We are so consumed with fighting over our disagreements, that we have lost sight of how much we all agree on.
We’re like Smaug sitting atop a mountain of gold and jewels, unable to rest peacefully because a few pennies have escaped our clutches. We threaten to burn everything down in our wrath, even if it costs us all the treasure we have heaped up over two hundred years of steady toil.
Let’s return for a moment to the political foundation of the United States, when we declared our independence from Great Britain. The Declaration of Independence contains these foundational words:
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.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
From this, here are the first of the things that we can agree on:
1. All persons are created equal
No person is deemed worth more than another by virtue of their birth.
2. People have unalienable rights
This is to say they are not granted by other people or political institutions, but rather are inherent. These include the right to life, the right to personal freedom, and the right to pursue happiness.
3. Governments are creations of people
We create governments to help secure our unalienable rights. Governments derive their power from the consent of the people. Thus, we do not tolerate either hereditary rulers or dictators.
The U.S. Constitution came along a few years later, constituting our Federal government in its three branches. Because the individual States were concerned about the government abusing its powers, the States quickly proposed and ratified the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. This provides the source for a number of additional points of universal agreement:
4. The government has specific limits
The government cannot directly or indirectly prohibit the free exercise of religion, the freedom of the press, or the freedom of speech. (Amendment 1)
5. Individuals have specific freedoms
Individuals have the right to be free in their persons, houses, and belongings from unreasonable searches and seizures. (Amendment 4)
6. Individuals have specific protections
Individuals cannot be compelled to testify against themselves and cannot be tried twice for the same offense. (Amendment 5)
Let me draw one further universal truth from our country’s foundational documents, this resulting from the Civil War and its aftermath, before turning to some of more recent vintage:
7. We treat all persons equally under the law
This is to say that the government shall not “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” (Amendment 14)
Now, I am fully aware that people have disagreed about the specific implementation of many of the points listed above. In particular, what is considered an impermissible encroachment by the government on the various freedoms expressed in the Bill of Rights has been the subject of centuries of litigation. My point is not that we agree on every detail, but on the basic principles.
Here in no particular order are three more suggestions. I welcome your own thoughts, and would be interested to see how many other ideas we can come up with for things we agree upon.
8. Humankind is at risk of self-extinction
This is because we have the means to make the entire planet uninhabitable for human life. Think global thermonuclear war. One way to reduce the risk of extinction would be to populate other planets. This does not mean we are giving up on the earth, just diversifying our risk.
9. “Science” does not exist as an independent thing
We have the scientific method, and we have scientists, both of which are subject to various flaws in understanding and execution. Because of how we apply the scientific method, our understanding of underlying truths is necessarily indirect.
At any given point in time, we have theories and the weight of evidence that we have accumulated until then. Human knowledge is accretive, in the sense that we can benefit from those who have gone before us, and can make additions to the store of knowledge. But it is not necessarily linear, because we sometimes realize that prior beliefs were erroneous. “Trust the science” is thus no more (or less) scientific or helpful than saying “Trust in the lord.”
10. Humans are the only animal that have the potential to deliberately create their successors
I am thinking here of successors that may come about as a result of genetic engineering or artificial intelligence, or both.
Let me know your suggestions.