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”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.”

What is the evidence for these claims?

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  • 6
    Are you looking for a general argument for the equality (in whatever sense) of all people, or are you looking for historical and contemporaneous writing and thinking that would have lead to the authors declaring these things "self-evident"?
    – mattdm
    Commented Mar 2 at 6:19
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    Slavery till 1865. Draft from 1945 to 1973. School segregation till the 1950s and 60s. Persecution of gay males in a private residence happened as recently as 1998 in Texas. Seems some "inalienable rights" are quite alienable after all. And you can't select people of only certain sizes, and call all men equal. Commented Mar 2 at 6:41
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    These are not claims, they are aspirations. Aspirations require no evidence, they only indicate willingness to bring them about to the extent that circumstances permit. The "truth" they hold "self-evident" is that this is how things should be.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 2 at 9:32
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    "We hold these truths to be self-evident" - That's the premise. You're asking for evidence on a claim that opens with the very explanation of said evidence.
    – Mookuh
    Commented Mar 2 at 14:06
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    According to the Bible: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). For there is no partiality with God” (Romans 2:11, NKJV). That's why it's "self-evident" Commented Mar 3 at 18:02

13 Answers 13

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The text is the beginning of the Declaration of Independence of 13 American states from 1776. The declaration is addressed against the King of Great Britain.

Hence the text is a political declaration, it is not the finding of an ethics committee or a committee of theologians.

The text expresses fundamental demands for a constitution, it does not state anthropological facts.

The text is a foundational document from the history of political philosophy. It was taken over also in many secular constitutions.

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  • So it’s just an opinion?
    – h_undatus
    Commented Mar 2 at 6:13
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    It's an opinion that has had some significant consequences.
    – mattdm
    Commented Mar 2 at 6:23
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    @h_undatus I consider it a political program and demand.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Mar 2 at 6:51
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    Then how is it self-evident, like the statement that a child had parents?
    – h_undatus
    Commented Mar 2 at 13:17
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    @h_undatus If your question goes to me: I do not consider the statement of the declaration to be self-evident, not at all. It is not me, it is the text which says "We hold these truths to be self-evident."
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Mar 2 at 13:39
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There isn't any evidence, and you would be foolish to expect there to be. The quotation is a statement of political belief- a guiding principle. Self-evident means evident without the need for proof. In the context of the time in which it was written, it contrasted with the view that there was absolute lack of equality, in that monarchs were endowed by god with a natural superiority.

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  • Its curious how blithely you contradict yourself in consecutive sentences: In Sentence 1: no evidence. Sentence 2: Self-evident 🤣
    – Rushi
    Commented Mar 2 at 6:59
  • @rushi ha, yes- evidently evident means having abundant evidence- I must have overlooked that. Commented Mar 2 at 7:05
  • So then equality and inequality are both self-evident truths?
    – h_undatus
    Commented Mar 2 at 13:07
  • Sure. The words quality and inequality can be used in many different ways. It is self-evident that human society is full of inequalities of various types. Commented Mar 2 at 13:24
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    @h_undatus To the monarchs it was presumably self-evident that they deserved their higher status. The rebels disagreed.
    – Barmar
    Commented Mar 4 at 15:46
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One must distinguish descriptive and prescriptive.
Or declarative and imperative.
Or positive and normative.
Or is vs ought.

Everyone is equal before the law

Or its more traditional form

Everyone is equal in the eyes of God

are prescriptions that look like descriptions.

If you question that distinction, put yourself in the century between the dates July 4, 1776 when these words are dated and January 31, 1865.

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  • Then how are they truths?
    – h_undatus
    Commented Mar 2 at 6:16
  • I was being diplomatic @h_undatus. If I were more truthful I'd simply say Fine words! If you want some more in that camp ask the two million taking cool moonlight walks on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. I have a feeling they will say 31 Jan 1865 is a hundred years in the future. I also have a feeling that the noble truth lovers on this site will get this comment deleted
    – Rushi
    Commented Mar 2 at 6:24
  • @h_undatus it's true because the law says it is. Just like murder is illegal because the law says it is. That's the curious property of prescriptive statements with power of law. Note that it is de facto written into law, it is not a mere opinion either.
    – armand
    Commented Mar 2 at 6:26
  • @Rushi I'm afraid I don't know the significance of January 31, 1865. Please enlighten me.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Mar 2 at 7:50
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    @LudwigV Abolition amendment
    – Rushi
    Commented Mar 2 at 7:53
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This is a political declaration, akin to the earlier Magna Carta and Declaration of Arbroath. There is an appeal to divine authority, for which no evidence is adduced. In the context of the time, men referred to male humans (and perhaps not all of them). So, not an ethical statement, and a rather limited political declaration. However, another phrase in the constitution holds out a more progressive aspiration - "in order to form a more perfect union". I take this to anticipate political development in line with ethical development. It is useful to contemplate the contrary notion. We are not all equal, and most of us are slaves. If you reject that notion, then you are alive to ethical development.

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Everyone is not equal not even in the eyes of God. How would one explain the disability of people? Even that narrative failed in American history. I would like to quote Hobbes, "Life is nasty, brutish and short." Equality in this world can be a heated argument though.

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    People are evidently not all equally strong, equally intelligent, equally tall, etc. But they could be equal in their innate value; it is equally tragic if either of us is in pain. In the historical context, the principle of equality suggests that no-one should be given preferential treatment just because they've inherited a royal/noble title. Commented Mar 3 at 12:52
  • The statement made by this answer is not wrong, but it is wrongly interpreting the Declaration of Independency to assert this kind of full equality, which is not the case. The Declaration of Independency is stating the equality of being endowed with certain inalienable rights.
    – Flater
    Commented Mar 4 at 3:54
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The idea of everyone being equal is an ideological position*. Which is to say it's a proposal for how we should treat others (for one reason or another), rather than a statement of truth.

It is, or can be, based on one or more of the following:

  • Having empathy for others

  • Seeing the suffering people experience as a result of inequality.

    This relates to utilitarianism, which (at least in part) concerns itself with minimising suffering.

  • The belief that society as a whole benefits more from equality (especially in the long term)

  • The belief that an unequal society is unstable (and that's bad), especially given that the benefit the privileged derive from inequality is tied to how many people are disadvantaged.

    If you have millions of people in your population, and you treat 4 of them as inferior, that's probably not going to benefit everyone else much. But if you treat half of them as inferior, that has a lot more potential for other people to benefit from that. But that would also mean that half the population probably isn't happy with the status quo, which isn't great for stability. And if the ruling class is overthrown, the previously-disadvantaged might opt for equality, or they might decide that they'd rather be on top (which would be bad for the people who previously decided to use inequality for their own benefit). Never mind that this whole process often involves a lot of violence, which isn't particularly good for anyone.

    In an equal society, one would expect revolutions that might lead to inequality to be less common and to receive less support from the public.

    Or maybe the ruling class just shifts their position a bit and this leads to you ending up moving from privileged to disadvantaged - a slightly different inequality would not be particularly unexpected if inequality is already the norm (although the nature of the inequality does at least somewhat matter). On the other hand, going from equality to inequality (where you may be disadvantaged) would be a much more radical change that would be more unexpected.

  • The golden rule of treating others how you'd want to be treated (which in turn may boil down to some of the points above)

  • Not seeing a reasonable and measurable metric that would classify one person as "better" than another

  • Considering it inhumane to try to quantify someone's worth as a human being (which is distinct from e.g. quantifying how much worth someone's work contributes to a company)

* Some religious views (as one example) might consider equality to be prescribed by a deity, in which case the evidence for that prescription as well as the truth of the religion as a whole would be relevant. Since the Declaration of Independence mentions a creator, it's possible that this applies there.


There's probably something to be said about the historical context that may have led to what's written in the Declaration of Independence, but this is a philosophy site, not a history site, so instead I'm addressing possible reasons that one might hold to everyone being equal.

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This article gives details about the philosophical and political context where the key terms in philosophy or political philosophy are Natural Law and Natural Rights:

https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2021/08/77439/

This essay is part of a week-long series drawn from the Witherspoon Institute’s project on Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism. Click here to read PD Editor-in-Chief R.J. Snell’s introduction to the series.

No public document gives more prominence to the idea of natural law, nor relies more crucially upon natural law as a premise, than the Declaration of Independence. To understand why this is so and what it means for American constitutionalism requires reading the text of the Declaration in its political, historical, and philosophical context.

While the “unalienable rights” said to be self-evidently true are not explicitly called natural rights, the inference is unavoidable: the passage follows immediately after the sentence that explicitly mentions the laws of nature; Jefferson’s earlier draft called the rights “inherent”; and “self-evident truth” is not a bad definition of natural law itself. Moreover, several of the Declaration’s antecedents did refer more explicitly to natural rights.

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Are all actually equal?

”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.”

The first thing to point out here that your title is misinterpreting what is said. All are not equal, but rather all have the same inalienable rights. The equality being discussed here refers to the bolded part in the above quote, it is not to be interpreted as people being exactly the same in every possible sense.

Furthermore, while you might consider it a nitpick, the document does not assert this equality to be a self-evident truth. The document merely relays that the authors consider this to be a self-evident truth:

We hold these truths to be self-evident

In a similar sense, if I write on a piece of paper that I believe in Bigfoot, that is not a document attesting to the existence of Bigfoot. The document would be attesting to my belief in the existence of Bigfoot.

What is the evidence for these claims?

I'm going to sidestep the above nitpick and for the sake of this answer assume that the document is both asserting the authors' belief and that the authors are implying that their belief is objectively correct.

I'm sidestepping the proof that "men are created" for obvious reasons.

I'm also sidestepping that this document is not a proof of empirical facts and is in fact closer to a manifesto of what is desired (politically, morally). The document claims self-evidence, which implies that these observations can be independently reproduced. TO that effect, we can infer that the authors are asserting some kind of factual consistency to these claims, even if the method is not rigorously defined.

With regards to the existence of inalienable rights, this is really a circular definition in that the rights themselves are inherently defined as applying unilaterally to all "men" (using the historical phrasing here, which nowadays is interpreted as "people", which is what I'll be using from this point forward).

This is, in essence, saying the same thing as stating that the fruits of an apple tree are called apples. Yeah, that's why we call it an apple tree in the first place. Similarly, it is "obvious" that all people are endowed with these inalienable rights, as a "right" (as opposed to a "privilege") is inherently defined as applying to all people.

In a way, the declaration is tautological in that it is stating that which is already asserted in the semantical definition of an "inalienable right" in the first place.
However, that observation is made with my 2024 eyes. At the time that this declaration was written, it was not obvious that rights should be unilaterally extended to all people (if you need an example, the same people ratified the three fifths compromise 11 years after the Declaration of Independence). The reason it's being pointed out explicitly is to distinguish it from what we nowadays call privileges, i.e. rights that can be changed or revoked by an overarching authority.

While this document does not offer explicit proof, it is being used much to the same effect that a peer-reviewed paper would be used: to stop further exploration of this subject, instead offering a final conclusion that people are universally endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that this conclusion should not be infringed upon, going forward.

As with all politically motivated discourse, whether you consider this correct or not is a matter of personal/political opinion.

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The authors of the Declaration say that those propositions are self-evident. In their time, this was an idea that was generally accepted. But that is no longer the case. Here are links to the relevant encyclopedia entries:- SEP - Self-evidence Wikipedia - Self-evidence

The best way for us is probably to treat them as either analytic or axiomatic.

They do presuppose the existence of the Christian God. In the pluralistic times that we live in, most people are content to amend the wording to remove that presupposition.

They are offered as a justification for the assertion that everyone is entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. They are still very persuasive, though one wonders what David Hume would have made of them. (He died in 1776).

The claim that all human beings are equal requires a very special interpretation, since human beings are obviously not equal in so many ways. However, the effect of this claim is to assert that to differentiate between human beings requires justification and that takes us to the idea of “discrimination” which, in the relevant contexts, means “unjustified discrimination”. Here’s the SEP account: -

Standard accounts hold that discrimination consists of actions, practices, or policies that are — in some appropriate sense — based on the (perceived) social group to which those discriminated against belong and that the relevant groups must be socially salient in that they structure interaction in important social contexts .... Thus, groups based on race, religion and gender qualify as potential grounds of discrimination in any modern society, but groups based on the length of a person’s toenails would typically not qualify. SEP - Discrimination

There is obviously room for interpretation of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" but I would think that the authors would feel that it was not appropriate to specify further what they amount to. Each of us would be entitled to pursue whatever happiness we aspire to - so long as we don't interfere unduly on other people's right to pursue their happinesses.

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I'll make my comment an answer.

The founders only found it self-evident that male white humans of age were equal.

Slaves, native Americans, women and children were denied what we today consider the most basic human rights. Since this glaring flaw is self-evident to us, it is self-evident that claiming self-evidence is simply a way of saying "while I find it obvious and am convinced of it, I cannot find a reason that would stand up to scrutiny".

Still, the opinion appeared as self-evidently correct to contemporary peers as it appears self-evidently absurd (in its restrictions to white males) to us. This immediately leads to the conclusion that "self-evident" statements are actually the opposite of universally valid: They are bound to a specific class at a specific point in time and space.

The true philosopher will readily acknowledge that this self-evident contingency applies to their own self-evident convictions as well. Of course, no country has ever been founded by men hemming and hawing "I think that perhaps ..." and "I'm really not sure whether ...". These people end up living in barrels or receive death sentences. A call to action requires men of conviction. Sometimes that is an Alexander, sometimes a Thomas Jefferson, and sometimes a Lenin.

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  • Of course at the time free white males were implicitly or even explicitly intended (ie by the use of the word "men" in its restricted sense of " free adult males" and not in its wide sense of "human beings"). BUT this same phrasing can be re-interpreted to have the wider meaning (we can agree on today) without changing almost nothing in its form
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Mar 5 at 18:57
  • @NikosM. Of course it can. If this statement was intended as a critique of my argument, it is a non sequitur. Commented Mar 5 at 20:12
  • The comment is only inspired by your answer. It can be argued though that the wide sense meaning better captures the principles of Enlightenment both at that time and in our time.
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Mar 6 at 16:31
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John Donne created one of the world's most influential poems, one from which not just one, but two well known quotes come from.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

This shows, poetically, that people aren't self-important. And it's a common sentiment. It is the connection between people, society, that grants them that importance. This is evidence of the "self-evidence", that it is common knowledge. However, if a self-evident truth, there should be a philosophical argument for or against it.

So here is a more philosophical arguement:

  • Premise: Humans are considered better than animals
  • Conclusion: Animal traits are not what what drives the value of a person.
  • Premise: Historical instances of feral Children (raised by monkeys, apes, or wolves) have shown that in the absence of society, humans revert to functioning like animals.
  • Conclusion: Society is what grants traits to humans beyond animals
  • If humans are better than animals and humans are effectively animals without society, then society is what creates the value of people.
  • If society value is created by society, then it is not an inherent "created" trait of the individual.
  • If humans' value is created by society, and is in regard to society, and the measurement is value within society, then all humans are "created" equal with the value being a trait of society as whole instead.
  • Then, progressing to the democratic ideal: If the value in a society would be the combined value of people in it, and the society assigns that value, then there is an inherent flaw with placing equal things in ranks and as it reduces the ability of society to maximize value as a whole.
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  • Socialization is indeed essential to being human; there are issues about applying these ideas across cultures; people usually do best if they can live as part of a larger whole. Nonetheless, this argument has several flaws. 1. Your first premiss may be true. But it does not follow that humans are better than animals. 2. There are many flaws in democracy. But all the alternatives have worse flaws - or so many people believe. 3. The value of society is the benefit it confers on the individuals who compose it. This takes us back to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.".
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Mar 2 at 9:07
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Two cents.

One should understand that part of the document in two senses:

a) As a reaction to arbitrary oppression by monarchies which held that the people (of the colonies) were inferior and subject to unfair and degrading treatment.

b) As a (self-evident) statement that human beings share (overwhelmingly) more in common than their differences (which act as necessary variations of living systems, cf Jean-Jacques Rousseau), especially some common needs like protection of life, liberty and happiness, so that the equal treatment (eg before the law) is well justified.

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It only seems self-evident if it’s assumed that the Christianity of the Founding Fathers is true:

In late June of 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Franklin asking him to edit the Declaration of Independence in time for a meeting the following morning. “The inclosed paper has been read and with some small alterations approved of by the committee,” Jefferson explained. “Will Doctr. Franklyn be so good as to peruse it and suggest such alterations as his more enlarged view of the subject will dictate?”

Franklin was at home recovering from gout and made very few changes. But one of them would have epochal significance. Jefferson had originally written that “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.”

Franklin crossed out the last three words and replaced them with one: “self-evident.”

It was a portentous edit. Jefferson’s version, despite his theological skepticism, presented the equality of men and the rights they held as grounded in religion: they are “undeniable” because they are “sacred” truths that originate with the Creator. By contrast, Franklin’s version grounded them in reason. They are “self-evident” truths, which are not dependent on any particular religious tradition but can easily be grasped as logically necessary by anyone who thinks about them for long enough.

To which the obvious response is: no, they are not. There are plenty of cultures in which it is not remotely self-evident to people that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, let alone that these rights include life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the prerogative to abolish any government that does not preserve them. Most human beings in 1776 did not believe that at all, which is partly why the Declaration was required in the first place. (This accounts for the otherwise inexplicable phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” as opposed to saying simply “these truths are self-evident.”) Some of the founders had not quite believed it themselves just fifteen years earlier. Billions of people today still don’t.

The fundamental equality of human beings, and their endowment with inalienable rights by their Creator, are essentially theological beliefs. They are neither innately obvious axioms nor universally accepted empirical truths nor rational deductions from things that are. There is no logical syllogism that begins with undeniable premises and concludes with “all people are equal” or “humans have God-given rights.”

Source: https://www.crossway.org/articles/we-do-not-hold-these-truths-to-be-self-evident/

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