values, otherwise our moral compass would be pointless. Truth, even if itself undefined, then seems the most important, as it appears causative of all else. As regards freedom and justice, one needs to be conscious that differences in beliefs are ingrained in human nature. Hence, even in an ideal polity, freedom has to exist before justice can be delivered. Lastly, happiness – in reality, largely a state of mind – is a by-product of the realisation of truth, freedom and justice.

Venkat Ramanan, Parkinson, Australia


The only answer I believe could be given is truth, since all the others are dependent upon it. Happiness seems invalid or deficient if based upon lies; for example, if someone causes their spouse to be happy by giving the impression of fidelity and commitment when they are carrying on an affair. This also shows the importance of truth in genuine, ethical human relationships. Similarily, some would argue that any happiness derived from a blind, untested faith in God (or atheism) for example, is not genuine, whilst whatever happiness is gained through philosophical inquiry is more authentic simply because it is based upon investigation.

Justice, whether of a social kind through the distribution of wealth, or in the form of retributive justice for a criminal offence, is wholly dependent on truth. In order to act justly, you must know the truth in a particular situation, and must strive towards a definitive benchmark of what is truly just. So justice does seem to depend upon truth, insofar as the most appropriate, or ‘true’ punishment, reward, or the fairest distribution of wealth, is the one which is truly just.

Finally, freedom, if it is to be deemed genuine, must also be based upon truth. It has to correspond faithfully with the real world. Someone who has spent their entire life trapped inside a labyrinth, which they are totally free to explore, may believe it to be the whole world – but this conception of freedom is based on a lie. Therefore, as this example hopefully demonstrates, genuine freedom is also based upon knowing truth.

Jonathan Tipton, Lancashire


Freedom and justice are both present in flourishing societies. Without justice there can be no freedom, for freedom does not run on an empty stomach. And justice cannot operate either in the absence of freedom, for, what would then be the point of individuals taking part in society? The political narrative of the twentieth century, and the beginning of the twenty-first, is marked by the juxtaposition of these two concepts in wars, revolutions, identity politics, NGOs and online activism.

However, the turn of the century witnesses individuals moving to more utilitarian positions – to ‘what makes me happy’ – in which individual perceptions of happiness take centre place. But the very strong subjective component of the idea of happiness makes it a difficult concept to work with. On the one hand, this subjectivity responds to attitudes that in our culture have much to do with consumerism and self-realization. On the other, ‘happiness indexes’ are used to measure societies’ well-being in terms other than the purely economic. Our intuitions indicate that to some degree happiness cannot be detached from personal responsibility; but in turn, personal responsibility needs to be framed within satisfactory levels of justice and freedom, collectively achieved. It is at this junction between the individual and the collective, the private and the public, that truth reveals its importance. The cacophony of unreliable information through advertising, political propaganda and news, puts a veil between societies, and across the information necessary for individuals to confront the myriad choices and decisions they face on a daily basis. There can be neither real freedom when choice is manufactured, nor justice without facing societies’ crudest realities, as many a ‘Truth Commission’ has shown. More important then would be truth, without which there can be no justice, freedom or happiness.

Igor Markaida, Bilbao, Spain


The question is truly curious, in the double sense of that word – strange and inquisitive – for asking for a ranking of freedom, justice, happiness, and truth problematically posits a hierarchical order in the ever-shifting, unstable, and largely unpredictable co-existence of the four concepts. Freedom, which should always be the freedom of all, does not exist without justice, because only in a legally, politically, and morally just context can individual or collective freedoms exist. Conversely, without an ideal notion of freedom, no fight against existing injustice can be launched. Moreover, without the interplay of freedom and justice, no sense of happiness can emerge, for although happiness is always an irreducibly individual, subjective sense of meaning, fulfillment, and satisfaction, it can only be felt authentically if one has a deep awareness of the possible existence – or most often the actual lack – of collective justice and freedom for all. The painful recognition that freedom and justice are continually neglected, suppressed, or forgotten, reminds us that one’s personal sense of happiness is always endangered in the face of social prejudice, discrimination, and violence. Finally, truth is continually being hidden, manipulated, or denied in the face of injustice, in the abolition of freedom, and in unhappiness; but truth may also re-emerge when we self-critically interrogate our complicity (deliberate or not) with these conditions. Then our eyes and ears are suddenly opened to vital aspects of what true freedom, justice, and happiness for all may be, if we take some steps in helping to achieve them. Thus, our sense of truth is always a complexly entangled mix of deceit and revelation, illusion and recognition, simulacra and authenticity, allowing us to pose critical questions – such as the present one.

Dr Rolf J. Goebel, University of Alabama


Surely freedom, justice, happiness, and truth are all indispensable. Is it then possible to say one is most important? I can start by asking, ‘Important to whom?’ Answer: ‘To the individual as opposed to society or the state, for the individual is the fundamental reality.’ I suggest then we judge according to which property or condition is required for an individual to be a human being. I summarily dismiss ‘truth’ on this basis. Truth is a property of a proposition, not a person. Of the remaining three, my first thought was that it would be happiness, the constant goal of everyone. However, I remembered the ‘brain in the vat’ concept, and I rebel at the thought of being a brain fed false information about my reality to make me always happy. I would consider that in that situation there was no real autonomy, no real choosing by me, no real acting by me. Freedom is therefore necessary for the individual pursuit of happiness. So freedom trumps happiness. Freedom may be negative or positive – freedom from constraints on our choices and actions, and freedom to grow, to determine who and what we are, to form ourselves. Freedom is the fundamental condition for becoming and being a person. Freedom clearly meets my criterion. However, although free choices and actions are unconstrained, they must conform to the moral law. We should not be free to do everything we want. My freedom to swing my arms as I please stops where your nose begins. Human freedom thus entails justice. I don’t mean the laws and policies of the state concerning the distribution of goods or retribution and correction. I mean fairness. This is more fundamental and existed long before the modern state. Fairness qualifies our free choices. I conclude then that freedom and justice are equally most important of the listed qualities. Moreover, I would plea that beneficencelove – be added, since it is a necessary component of the moral law. The moral law is required to be a human being, and this requires freedom, justice and beneficence/love. It’s a package.

John Talley, Rutherfordton, North Carolina


To answer this question one must contextualise it, and the context I choose is relationships: relationships between spouses; between governments and the people they govern; between parents and children; between employers and employees; and between figures of authority and the public at large. All the qualities mentioned – freedom, justice, happiness and truth – may have other contexts, but it’s in relationships that they are most important, and are most inclined to be abused or perverted. And there is one quality I would put above them all and upon which they are all dependent, and that is trust, because once trust is lost or suspect, then everything one values in a relationship becomes compromised at best, and forfeit at worst. Truth is the cornerstone of trust, so, arguably, truth is the lynch pin; but if trust is lost, truth becomes a casualty. Honesty to oneself comes first, because without that, one can’t be honest to anyone else. Truth informs justice. Justice without truth is injustice. Justice and freedom are interdependent: paradoxically, freedom is dependent on justice, because without justice only the powerful would have freedom. Here trust is also paramount, because justice that doesn’t incorporate trust becomes oppression, and oppression is antithetical to freedom. So freedom arises from justice, but only when trust is preserved. Happiness is intrinsically linked to freedom – self-harm or suicide are often a consequence of freedom curtailed, especially when it’s extreme enough to eliminate hope. Freedom and hope are partners, with hope being essential to psychological well-being; a precursor to happiness. So there is a logical sequence of dependence, and therefore importance. You can’t have justice without truth, you can’t have freedom without justice, and you can’t have happiness without freedom, but all of them require trust.

Paul P Mealing, Ivanhoe, Australia


Asking one to rank significant qualities such as freedom, justice, happiness, and truth, is like expecting mere mortals to play God. It’s like assigning absolute values for very relative things. It’s hard enough grapple with one of these big ideas, let alone arrange all four in a particular order. Although we look for something more out of life based on our limited sense of free will, self-gratification and justice, many of us never see them working together for a greater good outside ourselves. So life remains a daily struggle to achieve a reality which, limited to individual wants and needs, will forever come up short of perfection because it too often settles for the immediate here and now as its main reference. If hedonism is our goal for living, one might assume that we relate to others strictly out of selfish motives that over time can change like the shifting sands.

Fortunately such an uncertain and restricted approach to determining our place in society does not have to be the position that defines the human race. These four values can work together through our collective lives to encourage greater empathy for others. We have the freedom to live outside of our very narrow existence of what is strictly in it for us. We can also honor the principle of fairness for all while striving to bring happiness or personal contentment to the inconsolable, friendless and oppressed individuals in our circle of acquaintances. When we practice those guiding principles long enough a blessed truth or positive reality begins to prevail over our too-broken world that amounts to relating to each other better in community.

In recent years I have found myself maturing in what it means to be free, just, happy, and living a ‘purpose-driven’ life. If freedom is the state in which we exercise the uncontested right to choose for ourselves what we believe is best for ourselves, cannot it then be argued that we have the prerogative to affect other people’s sense of happiness or well-being? Remember, we have a choice to make that often lies between satisfying our interests and the interests of others. Justice, defined as a sense of universal fairness, only begins to happen when we allow our narrow sense of freedom to function outside our own personal scope of safe activities, to include supporting something new like community gardens, participating in a Block Watch program, tutoring in literacy training, serving community breakfasts, doing park cleanups, building shelters for the homeless, organizing litter drives, and doing those little acts of charity that make this world a better place. David Brooks, in his recent book The Road to Character, likens this process to forming a strong inner character that allows us to then serve interests well outside our comfort zone as we exercise freedom, strive for justice, celebrate happiness, and realize truth.

Ian Malcomson, Victoria, British Columbia


Next Question of the Month

The next question is: What’s Your Best Advice Or Wisdom? Please both give and justify your sagacity in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 15th February 2016. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. Submission is permission to reproduce your answer physically and electronically. Thanks.

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