The events of the past few months have inspired me to take a deeper look at the philosophical concepts and political environment that this country was founded on. Often recently, I have heard people quote “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as a means to support ideals that are hedonistic, thus shirking social responsibility — for example, someone’s “right” to NOT wear a face mask in public or to move without restrictions during a global pandemic, or a corporation’s “right” to pollute the environment — and I would like to take a brief moment to explain how this is not in alignment with our founding fathers’ intentions.
When the founders wrote The Declaration of Independence, it was essentially a “Dear John” letter to the King of England, the most well-known section being the “self-evident truths”, which starts with, “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” and for most people, the section ends here, PERIOD. But that’s not actually how it was written.
The original Declaration of Independence did not have a period after “pursuit of Happiness”. A newspaper accidentally put a period there and circulated this document. Although the error was quickly corrected, this mistake has lead to many misprintings and consequently a common misunderstanding of the original text. In reality, instead of a period after “happiness”, there was actually dash, which makes the next statement part of the premise, NOT the conclusion, “–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –“ and the CONCLUSION is, “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. ”
Many people think that the section concludes with, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” with the point being our individual rights, causing them to assert that the government’s purpose is to facilitate hedonism, or the pursuit of pleasure. But the actual conclusion is that when government becomes destructive, the people have the right to alter or abolish it and replace it with government that better protects their safety and happiness. Good riddance, John. Don’t let the door hit ya where the Good Lord split ya.
It is NOT saying we have a right to do whatever we want despite its effect on other humans, and that the government has no right to impose laws and regulations that protect society as a whole. The Declaration of Independence clearly states that our government should be designed so as to best ensure our safety and happiness.
Do you disagree? Well, let’s look again and break it down into the form of an argument. This section is one enormous sentence with five clauses:
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.
So according to this section, the purpose of the government is to secure our Safety and Happiness, and “happiness” is not doing anything we want no matter how it affects other people. Happiness is choosing what you eat for dinner, where you live, what subject you study in college, whether or not you even go to college, what profession you choose, who (and of what gender) you marry, what your hobbies are, where you go on vacation, what color shoes you wear…NOT doing things that could harm other people like driving drunk, smoking in a public building, stealing, vandalizing, bullying, harassing, terrorizing, assaulting or killing other human beings, polluting the environment or risking others health by not wearing face masks during a global pandemic. These behaviors are not in alignment with the Safety and Happiness of the people, and they are not protected by this document.
So the next time you hear someone quote, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in order to avoid social responsibility and justify behaviors that harm or risk harming other people, do not be fooled. This argument shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the intentions our founding fathers had when they formed our union. These men sought to create a safe and fair society, one that EQUALLY respects and protects EVERY person. Hedonism was not a part of the plan.
© 2020 Jennifer Shipley
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