Are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness Still Self-Evident Rights?

Whether it is self-evident or not, it is the philosophical belief in the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that helped make America both great and good.

Declaration of Independence
Declaration of Independence (photo: Register Files / Public Domain)

On the Fourth of July, we Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence, the birth announcement of America to the world. We ponder these immortal words of Thomas Jefferson: “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.”  

Jefferson’s argument is not that the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to pursue happiness originate in government, but that these rights have a divine origin. Jefferson argued that the job of all governments was to “secure” rights that God had already granted.  In other words, the rights to life and liberty do not come into being with the force of government fiat; life and liberty are pre-political rights already granted by God.  Today, we have lost that concept.  Almost a quarter-millennia later, these rights are no longer considered self-evident, and neither is a Creator.  Once God and the natural law are disassociated from rights — once the idea of justice and goodness are separated from rights — we are left with a political environment in which anything could be considered a right, or nothing could be considered a right.

As Pope John Paul II said in Denver, Colorado at World Youth Day in 1993:

“When the Founding Fathers of this great nation enshrined certain inalienable rights in the Constitution…they did so because they recognized the existence of a ‘law’ – a series of rights and duties – engraved by the Creator on each person’s heart and conscience.In much of contemporary thinking, any reference to a ‘law’ guaranteed by the Creator is absent. There remains only each individual’s choice of this or that objective as convenient or useful in a given set of circumstances. No longer is anything considered intrinsically ‘good’ and ‘universally binding.’ Rights are affirmed but, because they are without any reference to an objective truth, they are deprived of any solid basis. Vast sectors of society are confused about what is right and what is wrong, and are at the mercy of those with the power to ‘create’ opinion and impose it on others.”

As Pope John Paul II saw and foresaw, once rights are viewed as mere arbitrary constructs with no relation or reference to our Creator, rights become a mere matter of whimsy — subject no longer to God, but to the fickle winds of public opinion.  Today, we are often told that it is not life and liberty, but their opposites that are self-evident.  We are told that the right to abortion and euthanasia are self-evident, and that religious liberties and liberties of conscience have no validation in law.   

Many of the founding fathers would consider this modern notion of rights — this notion that rights are merely what contemporary people say they are — bizarre. This might have been the thinking of the Enlightenment, but it was not the thinking of America’s founding fathers.  Though the founding fathers are often caricatured to be products of the Enlightenment, the Catholic political theorist Russell Kirk argues to the contrary.  In The Roots of American Order, Kirk writes:

“To America, the mentality of the Enlightenment scarcely penetrated. A few Americans of cosmopolitan experience, notably Benjamin Franklin, were affected by these doctrines — but even in them, the boundless optimism of the typical philosophe was chastened by direct experience of reality in practical America. A moderate Deism was the furthest advance of Enlightenment theories in the Thirteen Colonies.”

Rather than Enlightenment thinkers, Russell Kirk argues that the chief legal influence of the founders was William Blackstone, who recognized the eminence of natural law.  Kirk quotes Blackstone, who writes that natural law, “dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, and all countries, and at all times; no human laws are of any validity if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately from this original.” In this quote from Blackstone, it is difficult to ignore the echo of Saint Augustine, who wrote, “In temporal law there is nothing just and lawful, but what man has drawn from the eternal law.” 

The founding fathers generally recognized that human laws and rights should reflect each other, largely because they have the same origin.  Just as human law must come from divine law, so do rights ultimately come from God and from justice.  Rights flow from justice, and if a right cannot be traced to justice, it is no right at all.  Once a right, however, is traced to justice — the right to life, for instance — it has the “solid basis” about which Pope Saint John Paul II spoke. 

Indeed, as Jefferson noted all those July 4th’s ago, men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”  Whether it is self-evident or not, it is the philosophical belief in the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that helped make America both great and good. Let’s continue to promote and defend all three.

This article originally appeared July 4, 2017, at the Register.