The Obligation to Pursue Happiness

Alternative Hypotheses explores rights are obligations and can be applied to the pursuit of happiness.

…Here we come to the fundamental paradox of modern liberalism. On the one hand, liberalism in all its stages has always treated human freedom as sacred. On the other hand, modern liberals also believe that in order to guarantee their freedom, they can in practice use the state’s coercive power to compel others to do what they believe is wrong.

This is the logical consequence of liberalism’s autonomy view of rights. Since the state is supposed to be “value-neutral” about what each party desires, in cases where human autonomy is at stake it really has no principled way to decide between competing claims. The result, more often than not, is not a fair contract between the two parties but an arbitrary exercise of political power, justified by the myth that we have a right to technological progress and convenience.

The natural law tradition avoids these problems by insisting that rights protect obligations rather than autonomy. Rights are tied to those goods objectively required by human nature for flourishing, such as life, truth, and virtue. Since we would suffer harm by neglecting to seek such goods, we have obligations to seek them.

…This simple idea has two enormous consequences.

First, it entails that no earthly power, no government of men, has absolute dominion over our lives, freedom, or conscience. As our founding fathers argued in the Declaration of Independence, the priority of natural rights and duties over man-made rights and duties entails that governments are limited by natural law. Governments are instituted in order to secure our natural rights, they wrote, and “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it”—or at the very least, to resist it.

The second consequence follows from the first. If rights protect our ability to do and be good, and if natural law has priority over civil law, then not only do we have a natural right to exercise ourselves in ways necessary for the fulfillment of our obligations, but we also have the right to refuse to obey when a government commands us to do what is wrong, which includes those things that we are obligated not to do. That argument also has a long pedigree, having famously been made by American abolitionists during the civil war, by the Nuremberg Court against Nazi war criminals, by Mahatma Gandhi against the British, and by Dr. Martin Luther King in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” to name a few.

…As diverse thinkers across the ages have held, human beings are born with the desire and the capacity to seek truth about issues of ultimate meaning. Whether we describe this with Aristotle as the universal desire of reason to know why, or with St. Augustine as a heart restless for relationship with God, this search defines us as rational beings.

Each of us has a duty to seek, then, as far as we are able and in our own way, the truth about first things. To refuse this duty is to neglect ourselves as human beings. Likewise, the equal dignity of every rational soul gives us an obligation to enable and encourage all persons’ honest and sincere search for truth.

Hat tip to Do Rights Protect Autonomy or Duties?

One thought on “The Obligation to Pursue Happiness

  1. I am reading a book an modern history written by an Aussie and it is funny to see how American history is written about. It laughed when I read “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, etc” (: The etc is as if to say blah blah with a roll of the eyes. Australian history is far more in line with English history.

    To me you have no “rights” Chris because this type of nonsense is just an attempt to excuse the excess of the wealthy. A State has every right to put limits on what the ruling class takes from a society and from the global community.

    And if you are not American, then the ‘Founding Fathers’ are slave owning traitors that make Englishmen look very civilized.

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