The Pursuit of Happiness?
According to the Declaration of Independence we are endowed with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Government actions are thereby delimited as well as government obligations defined. Governments may do nothing to limit their citizens life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. On the other hand governments must secure these rights as far as possible. They must protect our lives and liberties and safeguard our pursuits of happiness.
We do not often reflect about what that means. I shall try to do that here. Our "inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness" is not straightforward at all; it raises questions we may find difficult to answer.
The right to pursue one's happiness, we believe, implies that one is free to follow one's own desires and ones own beliefs about a good life. For many of us that means that we should be able to marry whom we please. No one else should be able to force us into marriages we do not want. We should be free to follow occupations we choose for ourselves. No one, whether family members or government agencies should be allowed to choose for us what work we do.
We should each be able to shape our daily lives as we consider best. This family says prayers before and after every meal. In that other family everyone eats at different times what ever they please. There is no private or public agency that should be allowed to criticize the way of life we choose. It is a task of the government to protect us against anyone who would interfere with how we choose to pursue happiness.
So the government needs to guarantee for us the freedom to choose life partners, to choose occupations, to choose where we learn and what style of life seems best to us.
No doubt questions come to your mind as you read this. Some people choose lives that are clearly destructive of the lives of their family members: they take drugs, they drink too much, they lead a life of crime, they are violent and coercive. Should someone not try to stop them and protect their family?
The government's duty to protect our pursuit of happiness is very unclear and full of difficult decisions.
Are there other ways in which we can expect our governments to protect our pursuit of happiness?
Children who are unable to go to school are severely limited in their life choices. We therefore restrict child labor and we believe that educational opportunities should be available to everyone. (It is another matter that we do not always act on that belief.) Ill health restrict life choices and many of us believe that everyone is entitled to the best health care that is available.
I have recently, purely by accident, read several novels that describe in excruciating detail the suffering war imposes on its victims. One novel describes the terrible struggles against PTSD of a young woman Iraq war veteran. Another follows a German and a French child through the crucible of World War II. In a third we hear of the brutality practiced by both sides in "The Troubles" in Ireland. The experience of war, whether as a soldier or a civilian, if we survive at all, leaves us overwhelmed by our losses and consumed by fears and regrets, by guilt long after the hostilities have ceased.
What future is ahead for the children in Gaza who emerge from the shelters to find the streets blocked by the rubble of their houses? Their parents, if they survive, are consumed by grief and hatred. Their chances for choosing a life they want are severely limited.
If it is true that one role of government is to protect and foster our possibility to choose the best life for ourselves, then governments surely may not engage in the violence of war. Our government has fought a number of major wars since the end of World War II. In each we sent massive troops and airplanes into foreign countries. In each case the wars ended with many Americans dead and many veterans whose lives continue to be seriously afflicted. In each war we left foreign countries in ruins, we affected the genetics of the population that survived so that after several generations their children remain frequently afflicted by terrible genetic diseases.
The wars we have fought left masses of people whose lives will never be freed from the burden of terrible loss, people would never be able to feel completely safe again, people who would always struggle with profound despair, with guilt and horror.
If all human beings have an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, if governments are to protect that right, must governments not abstain from violence?
The temptation is to reject this question as silly, to say that we needed to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Korea and Vietnam to protect ourselves and our liberties. But before you soothe your conscience with that bromide, think hard about the victims of war, both of the wars we have fought, and the wars we have enabled by supplying military hardware to one or both sides as happened in the conflict in Gaza. The cliché that governments take refuge in, that they must wage war in order to promote peace, is laughable. Governments have killed and plundered for thousands of years in order to promote peace. So far that hasn't worked. Why should it suddenly begin to work today?
If governments are to protect our right to pursue happiness, they must dedicate themselves above all to an end of all violence.