Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Defining the Pursuit of Happiness

Darrin McMahon, in "A Right, From the Start" (Wall St. Journal, July 1), writes a deft essay on the meaning of "the pursuit of happiness," even highlighting its possible meanings from Christian, classical, and Lockean writings. Alas, he is too clever by half when he claims that Locke "never employed the specific phrase ’life, liberty, and property.’" In addition, he fails to point out that the pursuit of happiness was understood within an ordered, moral context. Here’s my letter to the editor:

Contrary to Mr. McMahon’s claim ("A Right, From the Start," July 1) that Locke never used the phrase ’life, liberty, and property," one finds this statement about why men join civil society in Locke’s _Second Treatise of Civil Government_: "for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, _property_" (emphasis in original). I dare say this statement or some variation thereof is probably the most repeated claim of Locke’s most famous writing on the principles of government and from which Thomas Jefferson lifted phrases verbatim in drafting the Declaration of Independence.

I agree with Mr. McMahon that the American founders believed the pursuit of happiness entailed virtue or "furthering the public good." But a more obvious definition of virtue for the founders was simply good character. The pursuit of happiness did not mean licentiousness precisely because it presumed an orderly or moral use of one freedoms, whether publicly oriented or not.

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