Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
The Declaration of Independence enshrines three basic rights: the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The right to life is the only fundamental right, from which all other rights are derived.
The right to life protects the individual’s ability to take all those actions necessary for the preservation and enjoyment of his life. It is based on the idea that life is the standard of moral value. The right to liberty protects the individual’s ability to think and to act on his own judgment. It is based on the idea that rationality is man’s highest moral virtue. The right to pursue happiness protects the individual’s ability to live for his own sake, rather than for the sake of society. It is based on the idea that the pursuit of one’s self-interest is one’s highest moral purpose.
Only a full philosophical system upholding life, reason and self-interest can ground the founding principles of America. Ayn Rand provided such a system.
Q&A with Ayn Rand
- What is the right to life?
A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action—which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.) . . .
The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.
Bear in mind that the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values.
The right to life means that a man has the right to support his life by his own work (on any economic level, as high as his ability will carry him); it does not mean that others must provide him with the necessities of life.
The Right of Life means that Man cannot be deprived of his life for the benefit of another man nor of any number of other men.
- What is the right to liberty?
Freedom, in a political context, means freedom from government coercion. It does not mean freedom from the landlord, or freedom from the employer, or freedom from the laws of nature which do not provide men with automatic prosperity. It means freedom from the coercive power of the state—and nothing else.
“Conservatism: An Obituary,” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
Freedom, in a political context, has only one meaning: the absence of physical coercion.
“America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business,” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
Since knowledge, thinking, and rational action are properties of the individual, since the choice to exercise his rational faculty or not depends on the individual, man’s survival requires that those who think be free of the interference of those who don’t. Since men are neither omniscient nor infallible, they must be free to agree or disagree, to cooperate or to pursue their own independent course, each according to his own rational judgment. Freedom is the fundamental requirement of man’s mind.
A rational mind does not work under compulsion; it does not subordinate its grasp of reality to anyone’s orders, directives, or controls; it does not sacrifice its knowledge, its view of the truth, to anyone’s opinions, threats, wishes, plans, or “welfare.” Such a mind may be hampered by others, it may be silenced, proscribed, imprisoned, or destroyed; it cannot be forced; a gun is not an argument. (An example and symbol of this attitude is Galileo.)
It is from the work and the inviolate integrity of such minds—from the intransigent innovators—that all of mankind’s knowledge and achievements have come. (See The Fountainhead.) It is to such minds that mankind owes its survival. (See Atlas Shrugged.)
“What Is Capitalism?” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
- Does being free mean one is free to harm others?
Do not be misled . . . by an old collectivist trick which goes like this: there is no absolute freedom anyway, since you are not free to murder; society limits your freedom when it does not permit you to kill; therefore, society holds the right to limit your freedom in any manner it sees fit; therefore, drop the delusion of freedom—freedom is whatever society decides it is.
It is not society, nor any social right, that forbids you to kill—but the inalienable individual right of another man to live. This is not a “compromise” between two rights—but a line of division that preserves both rights untouched. The division is not derived from an edict of society—but from your own inalienable individual right. The definition of this limit is not set arbitrarily by society—but is implicit in the definition of your own right.
Within the sphere of your own rights, your freedom is absolute.
- What is the right to the pursuit of happiness?
The Right to the Pursuit of Happiness means man’s right to live for himself, to choose what constitutes his own private, personal, individual happiness and to work for its achievement, so long as he respects the same right in others. It means that Man cannot be forced to devote his life to the happiness of another man nor of any number of other men. It means that the collective cannot decide what is to be the purpose of a man’s existence nor prescribe his choice of happiness.
- What is the source of man’s rights?
[T]he source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A—and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational. Any group, any gang, any nation that attempts to negate man’s rights, is wrong, which means: is evil, which means: is anti-life.
“This is John Galt Speaking,” For the New Intellectual
It is not society, nor any social right, that forbids you to kill—but the inalienable individual right of another man to live. This is not a “compromise” between two rights—but a line of division that preserves both rights untouched. The division is not derived from an edict of society—but from your own inalienable individual right. The definition of this limit is not set arbitrarily by society—but is implicit in the definition of your own right. Within the sphere of your own rights, your freedom is absolute.
A right is the sanction of independent action. A right is that which can be exercised without anyone’s permission.
If you exist only because society permits you to exist—you have no right to your own life. A permission can be revoked at any time.