If you are like me and my family, you gathered with family, friends and other loved ones recently — whether on or around the Fourth of July — to celebrate our nation’s independence.
Maybe in a circle, joining hands, before enjoying hamburgers and hot dogs and potato salad, you paused to give thanks for our blessings, including our freedom. Maybe in this time of year you think about the Declaration of Independence and its stirring words, “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.”
Many philosophers believe Thomas Jefferson was influenced by English philosopher John Locke. Locke wrote of the God-given rights of “life, liberty and property.” In fact, Locke held the view that the main function of government was the protection of property rights.
Jefferson thought that property might be too narrow a concept, and so he substituted the term “happiness.” Among others, members of religious orders have demonstrated that someone can lead a life rich in meaning without holding private property.
Looked at in this way, Jefferson’s vision is more expansive and ennobling than Locke’s. Some philosophers have maintained that the highest level of happiness is found in service to others, rather than in merely seeking personal gain. Another position would hold that the pursuit of wealth is morally acceptable, provided it is sought in a morally acceptable way.
Both of these views are, in my own view, an improvement on Locke for the simple reason that they maintain that material gain is not the highest good. History is replete with examples of how material goods are not always good and sometimes actually have a corrupting influence.
The wisdom of Jefferson brings all of these issues into clear relief.
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are in fact inalienable rights. They cannot be taken away — although the degree to which they can be forfeited by our own behavior is the subject of legitimate debate.
In my ethics classes, we have vigorously debated whether capital punishment is in conflict with the unalienable right to life.
One thing we forget is the first part of what Jefferson said, “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the rights of everyone else with whom I come in contact.
These rights, said Jefferson, are given to us by God. My right to pursue happiness meets its limit when it interferes with another person’s right to life. My neighbor’s right to liberty does not include the liberty to destroy the life or belongings of another. With rights come responsibilities, and these inalienable rights we all receive from God can thus be a check and balance on one another.
Without a commitment to personal and social responsibility, such a system cannot work. But with these personal and social commitments — commitments to pursue happiness, but to do it ethically so others can pursue their own — everyone’s God-given purpose and potential can be achieved.
Clarence White is associate professor of philosophy at Ivy Tech Community College — Columbus/Franklin. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.