Liberty, Licentiousness, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Replica of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, closeup

The Declaration of Independence famously affirms inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As I discussed last week, the heavy lifting of the adjective “unalienable” means that people cannot give or otherwise transfer these rights away. Inalienability is a restriction on rights’ holders. This immediately changes implications of the terms. To wit, today Americans often think of liberty as “autonomy.” Indeed, in the Supreme Court notably defines the Fourteenth Amendment liberty guarantee as a protection of individual autonomy. According to the Declaration, however, inalienable rights to life and the pursuit of happiness exist in tandem with liberty. In the philosophy of the Declaration, “liberty” cannot mean, say, a right to alienate one’s life by committing suicide, assisted or otherwise. So the inalienability of the rights to life and to the pursuit of happiness necessarily structure the meaning of liberty in the Declaration.

But what about “the pursuit of happiness”? Today this phrase is usually understood to mean something like the right to chase after what gives one emotional happiness. That construction, however, makes the phrase effectively redundant with “liberty,” in the sense that both recognize a right to do what one wants to do. More knowledgeable readers, thinking of Locke or the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, suggest that “happiness” is merely the Declaration’s synonym for property. And, to be sure, the right to acquire the material conditions for life is an implication of this commitment. But there’s more.

Before considering “happiness” proper, we need to look at the “pursuit” part of the phrase. Commentators often remark that the Declaration does not guarantee the right to obtain happiness, only the right to pursue what makes one happy.

That’s probably an incorrect reading of the word’s import. First, the internal evidence in the Declaration is inconsistent with such a construction. Only a couple of clauses down the Declaration affirms that when a government no longer secures the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the people have the right to “institute new government” on such principles and in such form “as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” The Declaration here refers to government forms and principles that establish or result in safety and happiness, not the conditions that allow people to seek after happiness.

This later use of “happiness” complicates the notion that the earlier reference to the “pursuit of happiness” means only the right to chase after happiness. But what else could “pursuit” mean?

In a 1964 article in the William & Mary Quarterly, titled “The Lost Meaning of ‘The Pursuit of Happiness,’” historian Arthur M. Schlesinger argues that “pursuit” should be understood when used in referring to, say, “the pursuit of law” or “the pursuit of medicine.” That is, pursuit refers to practice or vocation. This reading has the virtue of being more consistent with the Declaration’s later invocation of “safety and happiness.”

As Schlesinger points out, understanding “pursuit” in this way gives a different cast to the phrase. If correct, the Declaration affirms “the practicing rather than the quest of happiness as a basic right equally with life and liberty.”

Understanding “pursuit” in this fashion raises its own questions. Few today refer to the practice or vocation of happiness, at least without meaning one devoted entirely to one’s own pleasure.

The political use of happiness around the founding meant something different, something more akin to eudemonia, meaning felicity or well being broadly understood. Critically, it commonly included an ethical or religious dimension. For example, in a letter to James Monroe in 1786, James Madison comments,

There is no maxim in my opinion which is more liable to be misapplied, and which therefore needs elucidation, than the current one that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong. Taking the word “interest” as synonymous with “ultimate happiness,” in which sense it is qualified with every necessary moral ingredient, the proposition is no doubt true. But taking it in its popular sense, as referring to the immediate augmentation of property and wealth, nothing can be more false.

Uses in public documents of the era include notable examples, such as the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which affirms that “the happiness of a people . . . depends upon piety, religion and morality. And, similarly, the Northwest Ordinance provides that “religion, morality, and knowledge” are “essential to the happiness of mankind.” Similar quotations references could be multiplied.

Now to put the phrase together again and stick it back into the Declaration. First, asking what it means that the “pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable right. Secondly, what does its inclusion as a right coordinate with life and liberty mean for the Declaration’s affirmation?

Per the Declaration, as with life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness is a right endowed by a creator and therefore is a right that cannot be alienated. As above, if the pursuit of happiness simply means the seeking after whatever one thinks would make one happy, then its inalienability makes little sense. But if the phrase refers to the practice or vocation of virtue’s felicity, then the inalienability of the right has bite. Just as humans do not have the right to commit suicide if life is an inalienable right, so, too, humans do not have the right not to engage in the pursuit of happiness, we do not have the right to forego our divinely-appointed eudemonic vocations. Indeed, as the Declaration affirms, governments are established to secure this right, coordinate with the rights to life and liberty. And governments can be replaced by the people if they become destructive of those rights.

So, too, the inalienability of life and happiness’s pursuit necessarily structures what liberty means in the Declaration. It simply cannot mean autonomy. Indeed, if the reading above is at all in the ballgame, then the Declaration’s articulation of inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness harkens to the old distinction between liberty and license. Because these rights are inalienable, there can be no right to licentious behavior, and there cannot be any such right regardless of whether that behavior implicates other people or not. Needless to say, such an affirmation flies in the face of most educated sentiment in the U.S. today.

Indeed, much modern American opinion and, more pointedly, modern judicial opinion, makes it a point to reject precisely that conception of liberty. And while broad swaths of Americans, even if only a sizeable minority these days, may still believe something akin to what the Declaration affirms, we don’t recognize that the Declaration does affirm it. The moral vocabulary of the American founding is a lost language for Americans today. To be sure, there are many who would respond “and good riddance” to that moral vocabulary. Still, while the words may be the same, it’s worth noting that Americans today sing distinctly American propositions in a different key. And it’s fair to ask whether the music is so different today that we’re really singing an entirely different song.

Reader Discussion

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on April 17, 2017 at 10:23:43 am

Well, this is an interesting and new (at least to me) take on the phrase "pursuit of happiness." As someone who has often made the "only the right to chase after happiness," claim, you've given me a lot to think about.

Are you aware of any versions of the Declaration of Independence and/or Constitution with annotations explaining how words have changed meaning like this? It might be interesting to read these documents in their "original language."

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Jon Murphy
on April 17, 2017 at 10:34:38 am

More to the point, however is this:

Who may be said to have caused these words to change? - the citizenry or the Judiciary (especially post-Warren court).

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on April 17, 2017 at 13:57:27 pm

Thank you, James Rogers. In the Ciceronian natural law tradition familiar to the American Founders, happiness was the byproduct of "perfection": mature moral development characterized by habitually virtuous behavior, with virtue understood first of all as active concern for the well-being of our fellow humans (corresponding to the second of the two commandments of Jesus Christ). And indeed "virtue" was part of the definition of happiness in the Continental Congress's May 1776 resolution establishing de facto independence.

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John Schmeeckle
on April 17, 2017 at 15:53:34 pm

My understanding of the phrase came from an aged and dusty tome I happened across in a University library. Unfortunately I have lost my recollection of the name of the book and its author.

The pursuit of happiness is comparable to the way a tree in the forest seeks sunlight. It stretches its branches out to receive the greatest benefit of the light. That is its nature. Its pursuit of better light cannot be removed from it since that is part of what makes it the tree it is.

People likewise seek out personal betterment, and likewise this seeking out is our pursuit of happiness. This tendency is part of our nature and like the tree's nature it cannot be removed from us. It is unalienable.

Interpreting "pursuit" to mean the static state of experiencing happiness is probably not correct. It that were the case the DOI's editors probably would have parsed the phrase down from "the pursuit of happiness" to just "happiness," unless perhaps they wished to employ the more lovely and longer of the two phrases while accepting the risk of losing conciseness and clarity.

Happiness in the DOI refers to that aspect of our nature which drives us to a better situation in life. In its context it means that government has the ability to deny us that right, but such a government's actions are not morally justifiable. The idea of being unalienable is a moral concept applied to government.

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Scott Amorian
on April 18, 2017 at 01:10:32 am

This aligns well with what Catholic moral theologians mean by "freedom", as distinguished from license: true freedom is the freedom to live in accordance with one's nature. This of course implies that it is no part of freedom to be able to kill one's self or otherwise choose to live in a manner inconsistent with one's dignity as a human being.

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Chris Lynch
on April 21, 2017 at 09:14:28 am

Scott Amorian has provided a good presentation of the Lockean scholarly assumption about the meaning of happiness in the Declaration of Independence. I have rebutted that assumption at length in "The Declaration of Independence without Locke: A Rebuttal of Michael Zuckert's 'The Natural Rights Republic,'" online at https://www.academia.edu/29164747/The_Declaration_of_Independence_without_Locke_A_Rebuttal_of_Michael_Zuckerts_Natural_Rights_Republic_

Regarding Arthur Schleshinger's 1964 "article" on the pursuit of happiness, this was actually a three-page mini-blurb, presented as a speculation, which can be decisively rebutted by observing actual usage at the time:

1. The 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights wrote of "pursuing and obtaining" happiness -- achieving a goal.
2. The Massachusetts 1780 constitution (written by John Adams) wrote of "seeking and obtaining happiness."
3. Burlamaqui's "Principles of Natural and Politic Law" -- the leading work on natural law for the Founders -- starts off by referring to the "noble pursuit [quest] of true and solid happiness," associating happiness with natural rights which governments exist to secure, just as in the Declaration of Independence.

These three points are all covered in "The Declaration of Independence without Locke."

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John Schmeeckle
on April 28, 2017 at 09:36:36 am


But, I think too many want to grant the DOI some powers as if it was an integral part of the Constitution.

As you know, the DOI is only that - a statement of grievances and philosophical ideas to justify separation from another government. It does not specify HOW the United States were to govern themselves. The Constitution laid out the powers of the Federal Government and should be the primary, if not exclusive, source of all legal rulings concerning individual rights in federal cases. Of course the DOI can provide some understanding to the context of the provisions of the Constitution, but should not be used to change the plain meaning of those provisions.

Case in point: "All men are created equal" in the DOI versus the expressed provision concerning the importation of slaves in the Constitution. The issue was solved correctly by amending the Constitution, not by a judge citing the BOR as authority to rule in a specific case.

Just my opinion, of course.

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Bryan Morgan
on May 22, 2017 at 14:56:09 pm

In reply to Bryan Morgan: The Congressional Resolution of May 10 and 15, 1776, was the precursor to BOTH the Declaration of Independence and (as Chief Justice Marshall alluded in Marbury v. Madison) the Constitution. This May resolution defines both the terms safety ("defence of lives, liberties and properties") and happiness ("internal peace, virtue and good order.") Discussion of this non-Lockean definition of happiness (which includes "virtue") has just appeared in a scholarly venue, here: http://startingpointsjournal.com/may-resolution-declaration-of-independence/

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John Schmeeckle

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