IG’s Peace Blog

Peace and its many aspects

the fourth on the fifth

I probably should have written this yesterday, but hey, it was a holiday, right?  🙂  Anyhow, I just wanted to reflect a bit on the U.S. Declaration of Independence.  This is always a bit risky, since the document and the people who signed it are regarded as sacred, or close to it, by many U.S. citizens.   Still, I think there is something to be gained by looking at a few of its basic ideas.

Most people are familiar with this passage (I think my mother made me memorize it at one point in my childhood):

“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.”

As is well documented elsewhere, what is expressed here is Lockean “liberalism” (not to be confused with the modern version of welfare liberalism).  You can learn about liberalism and its variants in this quite thorough Wikipedia article .  How and why liberalism came to exist in the late 18th and then 19th centuries is an interesting story, but one that is too long for this blog post.  One way to summarize its emergence would be that the old artistocratic order was coming to an end in Europe, and the new bourgeousie wanted freedom from the old institutions to pursue making money.  Ok, that explanation might be just a tad to the left, but remember the founders of America were gentleman farmers tired of paying taxes imposed from Britain.  Also, what seems to be a historical reference above to the idea:  “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”  is no such thing.  This is not how governments had been established heretofore, though later in the 19th century you could argue that this was the case.  So, in a sense, this is clearly an ideological statement:  a group with a political agenda (perhaps a very good one–don’t get me wrong), was “spinning” past events to justify their largely unprecedented act of rebellion.

However, the problem with liberalism, from my point of view, is that it is rather negative.  It is quite eloquent about what it doesn’t want–government interference in the private sphere of human activity–but it doesn’t say much about what should go on in that sphere.  We can probably agree on the need for “life”, and “liberty” (within some limits), but what in the world is the “pursuit of happiness”?    So, to me, as great a document as the Declaration was in historical context, today we can see that something is lacking.  The Declaration is referring to individual “happiness”, but I think we can see today that individual happiness and collective well-being need to exist in a dynamic equilibrium:  you can’t sacrifice one for the other.

This brings me back to the idea of positive peace and human rights.   I can’t see how there could be generalized human happiness unless the kinds of values represented in the human rights covenants are extended to populations, and these, while predominantly individual and “liberal”, also include some social protection of the vulnerable by governments.

So, to sum up, if in the 18th and 19th centuries societies threw off the “yoke of oppression”, the question of what to do with our freedom–including how to consolidate and preserve it–is still very much with us.    In that sense, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the human rights regime to which it gave rise, seems to me to be the necessary fulfillment and extension of all that is best in the Declaration of Independence.


July 5, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,

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