The Declaration of Independence is not a legal document, not like the Constitution. There is nothing in it that establishes law or structures or anything of the sort. Nevertheless, we hold it as a foundational document, especially that part about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." So let's look at that for a moment:
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.Yes, I'm skipping over the equality part this time (sort of) because I talk a lot about equality. Not that I'm skipping it, I'm just allowing it to be understood that all (adult) humans have the equal unalienable rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Also, there is nothing in this that is a pro-life statement. I'm not arguing that one way or the other, so we're going to use the arbitrary definition of talking about "adults." Children do not, under the law, enjoy full rights. If they were allowed to pursue happiness in whatever way they wanted... well, it just wouldn't end well.
I think the order of these three things is important, kind of like Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics:
1. All humans have the unalienable Right to Life.
(A robot may not injure a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm.
2. All humans have the unalienable Right to Liberty (freedom) except where it would deprive some other human of his/her Right to Life.
(A robot must obey orders from humans except when it would cause a conflict with the First Law.)
3. All humans have the unalienable Right to pursue their own Happiness except when it would deprive some other human of his/her Right to Liberty and/or Life.
(A robot must protect its own existence as long as that does not conflict with the First or Second Law.)
Just for a moment, because there is SO much in this to talk about, and I'm not even through quoting the Declaration at you yet, let's talk about this whole happiness thing, because I think we have it all messed up. Actually, I'm sure of it.
See, we've come to believe, somehow, that our Right is actually to Happiness itself, not the pursuit of it. We Americans have come to believe that we Deserve to be Happy. Part of me wants to blame it on McDonald's and that whole "you deserve a break today" crap, but it has as much to do with the current of cult of positivity as it does anything else.
The real problem isn't even the Happiness itself; it's that we have somehow decided that Happiness is the primary Law. We've culturally decided that our own individual Happinesses come ahead of other people's Liberty and Life. And that's just fucked up. No, seriously, it is.
Here's from an actual conversation I had with someone back around the end of October/beginning of November last year (yes, that puts it heading into the election):
Him: But I want to make more money at my job.
Me: It's the Democrats who want to raise the minimum wage...
Him: Fuck that! I don't want to raise the minimum wage. I won't get a raise if the minimum wage is raised. In fact, I don't want it raised at all.
Me: But it would help...
Him: Fuck them! If they can't get a job that pays better than minimum wage, then they don't deserve to make more anyway.
Me: I was going to say it would help the economy, but that's an amazing attitude.
Him: I don't care about the economy. I just want to make more money.
Clearly, he didn't have any real concept of what the economy even is, and he was adamant in his disdain for minimum wage employs, lumping most of them in as "Mexicans, anyway, probably illegals" who don't deserve anything better than they're getting especially if it meant that he wasn't going to be better off.
And he's not the only person I've talked to with that attitude, just the most flagrant about it. He had, as most people seem to have, no qualms about his own "happiness" coming at the expense of others, and he believed it was his Right. At some point toward the end of the conversation, he even said, "I have a right to be happy," which is about where I quit, because there's no good way to approach that mindset. Sure, you can say, "Well, actually, no you don't. No one has the Right to Happiness," because the response is always, "Why not?" And, possibly, "If other people get to be happy, I should get to be happy, too." And, well, those people are already missing the point.
I have to add, here, that facebook culture doesn't help with all of this, but I'm not going to go into that. There have been plenty of studies showing the validity of "keeping up with the FB Jones" and how destructive that whole thing is. And, now, I'm wondering if that's a 50s thing, which would take this whole issue back to the Boomers, probably the most narcissistic generation in the history of the world. Seriously, there's a book about it which I want to get because it sounds fascinating.
What I do know for certain is that we, as a cultural, have to abandon this idea that we have a Right to Happiness and that it's okay for it to come at the expense of others. The pursuit of happiness is not the same thing as the happiness, and we have to give up on the idea that it is and on the idea that having a lot of stuff is what is going to do that for us.
In fact, your Right to pursue your own Happiness doesn't get to come at the expense of others' Rights to pursue their own Happiness. If you think it does, you're the problem.