Why must the “inalienable right” be the pursuit of happiness rather than just happiness?
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Thomas Jefferson, who wrote this line in the Declaration of Independence, was influenced by several authors, including John Locke. In "Two Treatises on Government," Locke used the phrase "the pursuit of happiness," to mean not only personal happiness, but the happiness of the society as a whole. Locke, and Jefferson, believed that citizens in a commonwealth should be driving toward progress for the entire society.
Jefferson refers to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," as inalienable rights, "endowed by their Creator." "The pursuit of happiness" is interpreted to mean the accrual of property. It makes sense to say "the pursuit of" because we believe that humans have a right to earn a living and gather property in their own self interest. We are not born with a right to have property, only with the right to use our effort and talents to earn property.
I think that the most elemental answer here is that one cannot mandate happiness. Freedom is not something that can be directly linked to happiness. Part of this lies in the fact that freedom involves risk and with risk comes the reality of failure. One cannot mandate success and happiness with freedom. Jefferson borrowed Locke's idea of "the pursuit" as reflecting the embrace of freedom. Hence, freedom is seen as a process, as opposed to a product. The inalienable right is this freedom. It does not guarantee success or happiness in its own right. The only guarantee that one can take from the modern setting is the freedom to pursue any path that gives happiness, so long as it does not significantly trade off or vitiate another's conception of freedom and pursuit of happiness.
The difference between happiness and pursuit of happiness is the difference between an objective and the efforts one makes to achieve those objectives. A person may be unhappy because of circumstances and his or her own attitude. In this sense the society or the constitution of a country cannot guarantee any person happiness. All that the constitution can guarantee is the right or freedom to individual to make efforts to become happy. Different people may find happiness in different things, and they may pursue happiness in different ways.
The right to pursuit of happiness means that each individual has the freedom to pursue happiness in the the way the the individual considers appropriate. The constitution only takes responsibility for granting the freedom to act. It cannot not guarantee that the action will be effective or successful.
Other editors make excellent points above regarding the limits of the constitution and what it can and can't provide to its citizens. Certainly, it is implausible for any state or system of governance to be able to guarantee its citizens "happiness" as the achievement of happiness is so dependent on a variety of factors. What a constitution can do, however, is do its best to create an arena where its citizens are able to pursue their notion of happiness.
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