Wednesday, July 5, 2017

"We Hold These Truths": Life, Liberty, and Happiness

On the occasion of this Fourth of July celebration, I would like to reflect briefly on those fundamental rights presented in America's Declaration of Independence, the rights that every human being possesses by virtue of the fact that he or she is created by God.

I am not going to interpret what Jefferson or the other founders were thinking, or what their historical intentions and motivations were in making these general claims in a highly complex and controversial political context. That is another very interesting topic in its own right, but I will not pursue it here. In this post I am more interested in unpacking the real implications of the "truths" that are identified by that most famous statement in the document:

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.

Leaving aside the epistemological and ethical methods that philosophers are concerned with, let us simply say that these truths are "evident" to the common sense of adult human beings who live a real engagement with the world and with one another. They are some of (not all of) the basic features of being human. If these rights do not resonate with our human experience, then something is fundamentally skewed in our perspective, our relationships, and the environment and condition in which we live.

The merit of the Declaration is its explicit articulation -- in political terms, in terms of the structure and government of society -- of these basic realities that ought to be grasped at least implicitly by common sense and that apply to every human being simply because they are human. These words have inspired people for the past 241 years because they correspond to people's more or less implicit sense of human dignity, justice, equity, and communal life.

Many other considerations enter into how these rights (and others) are understood concretely. It is so easy to lose the focus of common sense, to reduce a moment of insight into a construction of words and ideas that can be manipulated and distorted to serve the agenda of dehumanizing power and violence.

The history of the past 241 years is proof enough of that.

However, insofar as "we hold these truths" in a way that remains faithful to the human and personal existence that has been given to us and to the promise for life that reality evokes in our hearts, we will be much enriched. We will draw out many important implications for personal and social life, and see that there is much yet to discover about being human together.

Here I would just like to reflect on some aspects of these rights in the light of the fundamental value of the human person (which is the profound and essential point of the statement that "all are created 'equal'").

First we affirm the "right to life," because every human being is a person created in the image of God, whatever their condition, social or economic status, abilities, or state of dependence, however they may be perceived by others, however "useful" they may or may not be regarded, whatever their shape, form, hue, or disposition. The right to life, the right of every human person to be protected and loved -- poor or rich, young or old, weak or strong-- exists from the miraculous moment of conception, when the person comes into existence through the unique creative act of God and is first entrusted to the immediate, intimate care of another person, to the woman who will forever be their mother. It extends all through life with its challenges and struggles and suffering, all the way to the moment of natural death when God calls the person to Himself.

We recognize the "right to liberty," because the human person stands in an original relationship to God, and therefore "belongs" alone to that Mystery who transcends the whole universe. The human person lives in communion with other persons, in relationships, in marriage and the family, in communities and civil society, and is called to work for the common good. The original relationship with God entails the capacity and responsibility for relationship with other persons, and such is the realization of freedom. But the human person must never be reduced to something less, to a mere "thing" to be used and discarded. The human person cannot therefore be owned by any other person, cannot be defined by human power or expedience, cannot be forced or manipulated to act against their conscience -- where they stand before the "measure" of God -- nor prevented from seeking and serving the One who alone corresponds to them, who makes them to be who they truly are and leads them to their destiny.

This leads to the third of these basic rights that are proper to being a human person: the right to the "pursuit of happiness." It really is hard to deny such a right, because we have been created to be happy. Human life is a search for fulfillment. As persons, we live by exercising our freedom in this search, and in establishing a relationship with this fulfillment, this "happiness" which is ultimately personal, communal, and mysterious.

Happiness. We all know that we are made for it, and that we must "pursue" it because we do not yet have the fullness of it. But what is happiness?

The American founders have expressed something important here: governments cannot impose or define what ultimately fulfills us, what makes us finally happy as human persons. When governments try to impose a happiness defined by the limits of their own power, they become monstrosities. Whatever might be the good intentions of those who try to construct a utopia, they inevitably become warped and destructive. A political order that tries to erase the drama and the pain and the beauty of the great questions and desires that underlie the pursuit of happiness cannot help crushing the human spirit in the end. And, as the history of the past 100 years has taught us only too well, they also crush human bodies; they sacrifice the lives of human beings on a gigantic, horrific scale.

We must stress, of course, that "happiness" is not an empty term, or a vague reference to the anarchy of "everybody-just-do-what-you-feel-like-doing." The latter view, advocated by some today, only leads to other monstrous, inhuman arrangements. The feelings and interests of the isolated human being are too easily manipulated, diverted, and enslaved by those who are clever and devious enough to build their own fiefdoms of power and profit. There is a delicate and prudent but also very necessary place for various levels of government in protecting human freedom from those who would steal its potential or bend it to their own corrupt purposes.

Overall, politics fosters the common good of human beings living together in this world, using the resources of this world to build an environment that gives context and makes space for the human search for happiness, the human response to the total and mysterious vocation of life. 

Government should protect and
cultivate the human places where happiness blossoms and reveals itself. This is its essential and modest responsibility and the scope of its authority among human persons as they journey together through this life to a transcendent destiny. That goal of ultimate happiness is a mystery that the experience of life never ceases to promisethat it whispers even in the most desperate circumstances. Governmental authority, on various levels, indeed has a role in addressing those "desperate circumstances" that afflict people's lives in this world, especially those that are the consequences of injustice. And there are no shortage of these problems.

But the promise of happiness is written in the human heart by One who is infinitely greater than anything in this world. All human authorities must give way to the One who reveals this "happiness," who makes it possible to encounter this destiny and taste its fulfillment, the One who convinces the human heart of the sure path to destiny.

The human person must be free to follow that encounter that promises and communicates the fullness of life. This is the reality that underlies the "right to the pursuit of happiness" that the American founders indicated, however partial or incomplete their particular conceptions of this pursuit may have been.

Above all, we want to be free to pursue happiness where the beauty of happiness is revealed and given to us, where this convincing beauty shines and draws us onward, calling us and corresponding to the depths of our freedom.