Life, Liberty, Happiness

By | July 4, 2007

It’s a fairly simple story, really. From the time we figured out that those oddly angled thumbs of ours prove useful when it comes to making stuff and doing stuff, our story – not necessarily the story of any particular people or nation, but the story of all of us – has been about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That’s what we wanted. That’s what we’ve been trying to get, even though we weren’t able to articulate that exact formula until the very recent past, and even then only a relative few of us have explicitly endorsed it.

Although we’ve always wanted these three things, we haven’t been particularly good at securing them for ourselves. In fact, there’s been a long pattern of some of us working against the rest of us – so we end up with a few achieving some measure of liberty and happiness by depriving others of their ability to enjoy these things, or by depriving them of their lives.

But we are only part of the problem. In seeking out life, liberty, and happiness, humanity has faced three formidable enemies:

Oppression
Poverty
Death

Oppression and poverty stand in the way of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Death seeks to deprive us of all the good things we strive for by removing the medium in which we might enjoy them: our lives.

Throughout most of our history, two of these three enemies would have dogged humanity no matter how nice we were to each other. Human beings can subject each other to poverty and to death, but death would still stalk us even if we didn’t stalk each other – and the world would still have failed to provide for all our needs (much less wants) even if the strong had never preyed upon the weak. Oppression, however, is a purely human affair. Oppression is entirely self-inflicted. The natural world might challenge us in many ways, but it’s shown no inclination towards enslaving us. It doesn’t imprison us for expressing our opinions, take our homes away in the name of the “common good,” or tell us whom we may marry. It doesn’t collect taxes from us. It doesn’t issue traffic citations, make us fill out forms, or forbid our eating trans-fats.

Our ability to eliminate oppression is entirely up to us. Today is the anniversary of a group of human beings deciding to throw off what seems now, in retrospect, a fairly mild form of oppression – mild, at least, compared to some of the horrors that our fellow human beings have suffered both before and since. In framing their explanation as to why they were doing what they were doing, the founders gave us the formulation of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” explaining that these are not just good things, they are fundamental rights. No individual, no nation, no philosophy that seeks to deprive us of these things – however mildly or however horribly – can ever be tolerated.

What they started 231 years ago today still goes on. Can humanity overcome oppression? Those of us who are celebrating today, and many who have since followed our example, are living proof that the answer is yes.

What, then, about the other two great enemies?

In fact, we have made significant gains against both over the same two centuries. People live much longer and healthier lives now than they ever have before, and they have access to more material goods and information than was even imaginable a short time ago (on the human scale.) And those of us who watch these areas closely know that our progress to date is only the beginning. In the near future, technology can provide us with lives free from any threat of disease or aging and with material abundance beyond what we have ever dared hope.

Yes, technology can provide those things; I don’t say that it will. Just as human beings can free themselves from oppression, though we may not all choose to. The capability is in our hands, or will be soon. What we need is the recognition of that capability, and the will to realize it.

So let’s take it from the top…

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

Oppression sucks
Poverty sucks
Death sucks

…and go from there.