Human Rights and the General Welfare

Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 1977








Our Constitution tells us that it aims "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." But these grand words must to some extent be discounted. Because of the "three-fifths rule," which tacitly condoned human slavery, for example, the original Constitution fell short of promising liberty and justice for all. At best, the document seems to represent a compromise. But with what? Consider the other aims mentioned: a more perfect union, domestic tranquility, the common defense--these might easily be viewed as either means to, or else included under an enlarged conception of, the general welfare, and it might be thought that this last-mentioned standard is what the Constitution was truly designed to serve--the general welfare, at the expense, if necessary, of those "inalienable rights" and that universal equality which the Declaration of Independence had earlier maintained governments are supposed to serve. At least in that early, critical period of the republic, it might have been argued that the interests of the nation as a whole could be served only through sacrificing the interests of some, even if those interests--in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--amount to basic rights. The Bill of Rights, after all, had to be added to the original document to secure some of the rights of concern to the drafters of the Declaration of Independence. The general idea behind this interpretation cannot lightly be dismissed; at any rate, critics of utilitarianism have often objected that the general welfare standard condones immoral inequalities, injustice, and exploitation, because the interests of a community as a whole might sometimes most efficiently be served by benefiting some individuals at the expense of others. One might be tempted, therefore, to identify the Declaration of Independence with the doctrine of human rights and the Constitution with a commitment to the general welfare, and then conceive of the differences between these documents as transcending their distinct functions and representing a fundamental conflict between commitment to the general welfare and the principles of rights and justice.

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