The Pursuit of Happiness Under Natural Law

[NOTE: This is the fifth in a series of posts intended to work out the principles of Natural Law. It builds off of the posts that have come before it.  If you have not already read Rights Bubbles: the Origin of Universal Morality, I strongly suggest that you do so before reading this post, as this post is a continuation of the former and everything that comes before it.  I also ask that you understand, while this is not technically a formal argument, neither is it a casual argument.  Thus, it is not necessarily the easiest thing to read, but then, this is because I am trying to explain some difficult concepts in a manner as easily understood as I know how.  I trust that you will bear with me.  In return, I will break the whole into smaller, more easily digested posts.]

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.—

To this point in our construction of Natural Right and natural Law, we have been able to deduce that we have a Natural Right to our Life and our Liberty, as Jefferson so eloquently stated in the Declaration of Independence.  But what did he mean by “the pursuit of happiness?”  If he intended this phrase to mean we have a Natural Right to pursue emotional pleasure, then, according to the principles we have developed thus far, this would contradict with the Natural Rights of others to their Lives and Liberty.  So we shouldn’t be too quick to assume this is what Jefferson and our founders meant.  Rather, we should go back in history and look closer at what these men understood this phrase to mean.  But first, let’s look at a couple definitions, because they will be key to understanding Jefferson true intention.

Let’s start with:

Definition of MORALITY

2a : a doctrine or system of moral conduct

b plural : particular moral principles or rules of conduct

3: conformity to ideals of right human conduct

4: moral conduct : virtue

That last definition for morality holds the key to understanding what Jefferson was saying:

Definition of VIRTUE

1a : conformity to a standard of right : morality

b : a particular moral excellence

3: a beneficial quality or power of a thing

4: manly strength or courage : valor

5: a commendable quality or trait : merit

Therefore, a virtuous life is a life spent in the pursuit of building a moral character; of pursuing what is right; doing the right thing – especially when it is difficult or comes at a personal price.  This was considered to be the highest aspiration one could hope to achieve in life by the Greeks, and by many of the men who so heavily influenced the thinking of our founding fathers.

To better understand this, we need to understand that “the pursuit of happiness” – in this sense, the sense of pursuing a moral and virtuous life – was actually a legal concept in our founders’ time.  I wrote about it in more detail here, but the foundation of this legal principle can still be found in the writings of the most respected and most influential legal mind of our founders’ time, Sir William Blackstone.

From Blackstone’s Commentaries:

When the Supreme Being formed the universe, and created matter out of nothing, he impressed certain principles upon that matter…  When he put that matter into motion, he established certain laws of motion…  If we farther advance to vegetable and animal life, we shall find them still governed by laws;…  [The operations of inanimate and organic processes] are not left to chance, or the will of the creature itself, but are performed in a wondrous involuntary manner, and guide by unerring rules laid down by the Creator…  Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his creator, for he is an entirely dependent being…  And consequently as man depends absolutely upon his maker for every thing, it is necessary that he should in all points conform to his maker’s will.  This will of his maker is called the law of nature.

Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765)

 The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the holy scriptures…  These precepts…are found upon comparison to be really a part of the original law of nature,…  As then the moral precepts of this law are indeed of the same original with those of the law of nature…the revealed law…is the law of nature expressly declared to be so by God himself;…  Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws…the law of nature and the law of God…

Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765)

In this context, the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of the moral and virtuous life; a life lived in agreement with Natural Law.  As only the moral and virtuous life leads to a deep and lasting happiness that can pierce through even the temporary pains of emotional trouble or distress.  It is the life of putting duty to others and to society before one’s personal desires; of seeking truth and wisdom; and of reaching above, of transcending our base animalistic nature to become the best than humans can be.  This is in perfect agreement with the understanding of Natural Rights and Natural Law that we’ve developed so far, and I contend that this is what Jefferson and our founding fathers actually intended when they wrote those words (I write a bit more about the value of the virtuous life here).

[NOTE: for an excellent exposition of the historic development of this and other related concepts, please see Chapter 2 of Gary T. Amos’s book, “Defending the Declaration.”]

Related Post:

To What Purpose, Liberty?

Next in this series:

The Natural Right to Contract

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