The Meaning of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”

As we celebrate once again the anniversary of our nation’s Declaration of Independence, we can rightfully take pride in its recognition that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These words remind those in government, not just in this country but in all nations, of the limits of their power, a moral boundary that must never be violated if the government is to retain its legitimacy.

Yet it is crucial for us to revisit this patrimony. I have no doubt most Americans can recite these words from memory; but I have great doubts that Americans interpret them in the same way. This is why these words should not merely be a text displayed in the museum of national memory. Rather, they need to be the principles that illuminate public debate and guide public reason. John Courtney Murray, SJ, reflected on the American political tradition in his book We Hold These Truths. He begins his analysis by reminding the reader that civilization is formed by men who create a community through deliberation. Thus, at the heart of every civilization, there must be an ongoing argument concerning the values that hold the people together. This argument must be made continually, for the people must be convinced that these values are true, and that there is in fact agreement about their meaning. Murray recognizes that without this argument, society would lack a stable foundation: “In the public argument there must consequently be a continued recurrence to first principles. Otherwise the consensus may come to seem simply a projection of ephemeral experience, a passing shadow on the vanishing backdrop of some given historical scene, without the permanence proper to truths that are ‘held.’”

It has become a cliché that America is a divided country. It is clear there is little agreement about the meaning of even these most basic principles. The right to life is questioned, especially for those at the beginning of life and those near its end; the idea of liberty has come to be understood as a libertine autonomy which pursues unfettered individual expression as the sole goal of life; and the pursuit of happiness is no longer seen to be the common good pursued by men together, but is now taken to license radical anti-social individualism. Each of these trends erode society, for if we lack agreement on these basic principles, we cannot hope to attain agreement on more controversial issues. If America is to survive as a civilization, we need to engage the public argument in order to rediscover the real meaning of these rights; we must agree on them as the common principles that constitute our moral union as a nation.

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Our Rights Grounded in Human Nature
I would suggest that the founding principles of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” can only be properly understood from the perspective of natural law. The natural law insists that rights are grounded in the reality of human nature. Human nature is a universal and unchanging reality which remains the same all over the world and throughout history. It is therefore an objective referent that can be discovered by reason anytime and anywhere. Only if we define rights as they are understood by the natural law can we be confident that there is reasoned agreement between citizens. Furthermore, we can also know that we are in agreement with the Founders who wrote the Declaration as well as all those generations who will inherit this nation from us. Thus, only through a natural law argument can an objective notion of rights be delineated. One may object that the founders were not directly influenced by St. Thomas and the Catholic natural law tradition; nevertheless, it is clear that the natural law permeated their thinking indirectly through the shared Christian culture and the heritage of British common law.

If it is true that we are a divided nation, I would suggest that the ultimate source of our divisions today lies in our radically divergent understanding of rights. In recent decades, the concept of a “right” has been separated from its objective grounding in human nature, and so it has become a purely theoretical reality which is infinitely malleable. Traditionally, the idea of right (ius) implied an objectively correct state of affairs wherein a human being behaves and is treated in a manner befitting that human nature. In contrast to this, modern philosophy has abolished the idea of a universal human nature. Thus, rights can no longer be defined according to these objective moral relations. In place of this objective foundation, rights now arise from mere subjective preferences which are to be protected from any interference by others. The sanctity of individual preference soon balloons to include the idea of entitlements, preferences that should be supplied for by others. A brief consideration of the public debates will amply demonstrate how there is no limit to what some will now claim in the name of rights: homosexual “marriage,” euthanasia, free health care, and even a universal minimum income. Thus, without human nature as an objective reference to determine what constitutes a right, the idea becomes an empty variable upon which individuals project the most arbitrary of preferences.

Against this modern notion of rights, let us consider what the natural law tradition says. In his seminal study The State in Catholic Thought, Heinrich Rommen defines a right as “that conformity to human social nature of social acts and relations between persons and between persons and things.” It is human nature itself, and in particular his social nature which implies necessary relations with other men, which determines what sorts of acts and relations are correct. Because they are grounded in human nature, these rights are not given by the state, much less dreamt up according to individual preference. Rather, they reflect what is necessary if a man is to realize everything of which human nature is capable, that is, to attain a correct relation with human nature itself. It is here in particular that I think some basic concepts from St. Thomas Aquinas can help to elucidate the meaning of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” as they relate to the reality of human nature.

Thomistic Explanation of the Declaration
A fundamental doctrine of Thomas’s account of the natural world is that there is an essential relation between what something is and what that thing does. If we see a tree with apples, we know it must be an apple tree since no other tree is capable of growing apples. In the same way, I would plant an apple tree in the hope to harvest apples, knowing that the nature of the tree is oriented to the act of growing apples. Thomas refers to this as a relation between “first act” and “second act,” with each “act” being a mode of reality. What something really or actually is (first act) determines what something really or actually does (second act). So, for example, he says, “There are two kinds of perfection, first and second. First perfection is the form of each thing, and that by which it has its act of existing…. Second perfection is operation, which is the end of a thing or the means by which a thing reaches its end.” Notice that there is an important difference between these two kinds of reality. What a thing is, its first act, remains constant and unchanging as long as the thing continues to exist. But what a thing does is constantly changing: in a few minutes I might be sitting, walking, thinking, and sleeping. Moreover, what a thing “does” also includes attaining properties, like weight, complexion, and location, which are also changing. Thus, all natural beings are in a constant state of development and change with respect to their properties, but the thing itself remains stable as the underlying cause of these changing properties.

But this fact of changing properties also reveals another important truth. The changes that occur are not normally capricious, but manifest a systematic order: all the activities and properties are directed to one activity that is the ultimate goal for which nature exists. For example, all the changes an apple tree goes through, from germination to growing flowers, are ordered to the growing of fruit. In fact Thomas says that God creates natures for the sake of the activity, for that activity is essential for the perfection of the universe as a dynamic whole. Thus, he says, “Indeed, all things created would seem, in a way, to be purposeless, if they lacked an operation proper to them; since the purpose of everything is its operation. For the less perfect is always for the sake of the more perfect: …so the form which is the first act, is for the sake of its operation, which is the second act; and thus operation is the end of the creature.”

And what is the activity to which human nature is directed? It is happiness. But happiness is the goal of human nature, common to all people, and so is an objective truth. Happiness most emphatically is not something that each person is free to define for himself. Just as an apple tree finds its perfection in growing apples, happiness as the perfection of human nature must be defined in terms of the distinctive powers that set humans apart from other natures: reason and free will. Accordingly, happiness is the activity of growing in wisdom and love, an activity that can only find completion in the Beatific Vision in which we know the Truth itself and love God who is goodness itself. Nevertheless, in this world man is called on to attain a limited happiness; and this fact is the source of human rights. Rights are derived from whatever is necessary for man to attain happiness in terms of wisdom and love.

Correctly Understanding Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
Let us apply this back to the Declaration. The natural law can reveal a very specific meaning to our right to life and the pursuit of happiness. Aristotle argues that life is the being of living things; that is, the very existence of animate beings is tied up with life. The powers of life, which in man includes the powers of reason and will, are caused by the presence of a soul, which is, as Aristotle says, the form of the body. So we can see that the right to life relates to our first act as an individual entity, for as long as we exist as a living human being, we have the ability to grow in wisdom and love. Therefore, from the moment of conception to natural death, as long as a soul is present, a human being has a right to exist.

But humans live so that they may attain happiness. Thus, humans have a right to act in that most human way, to grow in wisdom and love. That is, since the goal of human existence lies in the exercise of reason and will, we have a right to be able to develop our intellect by growing in knowledge of truth and to perfect the will’s love of the good by delighting in the goodness of creation. It is clear, though, that for man to flourish in this way there needs to be more specific rights enabling the use of reason and will. Since knowledge grows through conversing with others, and love grows through friendship, these other rights focus on the necessary relations man has to others. Unlike so many of our contemporaries, however, who demand rights that reflect our random preferences, we can look to the Decalogue for guidance to know what humans really need. So, for example, there is a right to freedom of religion so we can know that God is in whom our ultimate happiness lies. Also, one needs a stable society in which peace is secured and justice protected, so there are authorities who have the right to be obeyed when deciding for the common good. In addition, a person has a right to a private family life as the first school of virtue, and so the sanctity of marriage must be protected. There are also rights to private property, so that one can attain maturity and independence by exercising stewardship. And if we are to grow in wisdom, there is a right to truthful communication with other people. In this way, as St. John Paul argued in Veritatis Splendor, the Decalogue indicates those rules that must be observed if we are to gain the happiness we all desire.

This leaves the Declaration’s right to Liberty. Again, Thomas’s philosophy can shed great light. In Thomas’s philosophy, “act” is always correlated with “potency.” While act is what something really is, potency indicates the ability to be other or change. The reason why our actions and properties are changing is that the nature has the potency to do something else: I am sitting, but can stand; I am heavy, but can lose weight; I am pale, but can tan. So, even though natures exist for the sake of their activity, it is also obvious that not all natures actually reach that activity: not all apple trees bear fruit, and not all humans grow in wisdom and love. However, each entity certainly has the power or inclination to attain its end. This is the potency inherent in any human being, whether or not he ever gets to happiness.

As mentioned earlier, the peculiar power by which a human being attains his end is through proper use of his reason and free will; it is through this potential that we achieve happiness. But reason and will are the source of human freedom, because we can know reality objectively and judge what ought to be done. So, while animals act on instinct alone, human beings have to exercise deliberative judgment. This choice is “right” if it conforms to the reality of human nature by maximizing wisdom and love, and wrong inasmuch as it departs from attaining wisdom and love. Liberty, then, is an ordered freedom, an exercise of choice for the sake of an objective notion of happiness. This is in stark contrast to how the right to Liberty has been interpreted in recent decades as an utterly unrestricted power. This is best exemplified in the notorious “mystery clause” from the Supreme Court’s 1992 Casey decision: “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 human life.” If this were the liberty defended by the Declaration, we could never have formed a society at all. Correctly interpreted, liberty does not mean we can do anything at all; it means that we can work toward happiness in a multiplicity of ways. Pace Justice Kennedy’s remarkable notion of liberty, man is not free to determine the nature of reality, especially the reality of human nature and the happiness that flows from it. Nevertheless, we do have freedom, for God has given different gifts to different people, and each must realize the vocation to which God has called him; our liberty lies in the ability to realize that for which we were created.

Our nation has prospered by protecting the rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. However, in recent decades, as we have forgotten both human nature and the God who created it, these principles have been interpreted in fanciful and destructive ways, causing seemingly insuperable divisions in society. If we take up the public argument required of every civilized people, we can restore the true meaning of these rights. To do so, we need only remember the most basic axiom of Thomistic philosophy: action follows from being. By attending to this, we can protect life in its entirety, and define liberty and happiness according to the truth of human nature, thereby securing the common good longed for by those who first founded the United States in the name of universal human rights.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Drafting the Declaration of Independence, 1776” painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930) for the Library of Congress.


  • James Jacobs

    James Jacobs is Professor of Philosophy and Assistant Academic Dean at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, LA. His major area of research is Thomistic natural law theory, and more generally the need for a philosophical realism as a response to modern nominalism and skepticism. Professor Jacobs earned his doctorate in philosophy from Fordham University.

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