The Meaning of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”
BY JAMES JACOBS
As we celebrate once again the anniversary of our nation’s Declaration of Independence, we can rightfully take pride in its recognition that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These words remind those in government, not just in this country but in all nations, of the limits of their power, a moral boundary that must never be violated if the government is to retain its legitimacy.
Yet it is crucial for us to revisit this patrimony. I have no doubt most Americans can recite these words from memory; but I have great doubts that Americans interpret them in the same way. This is why these words should not merely be a text displayed in the museum of national memory. Rather, they need to be the principles that illuminate public debate and guide public reason. John Courtney Murray, SJ, reflected on the American political tradition in his book We Hold These Truths. He begins his analysis by reminding the reader that civilization is formed by men who create a community through deliberation. Thus, at the heart of every civilization, there must be an ongoing argument concerning the values that hold the people together. This argument must be made continually, for the people must be convinced that these values are true, and that there is in fact agreement about their meaning. Murray recognizes that without this argument, society would lack a stable foundation: “In the public argument there must consequently be a continued recurrence to first principles. Otherwise the consensus may come to seem simply a projection of ephemeral experience, a passing shadow on the vanishing backdrop of some given historical scene, without the permanence proper to truths that are ‘held.’”
It has become a cliché that America is a divided country. It is clear there is little agreement about the meaning of even these most basic principles. The right to life is questioned, especially for those at the beginning of life and those near its end; the idea of liberty has come to be understood as a libertine autonomy which pursues unfettered individual expression as the sole goal of life; and the pursuit of happiness is no longer seen to be the common good pursued by men together, but is now taken to license radical anti-social individualism. Each of these trends erode society, for if we lack agreement on these basic principles, we cannot hope to attain agreement on more controversial issues. If America is to survive as a civilization, we need to engage the public argument in order to rediscover the real meaning of these rights; we must agree on them as the common principles that constitute our moral union as a nation.
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