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The Philosophical Problems of the American Dream

Adjunct Professor of English at Bryant & Stratton College. He has a M.A. in English from National University.

Explore some of the philosophical problems behind the concept of the "American Dream."

Explore some of the philosophical problems behind the concept of the "American Dream."

What Is the American Dream?

Once upon a time, the “American Dream” was a national ethos that promoted the values that her people would hold so dearly, such as liberty, freedom, and social mobility. However, an opposing point of view was put forward by American author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who portrayed the modern era of America as lacking in social and moral values resulting from cynicism, greed, and the empty pursuit of pleasure. As he put it in his famous novel The Great Gatsby, “It is what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.”

Fitzgerald was one of the first pioneers behind this criticism of the modern American Dream. Over time, the American Dream has wandered away from the true end of life. It has become an unstable routine filled with superfluous desires that have led the masses of men to lead lives of quiet desperation.

The purpose of the American Dream, in the modern era, is characterized by converting hard work, education, and access to the American marketplace into a better future for oneself and one’s family by means of financial stability, materialized wealth, and perhaps honor and recognition. However, as much as this dream is appealing, it is a lofty ideal.

Is the Dream Dead?

According to Trziana Dearing, the CEO of Boston Rising, in her article Where is the American Dream Today?, the “American Dream” may be dead. She said, “The poor are getting poorer. They are increasingly being isolated into ever-poorer neighborhoods, which makes it that much harder to break out. Jobs are not recovering with the recovery, and another recession could hit before they ever do. Our knowledge economy increasingly leaves behind people with poor educational attainment—a factor also correlated with poverty.”

Was It Ever Justified in the First Place?

In a compelling new book, Creating an Opportunity Society, Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, “two of America’s sharpest social-policy analysts”, claimed that America’s record could not even entirely justify this dream. More than 60 percent of Americans whose parents scaled the top fifth of the income ladder have reached the top two-fifths themselves, Haskins and Sawhill found. By contrast, 65 percent of Americans with parents from the lowest fifth of earners remain stuck in the bottom two-fifths.

Though we venerate the American Dream, studies show that children born to low-income parents in the United States are more likely to remain trapped near the bottom than their counterparts in Europe, the authors report.

The Advantage of Education

According to Haskins and Sawhill, many factors constrain upward mobility in America, including the decline of the two-parent family and bad personal decisions such as teen parenthood. But another reason the escalator is slowing for many on the bottom is that income is now so dependent on education. Today, four-year college graduates earn about 80 percent more than workers with high school degrees. That’s more than double the gap in the 1960s.

Young people who begin with the most advantages are considerably more likely than the less well-off to add the advantage of advanced education. Sawhill and Haskins report that children of parents in the top fifth of income are now more than twice as likely to attend college, and nearly five times as likely to graduate, as are children of parents in the bottom fifth. Separate research from Thomas Mortenson of the nonpartisan Pell Institute shows that this income gap in college completion has widened substantially since the 1970s. Children whose parents obtained college degrees are now nearly five times more likely to complete college themselves than are children whose parents did not.

According to Haskins and Sawhill, these are deeply unhealthy, even destabilizing, patterns. If advanced education is the key to economic success, it’s dangerous to reserve it primarily for those who start out on top. Such ossification is a recipe for class and racial conflict, particularly if the economy remains weak. “It’s a completely unsettling trend,” Haskins says. Thus, my question is, why are people still believing that this dream is still attainable? What is building up such ill-fated faith?

The One Percent

Perhaps the advocators of this seemingly mythological dream are none other than the people who benefit the most from it; large business owners, the “1 percent”, Wall Street! It seems to me that these are the people with those great “success stories”, that persuade the masses of men by inflating them with such chicaning rhetoric, “If you work hard enough!”, or “You can do it too!” And yet, this fantasy is manipulated by an obvious yet undermining problem in human nature; greed. How it can fly over the heads of so many Americans, I do not know. But let me fill the many lacunae in the “American Dream” that the “1 percent” forgot to tell you.

The “American Dream” can only be fulfilled by the hands of others. The fame or wealth that one seeks can only be gifted from one person to another. The honored one relentlessly pursues is entirely dependent on whom one seeks that honor from and if that person sees it fit. This life is externally dependent, provocative of no ultimate end, and is fleeting, if at all existent, based on whether it is managed to be obtained.

Henry David Thoreau, American author, poet, and environmentalist, would agree with this statement based on this excerpt from Walden, “Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them”. Thus, Thoreau believes that setting out to attain the “American Dream” is counterproductive to achieving the true end of our life.

Happiness vs. Pleasure

We are filled with the false sense that the “American Dream” will make us happy. However, we must not confuse happiness, in its truest form, with pleasure. Happiness, as Aristotle defines it in his Nicomachean Ethics, is “eudemonia”, when translated to English, flourishing or living well. This is opposed to pleasure, which is a mere physical delight, or the more preferable form, according to Aristotle, intellectual delight.

According to Aristotle, happiness or “eudemonia” is the ultimate end in life because happiness is not desired by any means; it is the only end within itself. Thus, to want only pleasure in life, you lock yourself within a chain of means with no ultimate end. For example, one goes to college as a means to get a job as a means to make more money as a means to buy the latest car as a means to… and it goes on indefinitely without ever achieving the true end of happiness.

When people are stuck in such “chains of means”, as mentioned in the example above, their lives become characterized by instability. This instability is caused by two chief principles: 1) The ideal benefactor of “happiness”, according to the “American Dream”, is always fleeting, and 2) trends are always changing.

Seizing the Dream for Only a Moment

Turning the pages back on time, if MC Hammer, an American rapper of the 1980s and 1990s, were to record an album today, it would be wildly unsuccessful compared to his past successes and today’s popular artists. He is not living the “American Dream” anymore. The increased cost of living and other various effects of inflation plagued any hope of him continuing to live in such a way that he did or even surviving in a market that must comply with the demands of new trends. Also, the fact that he unwisely spent the vast majority of his wealth on dispensable luxuries, found himself in a lawsuit that cost him millions and is now bankrupt, which does not help his cause either.

Ultimately, those who desire to achieve the “American Dream” are chasing it relentlessly only to never grasp it, or they either seize it for a mere moment before the wind takes it back.

Has Pursuit of the Dream Degraded Our Social and Moral Values?

This is the frustrating reality that drives dreamers to immortality. To stabilize their lives and obtain their fame, fortunes, and luxuries, people often become selfish and corrupt, envious of those who manage to reach the spotlight, regardless of which facet bestows such honor. Whether that facet is the media, Hollywood, the mayor of Buffalo, or your professor, that honor is temporary and is flushed back down the drain to reality.

From a scholarly report by Chun-Hua Susan Lin and Ling-Yu Melody Wen, Academic Dishonesty in Higher Education reached a startling consensus concerning the degrading social and moral values that are linked to the “American Dream”. In a sample of 2,068 college students throughout Taiwan, Lin and Wen selected and surveyed on four domains of academic dishonesty, including cheating on a test, cheating on an assignment, plagiarism, and falsifying documents.

The major findings of this study were: (1) the prevalence rate for all types of dishonesty behaviors among college students in Taiwan was 61.72% (2) the top five most practiced academic dishonesty behaviors in Taiwan are provided paper or assignments for another student, gave prohibited help to others on their assignment, copied others’ assignments, passed answers to other students, and copied from other students; (3) students’ attitudes correlated with behaviors in all four domains of academic dishonesty; (4) females reported less acceptable to and behaved less academic dishonesty behaviors than males; and (5) freshmen had more dishonest practices than other class ranks.

My analysis of these statistics is that the 61.72% of students who are cheating in their higher education classes do not care about their education as a means to “Eudemonia” or even as an intellectual pleasure, but merely as means to a job, which is a means to wealth, which is a means to superfluous desired luxuries… This corruption is initiated in order to taste the “American Dream”. But this corruption destroys not only the perpetrators’ virtue, but it degrades social and ethical values, and it destroys the dreams of those in the propinquity of them; a selfish injustice, to say the least. But what exactly is their justification for such atrocity?

How Do We Justify Immorality?

Perhaps they long to be comparable to the luxurious and dissipated neighbors, who set the fashion trends which the herds follow so diligently. Those who pursue the “American Dream” are much sought after for the materialized objects of possession that the wealthy can afford. These superfluous and foolishly desired luxuries are both costly and dispensable. Another excerpt from Walden supports this claim, “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

Essentially, in order to afford a luxury item, extra money is needed to pay for it; thus, extra labor is needed to obtain that money. Ultimately, if the luxury item is bought, the owner must make more money in order to provide an upkeep of the luxury. In turn, the owner must now work more hours only to be self-sufficient. In the end, the owner creates unnecessary work for himself, only to be as self-sufficient as he was before he bought the luxury item.

Philosophical Views on Work and Happiness

This brings up the question, if we limit how much we work, how can we be happy?

Bertrand Russell

According to Bertrand Russell, philosopher, social activist, and educationalist, the road to happiness lie in an organized diminution of work. He said that our attitudes towards work are irrational because we assume that work is good in itself and that we value different types of work differently. Russell believes that these attitudes lead to unhappiness. He said, “Immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous… The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.” Here, Russell is clearly bashing the entire concept of the “American Dream”, that being; if you work hard enough, you will be rewarded with wealth and social mobility.

Henry David Thoreau

Another passage from Thoreau in, Walden, also supports this claim, “As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at it them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.”

Here, Thoreau raises an interesting parallel that we could compare to large modern-day enterprises, in which thousands of workers make minimum wage and spend their lifetime for some “ambitious booby” such as Donald Trump. The only difference is that modern-day slave workers, by law, have to make at least a minimum wage.

How Can We Afford Anything?

Ultimately, Russell comes to the conclusion that we should recognize what work is genuinely valuable and only do that, thus leading to his final statement that working less will increase human happiness. So, if we work less, we can be happy, but then how can we afford to buy anything?

Eudemonia and Material Comfort

As stated before, the “American Dream” provides that we work hard in order to earn enough money to buy our luxury possessions. Working less would be deemed as counterintuitive to the “happiness” endorsed by the “American Dream”. Yet, we must remember that the “happiness” promoted by the “American Dream” is merely characterized by external pleasures, which are inferior components of achieving a true state of “eudemonia”. According to Aristotle, only the intellectually and morally virtuous person can reach “eudemonia”. He does, however, mention to some degree that we do require some fulfillment of material comfort in order to live a decent life.

Diogenes of Sinope on the Good Life

To gauge exactly how much external pleasure is needed in order to live decently in the material world, Diogenes of Sinope, a cynic philosopher in 400 BCE, believed that in order to lead a good life, or one worth living, one must free themselves from external restrictions imposed by society, and from the internal discontentment that is caused by desire, emotion, and fear; namely those same desires, emotions, and fears that are related to the relentless journey in pursuit of the “American Dream” today.

Diogenes then states that in order to escape this tragic romanticism, one must be content to live a simple life governed by reason and natural impulses, rejecting conventions without shame and renouncing the desire for material comfort and property.

Essentially, Diogenes comes to the conclusion that “he, who has the most [happiness], is content with the least.” This makes sense when it is thoroughly considered. When a young couple buys their first house, they may not be richer but poorer from it, and it is the house that owns them. Housing foreclosures have skyrocketed in the past years; I, from most recent experiences, was a victim of living in such a house-poor anomaly. Also, those who wish to sell their houses after becoming so deeply in debt to pay for them are unable to move, and only abandonment, foreclosure, or death may set them free from that piece of earth.

The Tools of Our Tools

Not only expensive houses endorsed as a part of living the “American Dream” provides such extraneous encumbrances, but also unnecessary attachments to the newest technologies have the same effect. Totaling these unnecessary possessions, and totaling the cost of upkeep and maintenance required for those possessions, and totaling the amount of extra labor required to pay for those expenses, one undeniably will come to the consensus that they are not worth the lifetime and energy ascribed to such luxuries. As Thoreau would have said, “Men have become the tools of their tools!” and for what, a questionable liberty?

The Dream Distracts Us From Life’s Meaning

It would be impossible for every person to live the “American Dream”. We could not will that everyone is famous, wealthy, or honorable, for if we did, there would be no such things to strive for. It would be unrealistic to say that everyone is famous because if everyone were famous, we would all be nobodies. Same to say if everyone was wealthy, there would be no such thing as wealth. For everyone to be equal and free there would not be such a thing as the “American Dream”. But this is what leads the masses of men to lead lives of quiet desperation; by creating overly anticipated means to glorified ends, distracting us away from our true meanings in life.

In a recent news article, 1 in 2 New Graduates are Jobless or Underemployed, by Hope Yen, a journalist for the Associated Press, shows exactly how going to college and being guaranteed a well-paying job is nothing more than the inflated fantasies promoted by the “American Dream”. According to this article, About 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years. Out of the 1.5 million who languished in the job market, about half were underemployed, an increase from the previous year.

Broken down by occupation, young college graduates were heavily represented in jobs that require a high school diploma or less. These young adults with bachelor’s degrees are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs such as being a waiter or waitress, bartender, retail clerk or receptionist, and it is confounding their hopes a degree would pay for itself despite higher tuition and mounting student loans.

This illusionary “American Dream” may be the demise for Kelman Edwards Jr., 24, of Murfreesboro, TN, an interviewee from the same article. After earning a biology degree last May, the only job he could find was as a construction worker for five months before he quit to focus on finding a job in his academic field. He applied for positions in laboratories but was told they were looking for people with specialized certifications.

Edwards said, “I thought that me having a biology degree was a gold ticket for me getting into places, but every other job wants you to have previous history in the field”. Edwards reportedly has about $5,500 in student debt and recently met with a career counselor at Middle Tennessee State University to find an escape route. The counselor’s main advice: Pursue further education. Edwards’ response was, “Everyone is always telling you, ‘Go to college’. But when you graduate, it’s kind of an empty cliff.”

Thus, my last question, which I am tempted to put to the proprietor of such great impropriety, is, who bolsters you? Are you one of the ninety-seven that fail or the three who succeed? As Thoreau states in Walden, “To make a railroad round the world available to all mankind is equivalent to grading the whole surface of the planet. Men have an indistinct notion that if they keep up this activity of joint stocks and spades long enough, all will at length ride somewhere, in next to no time, and for nothing; but though a crowd rushes to the depot, and the conductor shouts “All aboard!” when the smoke is blown away and the vapor condensed, it will be perceived that a few are riding, but the rest are run over -- and it will be called, and will be, “A melancholy accident.”

No doubt they can ride at last who shall have earned their fare, that is if they survive so long, but they will probably have lost their elasticity and desire to travel by that time. Thus, spending the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy questionable liberty.” This is what the “American Dream” can offer us; if you are one of the 3, “congratulations for beating the system, you have earned your materials!” However, if you are one of the 97, you ought to keep on dreaming – “and may the odds be ever in your favor!” Of course, you should be critical of my criticism. This essay is merely a cautionary tale to expose the gloving of the epitaph inscribed upon the “American Dream”.

Works Cited

Buckingham et al. (2011). The philosophy book; aristotle. (1 ed., Vol. 1, p. 58). New York, NY: DK Publishing.

Dearing, T. (2011). Where is the American Dream Today? Retrieved from

Edward, K. (2012). Interview by Hope Yen [Personal Interview]. 1 in 2 new graduates are jobless or underemployed, Retrieved from

Fitzgerald. (2002). The great gatsby. Retrieved April 19, 2012, from

Haskins, R. & Sawhill, I (2011). Creating an Opportunity Society. Retrieved from

Lin et al. (2007). Academic dishonesty in higher education - a nationwide study in taiwan. (Doctoral dissertation)Retrieved from

Russell, B. (1932). In praise of idleness. London, England: Simon & Schuster.

Sinope, D. (2011). The philosophy book; diogenes. (1 ed., Vol. 1, p. 66). New York, NY: DK Publishing

Thoreau, H. (2003). Walden and civil disobedience. New York, NY: Fine Creative Media, Inc.

Yen, H. (2012, April 23). 1 in 2 new graduates are jobless or underemployed. Retrieved from