Liberty, Licentiousness, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Replica of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, closeup

The Declaration of Independence famously affirms inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As I discussed last week, the heavy lifting of the adjective “unalienable” means that people cannot give or otherwise transfer these rights away. Inalienability is a restriction on rights’ holders. This immediately changes implications of the terms. To wit, today Americans often think of liberty as “autonomy.” Indeed, in the Supreme Court notably defines the Fourteenth Amendment liberty guarantee as a protection of individual autonomy. According to the Declaration, however, inalienable rights to life and the pursuit of happiness exist in tandem with liberty. In the philosophy of the Declaration, “liberty” cannot mean, say, a right to alienate one’s life by committing suicide, assisted or otherwise. So the inalienability of the rights to life and to the pursuit of happiness necessarily structure the meaning of liberty in the Declaration.

Read More

American Liberty and the “Pursuit of Happiness”

In reflecting further on the issues raised by Ted McAllister’s emphasis on the American historical experience of liberty in this month’s Liberty Law Forum, I find myself returning again to consider the meaning of a particular phrase of the Declaration of Independence: “the pursuit of happiness.” I have written about this before in other places, but McAllister’s highlighting of historically lived experience, brings out the significance of this passage even further.

Read More