Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Which Comes First?

October 29, 2017 — 1 Comment

A reflection on abortion and physician assisted suicide from the perspective of our nation’s most cherished rights and duties

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At the heart of almost every pro-life issue, there is a fundamental divide between the right and responsibility to life and the right and responsibility to freedom. This divide is particularly apparent in the topics of abortion and physician assisted suicide. With abortion, there is a division between the unborn baby’s right to life and the woman’s right to freedom. With physician assisted suicide, there is a division between the person’s responsibility to life and his or her right to freedom. Aside from these individual rights and responsibilities, there are concerns about the societal effects that these decisions carry with them. What does it mean to live in a society that values a woman’s right to freedom over an unborn baby’s right to life? What does it mean to live in a society that values a person’s right to freedom over his or her responsibility to life? In this talk we will examine these issues.

Nowadays, one often hears talk about rights, but one rarely hears talk about responsibilities. A return to the wording of our Declaration of Independence will provide something essential about the relationship between rights and responsibilities. The Founding Fathers declare,

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. — 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, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

In our founding document, everyone can clearly observe the notion of “rights,” but it is more difficult to discern the notion of “responsibilities” or “duties.” The document references “rights” frequently, but it only references “duties” on one occasion: namely, our duty to seek independence from an unjust regime.

The interpretative key rests in the phrase “these ends.” What are “these ends?” Are they life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness themselves, or are they merely the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? If the ends are the former—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness themselves—then it would seem that the government has a responsibility not only to guard these rights of the citizens but also to promote the rights’ objects. If the ends are the latter, then it would seem that the government only has a responsibility to defend rights, not to intervene in the promotion of objects of the rights themselves.

Two details lend themselves to the interpretation that the Founding Fathers thought of the ends as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness themselves. The first detail has to do with the one use of the word “duty” previously mentioned. The text reads, “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce [people] under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” Here one notes that either the Founders (1) used the terms “right” and “duty” somewhat interchangeably or (2) thought that a right has a corresponding duty. In either case, it is difficult to maintain that the Framers of our Nation were pure libertarians on the matter: they held the government has the duty to construct laws that promote life, liberty, and happiness as much as the government has the duty to secure citizens’ individual rights to these objects.

The second detail has to do with the new government’s job of affecting “safety and happiness.” It is one thing to say that the government has the duty to guard against affronts to life, liberty, and happiness, but it is quite a stronger thing to say that the government has a duty to promote safety and happiness themselves. The inclusion of the “safety and happiness” clause suggests that the Founding Fathers thought it was beneficial to have a positive or constructive understanding of government: the government not only tears down oppression but also builds justice. Political ends are not only rights to goods but also goods themselves. The government must take some responsibility for encouraging our life, our liberty, and our happiness.

This reasoned interpretation of the Declaration of Independence does not sit well with proponents of the ideology of choice, whether in the case of abortion or physician assisted suicide. The opposition overlooks the positive and constructive role of the government and, instead, demotes government to guardianship of the shrine to individual liberties. The golden calf of this shrine is freedom, indiscriminate of its relationship with life and happiness. A corrupted concept of freedom as “the absolute ability to choose” has become the idol of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The chief philosopher or ideologue of this cult is Jean Paul Sartre. In his book Of Human Freedom, he claims, “Freedom is precisely the nothingness which is made-to-be at the heart of man and which forces human-reality to make itself instead of to be” (38). For him and his band of disciples, the human has no duties that correspond to its God-given nature. A person is free to choose anything, even to murder. The depraved motto is “I do what I want.” Always placing itself at the foot of the individual, the government’s role reduces itself to guarantor of this Sartrian freedom. In this dystopia the government’s only sin can be “oppression,” and an individual’s only sin can be negative judgment of another’s free decisions. The safety and happiness of the Declaration of Independence become slaves to the master of liberty. The government is not pro-life or pro-human flourishing. It can only be pro-choice.

However, a true student of history and philosophy will know lex est magistra vitae (the law is life’s teacher). Culture is often downstream from law—the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage being the chief example of our age. When the government permits or prohibits, it teaches. It is here that the pro-life movement must correct the wrongs of abortion, physician assisted suicide, and other affronts of liberty against life. Proponents of life ask the government to defend not only rights qua freedoms—now the phrase “right to x” means “freedom to/of x”—but also to proactively support life and integral flourishing at the individual and communal levels.

It is now clear that individual liberty is not the only goal of government, but the specific legal relationships among life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness remain ambiguous. The government may defend the rights as well as the responsibilities to all, but what happens when these rights and responsibilities are in conflict? Is it better to be radically free or to simply be alive?

The issue of physician assisted suicide illuminates this conflict acutely. The pure libertarian stands for the legality of the fatal procedure because each person has absolute dominion over his or her body and because there are no direct negative consequences to others. Furthermore, the assisted suicide may relieve a great deal of pain, which might otherwise continue indefinitely. How can the proponent of life defend his or her opinion in the face of these seemingly valid justifications? Is the duty to continue living absolute?

To begin a case for life, it is essential to double back to the proper role of the government: to ensure the freedom as well as the safety and happiness of its citizens. Physician assisted suicide is certainly not “safe”—killing is the opposite of safe—but the procedure’s claim to happiness is more difficult to ascertain. An assessment of the resultant happiness depends heavily on one’s philosophy and religion. It seems that there is a complication: physician assisted suicide is pro-freedom, anti-life, and somewhat religion-philosophy dependent on happiness. The case is ambiguous, so it seems appropriate for the American people themselves to decide, not the judicial interpreters of our legal rights and duties.

The Constitution forbids the establishment of a state religion, but it does not forbid people to vote based on their religious views. What does the Catholic Church have to say about the matter? Following good ancient philosophy as much as Jesus, she thinks that our lives belong to God, who alone should have the awesome responsibility of deciding the dividing line between life and death.

Furthermore, the Church’s understanding of suffering is different from that of the world. The world is hedonistic: it seeks pleasure, success, and autonomy. It teaches that one’s life decreases in value or dignity to the degree that suffering, failure, and dependency increase. The world’s horizon is life, this life.

The Church is different. Her standard is Jesus Christ. Her motto is love, not only erotic love but also self-sacrificial, committed love. She teaches that one’s dignity is infinite because God is its source. The Church’s horizon is infinite and eternal. Suffering here is for but a moment compared to the eternal life to come. When a Catholic suffers, he or she unites that suffering to the sacrifice of the cross, trusting that pain and strife are redemptive. The Catholic knows that God himself has entered into the depths of suffering in his Son, Jesus, who has made suffering love salvific. One who knows that God has plumbed the horror of suffering no longer fears it. The apostle writes, “Death, where is your sting?”

To conclude, it is fitting to consider the pro-life mission in this contemporary culture that fears suffering and death yet paradoxically refuses to embrace the renewal of life in the womb. A proponent of life from conception to natural death is like a prophet who preaches the best of the American legal tradition alongside the best of religious tradition. The Creator has endowed every person with certain rights, and these rights are foundational because of the truths that they defend. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are goods in themselves, and the government has the duty to defend and promote their fulfillment. When these goods come into conflict with each other, it is up to the American people to decide the road ahead. May we choose to uphold the sanctity and inviolability of life, which find their foundation in God, the one who fixes the “the Laws of Nature.”

Presented at Loyola University Chicago, October 29, 2017

Best wishes,

David J.W. Inczauskis, S.J.

One response to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Which Comes First?


    I was once on a panel discussing the narrow “pro-life” issue of abortion. I was arguing from a socialist continuum of life perspective, others were pro-fetus and others pro-choice. No one was pro-abortion. One woman who was attending then spoke during question period and congratulated all of us for our well reasoned arguments. She was herself in the pro-life camp in the Anglican communion, but she explained to us that she had given birth to a son wit severe physical and mental disabilities. She and the family went to extraordinary efforts to care for this child until he died in his early 20’s. As she reflected on all those years, and the impact on herself and all the family, she felt that given the choice again she would chose abortion, because of the pain and suffering endured by her son and the loss to all the family in all those years in terms of what the family had to give up and neglect to care for that one child. Recently I did hear of a hypothetical situation that you might start with: in a fertility laboratory there is one child and a fridge with 1000 frozen embryos. You must leave because of a fast spreading fire and must choose between the one child or the 1000 embryos. What do you choose? Real life sometimes get in the way of our well developed theories!

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