Pursuit of Happiness as a Natural Right

Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty: Natural Law and Natural Rights, addresses the pursuit of happiness as a natural right.

…The myriad of post-Locke and post-Leveller natural-rights theorists made clear their view that these rights stem from the nature of man and of the world around him. A few strikingly worded examples: nineteenth-century German-American theorist Francis Lieber, in his earlier and more libertarian treatise, wrote: “The law of nature or natural law . . . is the law, the body of rights, which we deduce from the essential nature of man.” And the prominent nineteenth-century American Unitarian minister, William Ellery Channing: “All men have the same rational nature and the same power of conscience, and all are equally made for indefinite improvement of these divine faculties and for the happiness to be found in their virtuous use.” And Theodore Woolsey, one of the last of the systematic natural rights theorists in nineteenth-century America: natural rights are those “which, by fair deduction from the present physical, moral, social, religious characteristics of man, he must be invested with . . . in order to fulfill the ends to which his nature calls him.”

If, as we have seen, natural law is essentially a revolutionary theory, then so a fortiori is its individualist, natural-rights branch. As the nineteenth-century American natural-rights theorist Elisha P. Hurlbut put it:

The laws shall be merely declaratory of natural rights and natural wrongs, and . . . whatever is indifferent to the laws of nature shall be left unnoticed by human legislation . . . and legal tyranny arises whenever there is a departure from this simple principle.

A notable example of the revolutionary use of natural rights is, of course, the American Revolution, which was grounded in a radically revolutionary development of Lockean theory during the eighteenth century.[6] The famous words of the Declaration of Independence, as Jefferson himself made clear, were enunciating nothing new, but were simply a brilliantly written distillation of the views held by the Americans of the day:

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 [the more common triad at the time was “Life, Liberty and Property”]. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the people to alter or to abolish it.

One thought on “Pursuit of Happiness as a Natural Right

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