“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.”
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 “absolute despotism.”
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 eudaimonian 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 autonomy.
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 reasons.
“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.
Secondly, 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).
When 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.
This 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.
Consequently, 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 beneficial way.
The “pursuit of happiness” can easily, as is only too evident, degenerate into the pursuit of power.
The 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 natural law).”
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 self-forgetful love.
Donald DeMarco is a professor emeritus at
St. Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor
at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and Mater Ecclesiae College.