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BY Donald DeMarco
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.”
So reads the second paragraph of the
Declaration of Independence, which the original 13 states of America passed
unanimously on July 4, 1776. It is worth noting that the independence that
Congress had in mind when it passed its declaration was not from religion,
reason or rectitude, but from Great Britain. More specifically, it was from an
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness!
Noting the dubious decision to enshrine the right to pursue happiness alongside
of two unimpeachable values, many have tried to find consolation in the equally
dubious maxim that “two out of three isn’t bad.” Not bad for a batting average.
But it can be fatal for anything organic. One can bleed to death from a single
wound. A solitary tapeworm can destroy its host. In feline arithmetic, 1 cat +
2 mice = 1 cat.
The problem with pursuing happiness
is, simply put, that happiness is not an object of pursuit. Bob Hope once
quipped that he found more meaning in “the happiness of pursuit.” As its
etymology informs us, happiness is something that “happens” when we are
pursuing something else. It is, as Gretta Palmer said in Permanent
Marriage, “a by-product of an effort to make someone else happy.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne understood this and expressed the point by a charming
analogy: “Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond
your grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” Happiness
has the paradoxical quality of eluding us to the extent we pursue it. It is
more correct to say that happiness pursues us (and captures us when our actions
are receptive to it).
Aristotle’s ethics is built on the
uncontestable fact that all men desire happiness. In fact, his ethics is called
precisely for that reason (eudaimonia =
happiness). But the “Master of those who know,” as Dante called him, understood
only too well that it is through a life of reason in accordance with virtue
that one attains this elusive ideal. Happiness is not merely a choice. If it
were, the whole world would be exhilaratingly happy.
Whereas people cannot pursue
happiness directly, as if it were an apple dangling from the lower branch of a
tree, there is no end of things that they can and have pursued in the vain hope
that they would secure this highly prized treasure. In this regard, they pursue
such vanities as pleasure, wealth, status, fame and power. Their acute
frustration lies in the fact that such pursuits carry them further and further
away from happiness. As we read in “Macbeth,” “My more-having would be a sauce
to make me hungry more” (Act IV, scene iii).
The great and present danger for
Americans results from their having misinterpreted the “pursuit of happiness”
as the pursuit of a certain kind of power that gives them, presumably, radical
As a result, in pursuing this power,
the lives and liberties of others get in the way. The Supreme Court stated in Planned
Parenthood v. Casey, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define
one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery
of life.” If one possesses such spacious liberty, it must necessarily encroach
upon the lives and liberty of others. As Abraham Lincoln famously quoted a
Western farmer who had an intriguing theory about land ownership, “I am not
greedy about land; I only want what joins mine.”
Why is it that the pursuit of power
is not synonymous with the pursuit of happiness?
Thomas Aquinas offers two basic
“It is impossible for happiness to
consist of power,” he writes, because “power is a principle” (not an end) and
because “power has relation to good and evil” (whereas happiness is an
unqualified good). Power, being a principle, is prior to something that is put
into action. It precedes its exercise. In this sense, power is like money; it is something that is a means to
an end, an instrument by which something other than itself is obtained. Both
power and money are media of exchange: the former used to bring about an
action, the latter to obtain goods or services.
power is ambiguously related to good. It is univocally related to good and
evil. Power that brings about evil is equally power as power that brings about
good. Therefore, the achievement of power cannot be the achievement of
happiness since happiness is both an end and an unequivocal good (Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q2, art. 4).
Aquinas presented his treatise on the natural law, he drew special attention to
its three primary precepts (Summa
Theologiae, I-II, Q. 94, art. 2).
The first precept is something we have in common with animals and plants,
namely, a natural inclination to preserve ourselves in being.
fundamental natural inclination is the basis for our right to life. The
second precept, which we have in common with all animals, is the inclination
and capacity to have offspring and provide for their care and education. This
is the basis for our right to love. The third precept of the natural law is proper to
man, “a natural inclination to know the truth about God, and to live in
society.” This is the basis for the natural right to liberty.
for Aquinas, the three most fundamental rights are not life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness, but life, liberty and love. It is precisely this love
that would put him at odds with recent Supreme Court decisions. The “pursuit of
happiness,” which is ambiguously related to happiness and equally relatable to
the destruction of marriage and the family, is not as firm or well-grounded a
natural right as the right to love one’s own children in a practical and
“pursuit of happiness” can easily, as is only too evident, degenerate into the
pursuit of power.
triad of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness contains within
itself its own seeds of destruction. They are not necessarily in balance with
each other because they spring from different grounds and are subject to wildly
different and even sometimes capricious interpretations. Life may be personal
in the social sense that Aristotle had in mind when he referred to man as a
“social animal” (zoon politikon). Or
it can be regarded in terms of the fictitious “autonomous self.” Liberty may be
the freedom to choose rightly or an individualized license that is radically
incompatible with the legitimate liberties of others.
During the International Congress on
Natural Law, organized by the Pontifical Lateran University of Rome on Feb. 22,
2007, Benedict XVI made the following comment about the natural law and how
true liberty (freedom) must be anchored in the nature of the human being: “Yet
taking into account the fact that human freedom is always a freedom shared with
others, it is clear that the harmony of freedom can be found only in what is
common to all: the truth of the human being, the fundamental message of being
itself, exactly the lex naturalis (the
Aquinas is wise in recognizing that
the natural law is grounded in the human being. Therefore, it has one root in which its three fundamental principles are
mutually compatible. He is also wise in recognizing that on this earth human
beings have much in common with both animals and plants, in addition to having
their own uniqueness. His understanding of the natural law is not concocted out
of thin air. By contrast, Robert Bork, in Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and
American Decline, has accused the
Supreme Court of creating, precisely “out of thin air,” the “general and
undefined right to privacy” that undergirds the presumed right to abortion and
its consequent assault on marriage and the family.
Life, liberty and love provide a
system of checks and balances. Love protects life and ensures that liberty be a
shared liberty for the good of all associations, from marriage and the family
to society in general. The infamous “sweet mystery of life” statement in the Casey
decision interpreted liberty so broadly that Justice Antonin Scalia
characterized it as the “passage [that] ate the rule of law.” It was a liberty
that had grown too big to be any longer compatible with life, love or
reasonable restrictions. Liberty that does not honor the liberty of others
cannot be a natural right.
Just as the respiratory, digestive
and circulatory systems operate harmoniously in the human body, so, too, must
life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness operate harmoniously in the social
order. This will happen only if people pursue their happiness through
Donald DeMarco is a professor
St. Jerome’s University and an
at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and Mater Ecclesiae