July 2, 2018: Confronting the Constitution. Part 1: Did the Founders get it wrong?

Around about 1980, Robert Goldwin and Walter Berns persuaded a group of philosophers to celebrate the US Constitution’s bicentennial through an examination of its philosophical origins and eventual detractors. With Allan Bloom as editor of the project, the result was 16 chapters, each with a different author and perspective for Confronting the Constitution. [1] As Bloom puts it, “The Framers challenged the world to meet them on the field of reason. To test their conviction is to honor them.” And so, for that and the thrill of learning, this new themed series of blogs is based.

The text begins with “Philosophic Understandings of Human Nature Informing the Constitution” by Thomas L. Pangle. [2] He reveals that 17th century Enlightenment philosophy was obsessed with governance. After millennia of trial and error civilizations, finally the idea of human dignity, potential for all, coalesced as the purpose of society. Pangle examines the hierarchy of political philosophy that emerged from this realization. Starting with the simple but critical question, What is a human being? What are its motivations, needs, requirements? In short, what is human nature? Once defined, successive levels in the hierarchy are addressed. How do these creatures live as individuals? What is the best way for them to live in groups? How should a state be organized? In what way should a nation be governed? Each answer up the ladder depends on the last one. Since the definition of the human being is the most fundamental, it’s also the most important because from this will rise the hierarchy of social machinery.

Like the mathematical definition of a machine, if you get that definition wrong, whatever you build from it, no matter how carefully, won’t work, at least not well. Consider the sixty year experiment in Berlin, one side capitalist, the other communist. Despite its careful planning, communism was such a mismatch for the human psyche they had to build a wall to keep people in. Marx’s “alienation” turned out to be more like “incentive.”

With Europe’s Enlightenment, the human definition got a new answer just in time for America’s Founding. A human being is, philosophers claimed, a creature that seeks first and foremost to preserve itself from death. Self-preservation is the central human interest. Humans are thus creatures with vital interests. From this emerged human rights to protect those interests for a just society in service to human dignity. “A fundamentally different character from the various sorts of local, traditional, and divinely revealed rights men invoked since time immemorial,” writes Pangle. [3]

From this philosophical foundation America’s Founders determined the Constitution would not be a covenant of devotion and obedience to a tribal god of a chosen people. Pleas to supernatural powers for justice fall outside the realm of reason. In other words, gods are fickle, who knows what they’ll do? And while people worship different gods, they all have a common capacity for reason. Reason became the tool for society building, in Aristotelian terms, because of what it could do verifiably in the here and now material world. Leave that other personally stabilizing force of religion, and a right to it, up to the individual, but don’t run a country with it. History was replete with this folly on national scales, hence the need for separation. [4] By granting a right to religious freedom, without state sponsorship, our Founders reduced religion from fact to opinion. In doing so they sought to defang consequences of the converse.

Likewise, in tailoring our social fabric the Constitution would not repeat the classical Greek notion of a small republic. The ancients believed only small republics could hope to keep every citizen like-minded and virtuous enough to maintain cohesion. It didn’t work. America was already large by comparison, and expected to get larger. Without state religion or patriotic virtue, how could stability be maintained in a large country?

Using the right to interests, Madison would embrace a large republic over the small because different environments spread over an expansive country would generate different interests. Farmers of the land have different interests from fishers of the sea. Different factions spawned from these different interests would then check and balance each other to stabilize the whole.

Furthermore, this idea of interests formed the basis for David Hume’s remark that “modern political economy [showed] natural ends of humanity require active promotion of avarice, private commerce, and extensive manufacture.” [5] “Trade was never esteemed an affair of the state till the last century…” [6] Suddenly economics as an expression of interests would support dignity, and become part of the philosophy of reason. Economics became a route to social justice. Private vice became public virtue.

This new social model was a practical one. Needs of the body came first. Ego second. Character was no longer explicitly part of the plan. But while the government was expected to be morally neutral in private matters, no one expected the people themselves to be morally neutral. With no state faith, George Washington warned, “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.” [7] Unfortunately, Enlightenment philosophers had not found a reasoned argument for people to be moral. At least not as compelling as an ever watching God with promises of heaven or hell. They also knew the watchful eye of communities could yield to individualism’s trajectory. The best they could do was the Golden Rule beginning at least with ancient Egypt, and implied in the “social contract” (which isn’t social [8]). The Founders realized the new definition and government structure to accommodate it put civilization on fragile footing, just not as fragile as the ancients.

As Pangle notes, Enlightenment’s vision of the human was based on what they called “a state of nature.” A non-historical abstraction as a place to start the study. [9] But since the machinery of civilization emerges from this—from what defines human beings, to interests, to rights, all the way to the structure of nations—are we certain we got the right definition to begin with? What if it’s wrong, or incomplete, or incapable of addressing unforeseen change in the future?

It was the inventor Thomas Jefferson who received from John Locke the chemist his definition of the human being, and Locke’s rights to life, liberty and property, which Jefferson converted to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (He didn’t say amusement.) But what happens when the right to property threatens the right to life for those on the other side of the planet? What happens to rights in support of interests when the 600 million humans alive in 1700 approach 8 billion in 2018? Interests require resources. A simple fact of nature is that there is no infinite material anything. [10] For the industrialized world, self-preservation is no longer threatened by scarcity, but abundance. Are rights narrowed by fundamental changes external to human nature? Does this require modification of the human definition in terms of what’s emphasized and included?

Like the machine defined by math above, what Enlightenment defined as human was necessarily an approximation. In mathematics there’s something called a “series.” The first term in a series is most important. Successive terms have diminishing impact, but as each one is included, their inclusion makes whatever the series describes come closer to reality. Did Enlightenment philosophers fail to include enough terms in their series description of human nature? [11] Could it be the first-things-first material perspective should have included our ethical, communal, and spiritual aspects?

If Enlightenment’s description was truncated, after three centuries of social experiment shouldn’t we see the effects? It’s difficult but doable to isolate cause in laboratory experiments of physical phenomena, much harder to provide more than inference when it comes to human society. The infinity of human foibles suggests cause and effect are not linear, often not even sensible.

That said, if a society is built on self-interest, demoting morality, and religion that once promoted it, at least according to Washington, might we expect an eventual excess, even perversion of self-interest? [12] While not universal, examples in Washington DC, corporate America, Wall Street, and the masses who seek to emulate them enunciate this perversity. But can it really be traced to Enlightenment’s definition? The ancients had despots, abuse, and corruption too.

What the Enlightenment did was remarkable, a moral leap forward. But every human measure creates new problems requiring counter-measures to compensate. Does the old definition of humanity need an upgrade? In future posts we’ll ponder an extended series approximation of human nature.

Until next time, September 3, 2018.



[1] Allan Bloom Ed, Confronting the Constitution, AEI Press, 1990. Robert Goldwin (1922 - 2011), Walter Berns (1919 – 2015, Allan Bloom (1930 – 1992).
[2] Thomas Pangle .
[3] ibid, pg. 10, italics added
[4] “We’ve believed a lie for so long that the church and the state be separated,” said Pastor Elias Lorera of Fresno’s Christian Temple Assemblies of God. In “The Christian Right Adopts a 50 State Strategy,” NYTimes, June 20, 2018. As Trump’s GOPP tries to unify religion and politics.
[5] ibid, pg. 19 David Hume (1711 – 1776)
[6] ibid, pg. 19
[7] George Washington’s Farewell Address
[8] The social contract is not social, as are formation of true communities of like-minded with common sentiments with the purpose of continuing their way of life in perpetuity. It’s an agreement people are born into, then conform to without express agreement. A practical arrangement made for strangers. A requirement for large populations.
[9] Confronting the Constitution, pg. 71
[10] Technology pushes the carrying capacity of nature. In 1940, average US bushels of corn per acre was 40. Today it’s 150, at the expense of the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone, and the Great American Prairie. Once 370 million acres of natural habitat and its inhabitants, now 370 million acres of biodiversity desert. North America’s Serengeti lost in the length of one lifetime. Factory floor of an agri-planet and the greatest transformation of our natural world by mankind anywhere on earth. (I’m going to enjoy some of its produce for lunch today.) Like the physical limit to the number of transistors on a circuit chip, there’s a limit to how many bushels an acre can be forced to produce.
[11] See the remarkable and useful Taylor Series.
[12] Michael Shermer disagrees with Washington. In his Moral Arc he makes a case for religion producing the opposite of moral action. Scientific thinking and the Enlightenment, he claims, deserve most of the credit for advances in morality and justice, at least since they arrived.
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Published on July 02, 2018 09:51
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