The Extent of the Rights of Man

I got into a really dumb internet comment argument this morning and it made me think of freedom of speech and the rights of man. America was founded on the idea of the ‘pursuit of happiness,’ but what about the situations where your happiness can affect someone else’s? To what extend are we allowed to pursue our own happiness to someone else’s detriment?

I was talking about this to a friend of mine who is a philosopher, he said this conundrum can be solved easily, just insert the caveat that ‘as long as it’s not hurting anyone else.’ In our overpopulated world, though, I don’t think it’s quite so simple. As someone for whom sleep is very important, I always think of loud music as an example, at what point is it a nuisance? Loud music makes the listener happy, a good nights’ sleep makes the sleeper happy. Who gets to pursue happiness? The original listener or the one trying to sleep?

What if you’re an artist and your art is painful to other peoples’ ears? Can you say words that are mean? How mean can they be? Can you say racist things if they are true? What if you’re a racist and you don’t know it? What if your happiness comes from a sexual fetish that involves consent? or children? What if your traditional food is prepared in a very smelly way (looking at you, KimChee)? What if what one person thinks is a compliment, you take as an insult?

These are things that you can do to be happy, what about things you’re not even conscious of doing? What if you smell bad? What if your body is so deformed (or attractive) it makes people uncomfortable or distressed? What if your speaking voice is so loud it hurts (sensitive) people? Where is the line between discomfort and pain?

In a way, this is minutia, but I also think it’s extremely important. These issues come up all the time, and they will come up more and more as the world’s population increases. I’m sure the founding fathers didn’t really have to deal with their neighbors loud music, they could just pitch their tent in the empty space a mile away. We don’t have that much empty space anymore. In fact, I can’t really think of a situation where you can pursue happiness without affecting other people in the process.

I realize it’s a privilege that I get to write about these things and I want to take a moment to appreciate that I have these freedoms and I have the right to talk about them, and question them. Not everyone has these rights, as intimated in the recent Ai WeiWei documentary (haven’t seen it, just heard them talk about it on the gabfest)

Feel free to comment if you have any answers, these are just questions.

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