Thursday, July 4, 2013

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Many people sneer at the famous words of that slave-owning white guy written down a couple centuries ago.  So let us think what these words should mean to moderns like us in the year 2013 CE.
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.
What does it mean to have an unalienable Right to Life?  No doubt it meant to those old white guys the right not be be killed at the pleasure of some government functionary or puling aristocrat.  But in our age we understand more completely what it means.  It means that we are not on this earth to follow a career, or to be a creative artist, or a political activist.  It means that our job has to do with Life, its creation, its birth, its nurturing, its preservation.

In the old days the facts of life were inescapable; that's why the rules about courtship and marriage were so strictly enforced.  But ever since the sexual revolution and the practical availability of effective contraception and abortion it has been possible to forget about the facts of life, to treat the sanctity of life with oblivious disregard.

We humans are here on this earth firstly to attend to Life.  And for the vast majority, a life that ignores Life is a life wasted.  In other words, a life without children is a life of folly.  The fact that we have loosened the bonds of custom to allow people to live lives oblivious the the facts of Life means that people are free to make the life-wasting decision to utterly ignore the importance of Life.  The right has responded to this by attempting to legislate boundaries to abortion, but I think that is a mistake.  We criminalize too much in our society.

We should build a culture that celebrates Life, that judges a childless life to be an incomplete life.  We should build a culture that makes abortion safe, legal, and shameful.  We should brand sexual libertines as selfish children.  But let's keep the criminal law out of it.

What does it mean to have an unalienable Right to Liberty?  No doubt it meant to those old white guys the freedom of the city against the serfdom and the domination of the landed aristocracy.  But for us it means the right to live your life without constant supervision from the administrative state.  It means that everything that is not specifically forbidden is allowed, and that the list forbidden things should be short and succinct.  This does not mean that everything is allowed and Katy bar the door.  It means the real meaning of freedom: we are free to make mistakes.  If we do not allow young people to go off and make mistakes, then we do not have Liberty.

What does it mean to have an unalienable Right to the Pursuit of Happiness?  No doubt it meant to those old white guys the acquisition of property.  That is how John Locke presented it before Thomas Jefferson changed life, liberty and property to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  But it was a felicitous choice of words, for it implies more than just the economic world of work and acquisition.  It suggests instead a larger life project.  It suggests the individual's right and responsibility to find his own way to contribute to society.  For happiness is not just the bliss of release from work on a weekend, but the satisfaction of having contributed something to your fellow humans.  He cannot be happy who has merely worked and labored for himself alone.  He is happy who has labored and created for others, and loved and thought of others.  The rights of Life and Liberty only make sense if they free us to contribute to our fellow humans in social cooperation.

Today, July 4, 2013, the United States of America stands in a perilous place.  The plans and the shibboleths of our educated ruling class lie shattered and twisted all around us.  America aches for a new birth of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, yet no savior offering Hope and Change is in sight.

Nor should there be.  The millennarian hope that climaxed in 2008 in the days after the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States was a chimera.  All extravagant hope based upon politics is a chimera.  What is needed, what is always needed, is for each individual, and each little platoon, to use his or her right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness to build hope and change in his own life and in the lives of those immediately around him.

In that is the promise of America, and in that is the foundation of our glorious American Exceptionalism.

No comments:

Post a Comment