Constitutions and morality
Sep 7, 2010

Constitutions and morality

On moral issue after moral issue - from gay rights to the "ground zero mosque" - the constitution frequently gets invoked to support or attack one side or the other. The constitution and morality are related yet fundamentally different concepts in the following sense. The constitution should reflect the ambient morality and cultural values of a people and times not the other way around. Morality is independent of the constitution and should stand or fall on it's own merits.

So take the example of gay marriage in the US. This is an issue I unappologetically support and believe to be morally valid. At the same time, there is some debate (I have my own opinions on this but they are irrelevant for the purpose here) that goes on in various courts about whether gay marriage is or is not constitutional. The point I wish to emphasize is that regardless of the result of the debate, even if the constitution explicitly forbade it, the moral validity of gay marriage would stand. We as people should act to modify the constitution to reflect the morality not to change our morality to reflect the constitution. This is in many ways and obvious and pedantic point; however, since on so many issues the constitutionality or lack thereof of something is used frequently to bolster what are effectively moral arguments it is important to emphasize this distinction.

It should be immediately qualified that this does not minimize the value of the constitution, quite the contrary as it has clearly been immensely valuable at establishing a just society and codifies many excellent moral virtues. it is merely that the principle purpose of a constitution is not for moral determination. The main purpose is to codify the major structures and values of a society to ensure their stability. So for instance establishing the structure of governance ensures the stable continuation of governance of that structure. Or the establishing of a moral value like "freedom of speech" ensures the stable continuation of that value into the future. It isn't that it determines that freedom of speech is morally a good thing, it instead ensures that this good thing will occur into the future. In this sense the constitution reflects, not establishes, moral values.

As such, when we argue for or against something we should do so from evident moral principles and logic. If one cannot do this, it is rare that using an "appeal to authority" argument and invoking the constitution to determine your morality will be compelling. In so many cases of course ones morality and the constitution overlap and so certainly arguing by quoting, say, the 1st amendment to argue for the ground zero mosque, is fine because one could equally well have just invoked the moral value of religious freedom as is codified in the 1st amendment. However, if one can't argue the point without invoking the constitution, the argument cannot stand morally on it's own. Moreover, if one must invoke the constitution, it is important to not just pick and choose from it which is a huge problem in the political discourse. Politicians seems to love invoking the constitution any time it helps their cause but quickly forget it when it doesn't. I would contend that to not fall into these traps it is best to argue purely from moral principles.

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