The Meaning of the “Pursuit of Happiness”
Religion & Liberty Online

The Meaning of the “Pursuit of Happiness”

“The right to ‘the pursuit of happiness’ affirmed in the Declaration of Independence is taken these days to affirm a right to chase after whatever makes one subjectively happy,” says James R. Rogers, associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. “Further, the Declaration doesn’t guarantee the right to happiness, the thought usually goes, but only the right to pursue what makes you happy. This reading of the Declaration’s ‘pursuit of happiness’ is wrong on both scores.”

Arthur Schlesinger Sr. observed in an obscure book chapter that “pursuit” has a particular meaning at the time of the Declaration. While less employed today, this secondary meeting nonetheless remains in use when referring, for example, to the pursuit of medicine, or the pursuit of lawyering, etc. In this sense “pursuit” means occupation or practice. We might even think of it in the sense of vocation.

So “the pursuit of happiness” means something like occupying one’s life with the activities that provide for overall wellbeing. This certainly includes a right to material things, but it goes beyond that to include humanity’s spiritual and moral condition.

That the “pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable right—one that cannot be given away—and that governments have been tasked to protect it suggests a relationship between government and humanity’s moral ends in tension, if not in outright contradiction, with modern liberalism. It seems to assume an objective moral order from which a person may not alienate himself.

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).