I love our Declaration of Independence. Maybe it’s because I’m an American and it’s been so deeply imprinted from my education and, face it, in our collective psyche. Our Declaration defines how we Americans view freedom and liberty, not just for ourselves but for all of humanity.
The opening paragraph says it all.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
- Truths that are self-evident
- Humans that are all created equal
- Unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness that are endowed by our Creator
- Government that is organized to effect our Safety and Happiness
The first three statements are expressions of natural law. These statements declare what it is that we vow to protect for each other as fellow humans. It matters not whether you believe these endowments come from your beliefs of a Creator, or whether you’re an atheist who believes the endowments come from the force of reason. Either way, we take them as unquestionably true.
I doubt that many of us would accept these statements as absolutes, however. When it comes to playing in the NBA, I’m certainly no equal to those whose height far surpasses mine (a compact 5’7”). And we’re certainly not all born into equal environments when it comes to being adequately nourished and loved. Even equality of opportunity, a seemingly more achievable objective, will likely always evade us. There are simply too many human frailties that will always stand in the way of actual physical or material equality.
Rather, we should think of our shared equality as equality of value. There is no doubt that some of us are more artistic or more athletic than others. Some are more intellectual or more creative than others. Some are stronger or more skilled than others. But equality-of-value demands that we treat each other equally. And that we demand our government treat us all equally as well.
When every human is equally-valued by all of us, we will aspire for everyone to achieve whatever potential they desire for their lives. When every human is equally-valued by all of us, we will be predisposed to seek prosperity and reduce suffering wherever we see it. When every human is equally-valued by all of us, respect for human diversity in its many forms will be unquestioned.
Those too short to get a high-paying job in the NBA will still have a chance to realize their human potential. Those born into poor or dysfunctional families will still have a chance to realize their human potential. Those afflicted with misfortune will still have a chance to realize their human potential.
But realizing our full human potential also requires that each of us have those guaranteed rights.
... among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
As strictly worded, these rights might be taken as absolute. We know they are not. Though we might debate the morality of the death penalty, few would disagree with the premise that taking another’s life to defend one’s own is not immoral. Who would argue that my liberty stops at the point of taking the property or life that you rightly enjoy? Who would argue that my freedoms begin to diminish at the point they begin to collide with yours?
Thomas Jefferson clearly recognized that liberty has its limits:
Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.
Let's wrap up by talking about that last right - the pursuit of happiness.
The pursuit of happiness is not code for a selfish, greedy, or self-indulgent lifestyle. Some, obviously, will choose to live such a lifestyle and thus remain stuck in the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And that's fine. But most people assume much more more when they think of happiness.
Happiness for most of us includes a sense of intimacy with our chosen partner, being with family and our chosen friends, and being a contributing member of the fabric of civil society. We are individual and social animals whose happiness comes from self-esteem as well as being accepted and valued by others. A full human life seeks happiness through various individual choices for work, community involvement, self-actualization, altruism, and spirituality.
The historical record makes it clear that this is what Jefferson had in mind when he substituted “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for John Locke’s “life, liberty, and property”.
The Declaration of Independence asserts that legitimate government must not be destructive of our inalienable rights, but must be based on such principles and organized in such a form as to effect the safety and happiness of its people. Note that the Declaration of Independence calls on government to protect us, not vice-versa.
I’m pretty sure King George didn’t see it that way.