Paul P. Mealing

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Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Freedom, justice, happiness and truth

This is the subject of the Question of the Month in Philosophy Now (Issue 108, June / July 2015). The actual question: What's The More Important: Freedom, Justice, Happiness, Truth? Please give and justify your rankings in less than 400 words.

Someone I showed this to said that the question was grammatically incorrect because it should be 'What's The Most Important'. However, I pointed out that then you would only discuss one of them and not all four.

Obviously, I don't always respond to the Question of the Month, even though I'm a regular subscriber and have been for a number of years. I'm not sure why I chose to respond to this one, except that it looked like a challenge. It's certainly something that I hadn't entertained before.

What's interesting is that when I started to write it, I had no idea how I'd rank them. I've done this before and it's actually very satisfying to resolve a philosophical issue simply by writing about it without much contemplation beforehand. It's similar to the spontaneity one finds when writing fiction, where I believe it's a necessary part of the process. Below is my submission.


To answer this question one must contextualise it and the context I choose is relationships. Relationships between spouses, relationships between governments and the people they govern, relationships between parents and children, relationships between employers and employees and relationships between figures of authority and the public at large. Because all these qualities: freedom, justice, happiness and truth; may have other contexts, but it’s in relationships that they are most important and 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 because justice without truth is injustice. Justice and freedom are interdependent and require balance. Paradoxically, freedom is dependent on justice, because without justice we would have anarchy and only the powerful would have freedom. Here trust is 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; suicide and self-harm are often the consequences 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, 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 requisite to them all is trust.