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Declaration of Independence: Self-Evident Truths Now Open to Question Essay

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Updated: Oct 27th, 2021

Introduction

When something is declared as self-evident, it is a statement of fact that ought to be accepted without question. This is how it, is inferred in the dictionary definition of the word “self-evident,” which means that there is no further need for proof or rationalization when a truth is established as self-evident. In the Declaration of Independence, certain human rights were designated as self-evident truths, suggesting that they are not to be questioned since these are man’s inalienable rights and are therefore sacred. The Declaration of Independence in fact expresses the traditional American philosophy that man’s basic rights being unalienable have a divine origin such that government is in no position to supplant, change or dilute their essence. As time marches on, however, perceptions increased that the values of the self-evident truths set in the Declaration of Independence have lost their ring of truth. According to Cushman (2006), for example, some moral truths cited in the Declaration have been rendered less self-evident by newly acquired psychological facts and sense of justice. This paper therefore aims to answer two questions related to the moral truths designated as self-evident in the Declaration of Independence:

  1. What assumptions about our ethical knowledge apply to the Declaration?
  2. Can these assumptions be defended by argumentation?

Declaration

Based on the historical notes gathered by Becker (1922), the Declaration of Independence was drafted by a committee appointed by the Continental Congress, which was composed of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingstone. At the time it was written, the Union of 13 American colonies was still at war with the British Crown. For this reason, the Declaration had two parts, the first of which formulated the democratic political philosophy of the territory and the second part enumerated the grievances against Great Britain as the causes of the Revolution. Becker (1922) believed that the purpose of the document was more to proclaim to the world the reasons for declaring independence than to declare independence. As it happened, the founding fathers of the US led by Jefferson were so enamored by the English philosopher John Locke, such that the Declaration was patterned after Locke’s ideas on individual rights and the right of revolution, in essence, ideas and words (Becker, 1922). According to Riggs (undated online), Locke had expanded the principles of natural law that emphasized the theory that all humans are endowed by God or nature with certain basic human rights. These principles and assumptions became the bedrock of the new republic created out of the former British colonies, which was evident in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.

The preamble to the Declaration of Independence reads:

We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable 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 abolish it, and to institute a 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. (Armitage, 2007)

According to Becker (1922), among man’s inalienable rights set in the Declaration as self-evident truths were the freedom of speech and expression, the right to religion and conscience, the right of assembly, the right to equal protection, and due process before the law. The other self-evident truths mentioned in the Declaration were the freedom from human bondage, gender inequality, and the right to vote. In those days, slavery was still rampant in the American colonies and women were still fighting for gender equality. Also, voting was a privilege exclusive to wealthy landowners to the exclusion of the rest of society, especially women. According to Armitage (2007), Jefferson denied women any position in his Cabinet even as he maintained slaves on his farm but he won his arguments for freedom and equality on the world stage by the pronouncement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal…” The Bill of Rights within the Declaration enumerated all these rights, including what governments cannot do to avoid impinging on these rights. For over two centuries hence, these tenets have served as guidance to the Americans as they made laws and ethical codes based on such principles (Riggs, undated).

Interpretations

The Declaration of Independence is as much an ethical creed as the UN Charter or the codes of ethics set for many professions. As such, it is subject to human error or miscalculation. In the words of Riggs (undated online), it is always possible that such a document can be formulated to reflect human carelessness or egoism although the formulators may be as well-intentioned as the Jefferson committee. Such shortcoming was expected to show through the passing of time and the coming of new generations. Thus, the question may be asked: Were the founding fathers led by Jefferson guilty of carelessness and egoism in drafting the Declaration? Dumbauld (1950) noted that the rights it enumerated were all worthwhile but the entitlement of so many rights tended to devalue the meaning of basic human rights. It also blurred the distinction between the rights that all individuals possess and the goals that everyone expects to attain. In this view, transforming every human aspiration into a right, as the Declaration did, invites the risk of cynicism and even disrespect for all human rights considerations in the end (Dumbauld, 1950).

Another interpretation of the Declaration of Independence deplores the lack of prominence given to the duty and responsibility that each right entails. Moral philosophy dictates that for every right, there is a correlative and inseparable duty and for every freedom or liberty granted to an individual, there is a responsibility (Pencake, 1990). In effect, man has both the duty to honor God as the giver of these rights as well as the responsibility to exercise these rights with due consideration to the rights of other human beings. It amounts to a balancing act that was never mentioned in the Declaration. There was also no reference in the Declaration about the possibility that man’s inalienable rights would be of little use to him if he fails to exercise his rights without respect for the rights of others. As George Washington later said: “Individuals entering society must give up a share of their liberty to preserve the (liberty of the) rest.” (Armitage, 2007) In creating governments, all individuals consent to some degree of limitation on their freedom to exercise some of these rights (Riggs, undated).

Perhaps the most scathing remark about the Declaration was the way it upheld the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal” and yet was ominously silent on the slave-holding that went on in the South when it was written. To some scholars, this alone was enough to make the Declaration a half-baked document on democratic political philosophy. Nonetheless, all the ethical principles enshrined by the Declaration quickly gained universal acceptance in such a way that the moral and ethical underpinnings of the document’s premises were taken as truth without a thorough discussion and clarification. According to Riggs (undated), such quick acceptance of an ethical proposition with grave import on a wide scale dilutes its essence and may make its success questionable. What the colonial government should have done was to conduct a nationwide plebiscite to invite divergent views on the content of the Declaration. Only when all the views from the cross-section of society were heard and incorporated in it can the document be ratified. This is the process acceptable today for proposed Constitutions and laws dealing with sensitive issues. Among the reasons why the values of the self-evident truths cited in the Declaration have lost their ring of truth are the people’s cultures and changing moral and ethical norms (Cushman, 2006). About the right to life, for example, euthanasia is a modern-day issue that the Declaration failed to consider. Some people favor euthanasia for hopeless patients if nature is allowed to take its course without medical interference. Others say it is downright wrong whatever methods are used, which means that it all depends on one’s moral perspectives. The laboratory experiments conducted by Cushman (2006) to illuminate this point showed that emotions play a central role in shaping our moral judgments. In effect, moral truths are less than self-evident since these are based on one’s psychological makeup and sense of justice. Thus, well-intentioned individuals sometimes do things that comply with their sense of justice but violate that of others. There is no help from the Declaration on how policymakers, legislators, the courts, and society should respond to this.

Another current issue related to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is abortion, which has baffled American policymakers for years. The Declaration says all citizens are born with rights, including the right to life or the right to be born, Pencake (1990) observed. Since the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness is also guaranteed by the Declaration, it follows that a pregnant woman has the right to choose what she wants to do with her body, including the option to abort the pregnancy. If she goes through this route, she then harms another life, that of the human being in her womb. So if one believes in the right to be born, he must also believe in punishment if the right to life is abused. Unfortunately, the US Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution another way such that it legalized abortion in the precedent-setting Roe v. Wade case (Pencake, 1990).

Discussion

The Declaration and its self-evident truths appear to have lost their relevance in the 21st century when the struggle for human rights acquires another dimension and different ramifications. According to Riggs (undated), the ethical principles set in the Declaration would seem irrelevant to someone fighting for human rights in this century as it concerns his livelihood and quality of life. The philosophy and ethics reflected in the Declaration are critical today when information technology has created the Global Village, where everyone has become acutely aware of what other people are doing. In exercising one’s right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he should take care that he does not impose on the same rights of others (Pencake, 1990). For example, the world today is racked by violence and terrorism caused by political and ethnic differences while the environment is being stripped bare by greedy businesses that justify their actions by saying they are merely exercising their freedoms. Abuse of natural resources by businesses may be equated with the abuse of human rights. Business ethics dictates that companies provide meaningful employment through equal opportunities for advancement, occupational health and safety, and accommodation of the diversity of culture in the workplace. On these concerns, the state usually imposes regulations that amount to a code of ethics, which ensures that both management and employees conduct ethical behavior. Such a code, however, does not achieve its purposes for many reasons. For one, codes of ethics are often too general to be of specific value, such as those on fair employment. Also, the codes are rarely prioritized such that they do no resolve potential conflicts when a colleague is found acting contrary to company interests. Thus, the ethical behavior set by a code will only be effective if the code has been internalized and is truly believed by employees. These are the same deficiencies that can be observed in the Declaration: the ethical principles it established are too general to be of specific value; they are rarely prioritized, and they were never internalized in the sense that only a handful of men were involved in the drafting.

Ethical systems in the past as exemplified by the Declaration only identified the rights we have whereas the modern ethical systems specify not only these rights but also what is right and wrong, the duties that accompany those rights, what is right and wrong, and what can be demanded of us regardless of what we desire or seek. In effect, the notions of right, wrong, duty, and obligation become the core of modern ethical life. The need to make documents such as the Declaration of Independence relevant to the present was emphasized by Nelson Mandela when he spoke before the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. Riggs (online) quoted Mandela as saying:

” [Our youth are] bound to wonder why it should be that poverty still prevails in the greater part of the globe, that wars continue to rage and that many in positions of power and privilege pursue cold-hearted philosophies which terrifyingly proclaim, “I am not your brother’s keeper.” For no one in the north or the south can escape the cold fact that we are single humanity.”

The term ethics goes beyond moral beliefs and ethical theories and includes the study of standards for determining what behavior is good and bad or right and wrong. This definition is generally acceptable to most people since each one of us has our own concept of good or bad and right or wrong (Cushman, 2006). Perhaps the reason for a renewed discussion of the Declaration as an arbiter of people’s moral and ethical beliefs is that our concept of good or bad and right or wrong is not always the same. Each of us has our own perspective on these issues and in some cases that perspective is very different from person to person (Goree, 1996). For example, businesses and corporate cultures are also guided by perspectives that rise out of the member’s patterns of beliefs, orientations, values, and aspirations. Understanding the ethical orientation or ethical culture of the company is critical in determining appropriate responses in normal, day-to-day business activities and, even more compelling during times of crisis.

According to Goree (1996), ethics is the application of moral principles to make choices between right and wrong, and business ethics in particular is the application of those moral principles in the making of business decisions. Social responsibility, for its part, represents the positive actions or responses that a company takes to fulfill its responsibilities towards its stakeholders, to the environment and to society as a whole. In the view of economist Milton Friedman, however, there is one and only social responsibility of business: to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits. So when firms experience resource shortages as to threaten their very existence, they attack this problem by cheating on their social responsibility. For example, they may shirk off their responsibility of protecting the environment by acquiring cheap and unreliable anti-pollution devices. That way, the firms give the false impression that they comply with the rules. To address internal resource shortages, such as inadequate capacity and expertise, they overestimate costs, falsify training records, pay excessive compensation and give undeserved promotions. To address external shortages, such as lack of raw materials, they arrange unethical deals with suppliers or service providers (Goree, 1996).

Any discussion of the wisdom and validity of the Declaration brings us to the question about the integrity of the men that drafted its contents, which should come before the validity of any creed is accepted. Jefferson and the others must be shown to be genuinely upright and worthy of the positions that history gave them. There is no question that the writers of the Declaration were men of the highest intellect, but were they also ethically correct? As earlier noted, Jefferson would be found wanting in the ethics department because he himself maintained slaves and refused to appoint women in his Cabinet, which contrasted with the Declaration’s creed against human bondage and gender inequality. If this factor were established as measure together with the determination of the formulators’ validity within the contexts of today’s social, environmental and ethical realities, Jefferson and company would certainly fail. These are the reasons why the philosophical and ethical principle set for humanity in the last 6,000 years become relevant today. For example, the Declaration may have a credibility problem in that Jefferson and probably the others in the drafting committee were still keeping slaves in their homes when they wrote the document. Jefferson himself was quoted in history books as saying that the “country is not ready for women in the Cabinet and neither am I,” which made the declaration on gender equality seemed hollow (Armitage, 2007).

It is a fact that Jefferson adopted the ideas of John Locke in writing the Declaration that says “all men are created equal,” which suggests that the conditions that obtained in Britain during Locke’s time may be different from those during Jefferson’s time in America. According to another early philosopher, Matthias Knutzen, it was possible to formulate a code of ethics to guide human activities without invoking the concept of God. In so doing, we are likely to love our enemies unconditionally according to the holy teaching, and thus violate the unspoken principle in the Declaration that we should exercise our rights but at the same time respect the rights of others (Goree, 1996).

Ethical Issues

Ethics is the study of questions of morality and the search to understand what is right, wrong, good, and bad. Goree (1996) defines ethics as the branch of philosophy that systematically studies moral ideals and goals, motives of choice, and patterns of good and bad conduct. Thus, ethics and morality are often used interchangeably, such that morality has evolved to mean the social norms that people are taught and conditioned to follow, while ethics has come to refer to the rational questioning and examination of these norms (Goree, 1996). This view of ethics is believed to be the most ideal way, since it assumes the existence of moral standards and principles that are universal in application (Ibid). The study and application of ethics should be a concern of everybody and should not be limited to a few men like Jefferson and Franklin, no matter how intelligent and ethical they were. Theologians study ethics and morality in light of religious teachings and divine commands, while psychologists seek to understand how people’s values influence their thinking, behavioral motivations, and personal development. Sociologists, on the other hand, attempt to identify and explain varying cultural norms and practices, while business educators try to help companies, employees, and professionals avoid expensive and counterproductive acts that violate ethical norms. However, the study of normative ethics has historically been dominated by philosophers, who have applied rules of reason and logic to find answers to humanity’s perplexing moral and ethical questions (Cushman, 2006).

According to Goree (1996), these classical ethical systems are expressed and affirmed in contemporary society in many ways, with codes of ethics as the best examples. A code of ethics is a written document intended to serve as guideline to those who would follow it. Most large businesses and corporations have codes of ethics for their employees, as do most professions for their members. Professional codes are usually written by members of the profession through a central national organization. For example, it is generally understood that American doctors are subject to the American Medical Association code of ethics, and American lawyers follow their bar association codes. Many other professions have codes of ethics as well, including such diverse fields as journalism, pharmacy, business management, education, accounting, engineering, nursing, law enforcement, and psychology. However, even the best codes of ethics cannot guarantee ethical behavior. Indeed, many codes do not even contain methods of enforcement, but merely express the ideals and values of their respective corporations and professions. The decision to act ethically or unethically is, as it has been through the ages, up to the individual. Conspicuously absent from the Declaration is the principle on what should be done if man violates the rights of others. As we have noted, individuals well-intentioned though they may be sometimes perform acts that conform with their sense of ethics and justice but effectively violate the rights of others. How should policy makers and society respond to this? (Goree, 1996)

Riggs (online) cites the need to ask probing questions on the use of ethics for some aspects of governance before a public policy is drawn that affects man’s rights: “What are human rights and how do we define or determine them? Do animals have rights, too? Is getting an abortion or euthanasia immoral? Is affirmative action right or wrong? A more specific activity could be deciding when it is moral for an individual to sacrifice his rights if this would make someone else raise his standards of living. Without first settling these questions, there is no clear fulcrum on which to balance law, politics, and the practice of arbitration.”

Conclusion

The basic assumption of the Declaration of Independence is that all human beings are endowed by nature with certain basic rights. This gives people a moral duty to respect the rights of others, such that violating the rights of others becomes a moral wrong while allowing others to enjoy the same rights is ethically permissible. This principle is enshrined in the Declaration, the American Constitution and its legal system. On the right to life, for example, euthanasia is a modern-day issue that the Declaration failed to consider. Some people favor euthanasia for hopeless patients if it lets nature take its course without medical interference. Others say it is downright wrong whatever methods are used, which means that it all depends on one’s moral perspectives.

Another issue that the Declaration failed to address concerning the right to life is abortion. If the right to life is a self-evident truth, it follows that a pregnant woman has the right to choose what she wants to do with her body, including the option to abort the pregnancy. If she goes through this route, she then harms another life, that of the human being in her womb. So if one believes in the right to be born, he must also believe in punishment if the right to life is abused. Unfortunately, the US Supreme Court interpreted the Declaration and Constitution differently.

Works Cited

  1. Armitage, David. The Declaration of Independence: A Global History. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.
  2. Becker, Carl Lotus. The Declaration of Independence: A Study on the History of Political Ideas. Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1922.
  3. Cushman, Fiery. The Declaration of Independence: A Lab Report. Harvard University, 2006.
  4. Dumbauld, Edward. The Declaration of Independence and What it Means Today. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.
  5. Goree, K. Ethics in American Life. Cincinnati, OH: South-Western ITP, 1996.
  6. Pencake, William. The Declaration of Independence: Changing Interpretations and a New Hypothesis. Pennsylvania History 57, No. 3, 1990.
  7. Riggs, G. Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics.
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