The Evolution of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

By Edi Birsan, Mayor of Concord

As we celebrate the birth of our country with the Declaration of Independence and its stirring narrative of “inalienable rights… Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  It may give us an opportunity to reflect on the evolution of those things that we call rights.

First, it should be noted that by “inalienable” it generally is agreed to mean things which you cannot give up.  Yet at the time of its writing, newborns of slave mothers were automatically made slaves without liberty or the prospect of independent pursuit of happiness.  Right to Life itself was less murky back then since they did not have machines that prolong life nor the prospect of clone replacements.  The social norms around suicide were rather stark with religious dogma not bringing the “right to suicide’ into the public discourse, even though the suicide statement of Socrates was a classic translation exercise of the elite educated in Greek or the old Latin rewrites.  Abortion was not officially banned nor was it on the media radar. However, in fairness, the concept of media was limited to newspapers and discussions at pubs. Oh, and radar had not even been invented.

When you acknowledge that people have the right to life, does that mean that they also have the right to clean air, water and maybe a right to those things that sustain life?  Or does it really mean that you have the right to struggle for your very life’s existence?  Are things which endanger your life such as disease, lack of food, and shelter to be dealt with because they threaten your life?

Second, the right of liberty had a strange (from a 21st century bias) viewpoint: men had the liberty to vote, but not women.  People had the liberty to own slaves.   You were at liberty to partake of any substance you wanted in the form of drink, food, or chew or smoke.  Have we evolved to lesser liberty in that regard?  Certainly.

Third, what is the scope of the Pursuit of Happiness?  What is happiness to be pursued?  If the founding folks had the technology of today, what would be the thread on hashtag Liberty?  Note that it says PURSUIT.  It does not say obtain nor was it overwhelmingly clear what nature of happiness they were talking about specifically.  So are we expected to be underachievers in the happiness department forever pursuing and never enjoying?

All these ideals have evolved in many different ways into the current century where we talk about health care, environment, and education as rights of life itself.  And as for our liberty, our government is at liberty to determine what you are allowed to eat, smoke, and drink.  The pursuit of happiness remains as the great unknown as it was over 200 years ago.   Through the decades, we have seen it evolve from happiness being a warm cookie, to a kissing embrace, to a day without a tweet from Washington. (D.C., not George.)

Through all this, we need to remember that the Declaration of Independence was setting a pathway forward with what at the time they felt were grave restrictions on their life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  It is for us to continue along the many paths that were started then and evolve with what we hold to be self-evident.