Friday, July 8, 2011

"All Men are Created Equal"

So what are the truths that Jefferson asserted?

“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.”

Jefferson asserts three self-evident truths: that men are created equal, that they possess rights given to them by God that cannot be taken way, and that these rights include the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These truths do not stand alone. Through his structure and punctuation, Jefferson connected them with each other and separated them from a second set of self-evident truths. To understand his meaning, the reader must interpret them within that context.

So what did he mean when he claimed all men are created equal?  In the context of the chain of propositions in the argument as it unfolds, Jefferson seems to have meant that all men are created equal in their common humanity and human nature. The most distinctive aspect of human nature is free will. Unlike animals that derive behavior from inborn instinct, human beings deliberate and make choices from alternative courses of action. Human nature thus can be seen as a potentiality that is fulfilled through rational choices. In a sense, human beings make themselves thought their rational choices. This is why the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle called man "the rational animal." Man lives by his reasoning abilities. This suggests a second way in which men are equal. Because all men share the same human nature, all men exercise their free will equally without the permission of others. No one is created to rule over others or to be ruled over. This is what his original draft suggests, where he wrote that “all men are created equal and independent." Men exercise their free will independently of others.

These two concepts of  equality entail the next self-evident truth: that men possess God given rights that cannot be taken away. Because men possess a common nature distinctive for free will and potentiality that must be fulfilled through rational choices, this entails rights claims against other men. In order to fulfill human nature's potentially, men claim the rights to execute those rational choices free from the interference of others. Others cannot take them away. The most general or fundamental rights include the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Every man has the right to defend and protect his life. Every man has the right to exercise natural or personal liberty in fulfilling his potentiality through rational choices. And every man has the right the pursuit happiness through those rational choices.

Two caveats, however, must be added. First, the idea of happiness is an ancient term with a long history of meaning that differs from modernity. Today we think of happiness as the pleasurable psychological state that results from acquiring whatever it is we want. The traditional meaning, again going back to Aristotle, was "thriving" or "flourishing." It meant fulfilling one's specific human nature. In other words, pursuit of happiness implied seeking those things that help one thrive and succeed at being human. Second, natural rights claims are reciprocal. Because of common human nature, every man's rights claims must be respected by every other man.

Sometimes men do not respect the rights claims of others. That leads to the next self evident truths of Jefferson regarding the purposes of government.

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